What Is Still Life?

The image itself is false, a mere desire,
Not faded, if images are all we have.
They can be no more faded than ourselves.

Wallace Stevens, ‘Study of Images’ I (1954)

Still life has often been viewed as less important than history painting, portraiture or even landscape, but it is arguably the most versatile of all genres. The apple sitting on a table confronts the artist with its own dumb immobility. There are no excuses for painting it badly, no problems with the weather or the light. There is no complex composition to negotiate. In its simplest form the still life is an exercise that issues a severe challenge to the artist’s powers of observation and execution.

Put a second apple next to the first and those problems are multiplied. Now there is a relationship between objects to be mastered. The difficulty of this task is demonstrated in Giorgio Morandi’s work, where the problem of putting the bottle in front of the jug or the jug in front of the bottle absorbed the artist’s attention for roughly 40 years. As one studies these paintings Morandi’s continuous struggle with the motif becomes more absorbing than any battle scene or vast, romantic landscape. It is not just the modesty of his preoccupations that shames those artists addicted to spectacle, it is his ability to use small gestures to convey an emotional force.

This is articulated in the clarity or fuzziness of an outline, the close match of tones, or the sense that some objects have a sturdy three-dimensionality while others resemble silhouettes. In Morandi’s pictures these different objects enjoy a remarkable equivalence. No item seems more important or more prominent than another. We may focus first on a strong contour, only to be slowly drawn towards a blurred line or a flattened shape.

Morandi’s objects seem utterly self-contained – a precise reflection of the artist’s own reclusive personality. Yet they also have a universal dimension. Everybody is familiar with humdrum things but it takes a work of art to bring out their latent beauty or personality. This is the special power of still life. An unassuming collection of objects may become a vehicle for a potent symbolism or for feelings that can scarcely be put into words.

A still life can be a statement or an aid to meditation, sometimes both. Think of the variety of Dutch still lifes during the so-called Golden Age of the 17th century. Works may be celebrations of the wealth and prosperity the Dutch merchants attained, or reminders of the vanity of earthly riches. Many artists had an each-way bet, painting tables laden with cut glass, sliver ware and exotic dishes, but with a small insect nibbling away at a piece of fruit. The best-known works by a renowned artist such as Pieter Claesz are vanitas subjects, with a skull serving as a reminder of mortality.

Dutch still life was born from a culture in which artists consulted popular emblem books to imbue their work with symbolic or allegorical meanings. This has led art historians to try and read paintings like cryptic texts that require decoding. A butterfly, for instance, stands for the Resurrection. A fish is a symbol of Christ. Even an artichoke can be used to represent Heavenly Majesty. Yet this fastidious iconographical approach seems to underestimate the subjective aspect of these works. There is an obvious pleasure taken in the depiction of lavish tables groaning with food, or the shambles of a banquet. Even in this rigorously circumscribed art form in an upright Calvinist society, there is something that escapes our attempts at definition.

By the twentieth century that element of uncertainty had become a crucial component of the Modernist still life. Cézanne paints an apple as an accumulation of brushstrokes, each touch of the paintbrush adding to the weight and density of the image. In the past the accuracy with which the artist could paint different textures such as fruit, leather, fur, wood, metal or glass was often the most admired part of a painting. These works were pre-photographic, occasionally intended to trick the eye with the most perfect illusion of reality.

Cézanne sought a different form of realism in which a precisely painted apple is less desirable that an image that conveys a feeling of apple-hood. The eye is never fooled in Cézanne’s work - we are always conscious of the picture as a painted surface not a window onto the world. Rather than simply recognising an apple and appreciating the painter’s technical skill, we are compelled to examine the painted fruit, looking for ways in which the artist conveys fundamental information about the nature of the object. At the same time, he is making us consider the nature of both painting and perception.

Cubism, which extrapolated from Cézanne’s discoveries, took still life as its central subject matter. Picasso and Braque experimented with the idea of seeing the object from many different angles simultaneously. With the addition of collage they brought the real world into the imaginary space of the painting. In Cubism one finds the fulfillment of Margaret Preston’s aphorism: “Why there are so many tables of still life in modern paintings is because they are really laboratory tables on which aesthetic problems can be isolated.”

Inspired by Modernist painting, poets such as Wallace Stevens and William Carlos Williams produced verbal equivalents of the still life, making the same attempts to clearly delineate a thing and analyse its relations with everything else.

The experimental approach to still life has been adopted by almost every modern school or movement. At the beginning of the 21st century, an age of artistic pluralism, we may be amazed at the sheer variety of work that passes under this label. There are conventional realist still lifes that hark back to Chardin, alongside pieces that draw inspiration from Expressionism, Constructivism, Surrealism, or any other modern tendency, including Abstraction. Still life is a universal genre that inculcates an endless variety of local manifestations, as in the annual crop of EMSLA entries with typically Australian subject matter.

More than ever before, a still life is an image of ourselves. In a collection of objects assembled on a table top we see a reflection of our own lives. There are intimations of life and death, suggestions of wealth or poverty, a portrait of our passions and problems. A still life need not be overly complex or detailed, but it is always a test of the artist’s skill and our own taste. Even the simplest works generate an understanding that our lives and personalities are defined by those objects that surround us. They may seem banal and obvious, but in the hands of a skillful artist, they become the most mysterious things in the world.

John McDonald
Art critic for the Sydney Morning Herald