Project One – Research Point: Still Life genre

Part two is looking at our environment in drawing and with this research I will look deeper into the evolution of Still Life pictures, works across the centuries to the practice of contempary artists.

Traditionally still life or ‘nature morte’ is typical an arrangement if inanimate objects. eg. flower, fruit, artefacts, housefold goods, layed out on a table or other flat surface. The genre has some roots in egyptian afterlife celebrations, Greece mythological themes and decorative elements (so called ‘xenia’- for foods served to guests), and in roman times with focus on illusinstic and decorative mosaics and wall paintings.

But the genre still life as such is more know from teh 16th/17th century as a result of reformation, the growing wealth of a puritanian middle class in northern Europe, especially in the Netherlands. There were different types of still life considered: Flower paintings; market-,shop-, and kitchen scenes; gaming pieces; combined fruit,flower, shells works; ornamental and even ‘pronkstilleven’. Another pronounced theme was vanitas, showing the meaningless of earthy life and the transient nature of wealthy goods. Still lifes either conveyd a more or less complex message (narrative) or through symbols and allegories a symbolic significance. Examples of that period are: Pieter Aertsen, Jan Fyt. In Spain: Juan Sanchez Cotan.

AERTSEN, PIETER (1552) ‘VANITAS STILL LIFE’

AERTSEN, PIETER (1552) ‘VANITAS STILL LIFE’ – HTTP://WWW.KHM.AT

FYT, JAN (1609 - 1661)

FYT, JAN (1609 – 1661) DEAD GAME AND WEASELS, 1642 – http://www.dia.org

SANCHEZ COTAN, JUAN (1560 - 1627)

SANCHEZ COTAN, JUAN (1560 – 1627) QUINCE, CABBAGE, MELON, AND CUCUMBER, 1602 – http://www.sdmart.org

In the 18th century Still life was considered as inferior by the Academies to the other more precious types: 1. History, 2. Portraiture, 3. Genre-painting, 4. Landscapes, 5. Still life. But with the decline of the influence of the Academies in the 19th century, Still life besides Landscapes pieces flourished.
The genre was also established is the USA. One more experimental artist of that time is John Peto. He is know for his ‘Rack‘ paintings. an illusionistic painting as a collage of everyday objects, like letters. It simplistic appeal conveys an expressive power of a narrative.

JOHN PETO (1854 - 1907)

JOHN PETO (1854 – 1907)
RACK PICTURE FOR WILLIAM MALCOLM BUNN, 1882 – http://americanart.si.edu

With the upcoming Impressionistic movement in France, painting was more focusing now on light and textural effects. The Post-Impressionists like Paul Cezanne, Edouard Manet, Vincent van Gogh, and Paul Gauguin were using still life for further coloristic and expressive articulations. Here started also the abstraction of forms into flattend coloristic shapes. In the painting of Paul Cezanne the decorative and illusionistic element of still life as well as the symbolic significance from previous centuries were replaced by bolder colorful simple settings  (-> ‘The Peppermint Bowl’, 1893)

CEZANNE, PAUL (1839 - 1906) THE PEPPERMINT BOTTLE, 1893

CEZANNE, PAUL (1839 – 1906)
THE PEPPERMINT BOTTLE, 1893 – http://www.nga.gov

 

Later Cezanne experimented and simplified further his still lifes into more abstraction and flatting with more simple shapes. The objects become here more stylistic and expressive with simplicity. The background became less articulated, eve with large unpainted space.

CEZANNE, PAUL (1839 - 1906) ROSES IN A BOTTLE, 1900

CEZANNE, PAUL (1839 – 1906)
ROSES IN A BOTTLE, 1900 – http://www.nga.gov

Further simplification and creation of geometric assemblies of simple basic shapes were further executed by the Cubism artists like George Braque, Pablo Picasso, and Juan Gris. Picasso did works in a pure cubism style (->‘Bowl of fruit, violin’, 1914), and its collage style resembles a bit to Peto’s ‘Rack paintings’.

PICASSO, PABLO (1881 - 1973) BOWL OF FRUIT, VIOLIN AND BOTTLE, 1914,

PICASSO, PABLO (1881 – 1973)
BOWL OF FRUIT, VIOLIN AND BOTTLE, 1914 – http://www.tate.org.uk

His painting -> ‘Dish of pears’, 1936′ shows some leaning on Cezanne’s style but in a more simplistic way. The background as such became unimportant, all while painted. The eye level viewpoint gives more importance to he objects.

PICASSO, PABLO (1881 - 1973) DISH OR PEARS, 1936

PICASSO, PABLO (1881 – 1973)
DISH OR PEARS, 1936 – http://www.tate.org.uk

The objects as such were traditional objects (fruit, bowl, violin). The indicated abstraction into simple shapes – started by Cezanne – become now more profound and explicit. Also the perspective started to change: from a traditional straight forward view, artists experimented with different perspectives and even birdviews.

The experimentation of collage was a new area artists discovered for still life. They were moving away from traditional oil paintings, still using of rather traditional objects but they put a new element and new meaning to it. Objects are not painted at all, background images are only indicated. Overall, a different appeal with more space for the viewer to think about. Here an example from Picasso ->’The cup of coffee’, 1913:

PICASSO, PABLO (1881 - 1973) THE CUP OF COFFEE, 1913

PICASSO, PABLO (1881 – 1973)
THE CUP OF COFFEE, 1913 – http://www.nga.gov

New movements as Surrealism and Abstract Art in the USA influenenced the genre still life with imagination and dream like settings like Giorgio di Chirico. Figurative forms disappeared.

With the upcoming Pop-Art a more symbolic significance of everyday objects came back into still life (similar to the vanitas theme in the 16th/17th century) in the direction of emblematic stylization of simple shapes. One example here is Stuart Davis, an american modern and pop art artist, known for its jazz elements.  He painted still lifes with simple shapes, sometimes he added some words to the picture. The objects were often trade products, known by a vast majority in the population. With a flat picture plan, depth only slightly indicated, and simple colored large areas, the objects are conveying a nearly symbolic expression and became thus iconic (-> ‘Odol’, 1924). The black front plane acts as a kind of frame for the objects.

DAVIS, STUART (1892 - 1964) ODOL, 1924

DAVIS, STUART (1892 – 1964)
ODOL, 1924 – http://www.cincinnatiartmuseum.org

With his painting -> ‘Salt Shaker’, 1931, Davis went even further with an emblematic, flat expression and simplistic shapes. A few colors only, some outlines, a textural background, that makes the objects to pop out of the picture plane, letter ‘S’ alongside two arrows are leaving the viewer in his own imagination, to ask questions and to look behind the surface.

DAVIS, STUART (1892 - 1964) SALT SHAKER, 1931

DAVIS, STUART (1892 – 1964)
SALT SHAKER, 1931 – http://www.moma.org

Contemporary artists experimented further, using collages, and other materials to convey a message behind simple, everyday objects. Here it seems the loop is closed to the traditional still lifes of the dutch period with its narrative messages and symbolic significance of certain objects. Only, nowadays the objects are different, the meaning perhaps more complex, at least different.

While looking at other Contemporary artists who are applying different approaches and bringing new elements to still life, I came accross Claes Oldenburg, a swedish-american sculptor, painter and illustrator who lives in the USA. A good oveview about his work can be seen at MoMA: http://www.moma.org/interactives/exhibitions/2013/oldenburg/

He brings the traditional theme of still life to a new level. Fruit and vegetable are painted, but not on canvas or board,  but on plaster (-> ‘Counter with plates with potato and ham’, 1961). It combines a painting with a sculptural relief. The picture plane is now tangible.

OLDENBURG, CLAES (1929 -) COUNTER AND PLATES WITH POTATO AND HAM, 1961

OLDENBURG, CLAES (1929 -)
COUNTER AND PLATES WITH POTATO AND HAM, 1961 – http://www.tate.org.uk

Oldenburg did a step further towards sculpture and installation. In everyday life in an urban environment, objects can be found down the streets in stores. Nothing precious, sometimes close to deteriorated goods. The artist exhibited those as painted objects shown on a counter like in a store (-> ‘Pastry case I’, 1961-2). Sometimes he even sold those objects afterwards. A different engagement of the viewer who becomes an active role in the play. Obvious there is a bit of humour towards it.

OLDENBURG, CLAES (1929 -) PASTRY CASE, I, 1961-62

OLDENBURG, CLAES (1929 -)
PASTRY CASE, I, 1961-62 – http://www.moma.org

Summary:

Changes in still life till today:

  • From illusionistic painting with Trompe d’Oeil effect (e.g. Pieter Aertsen, Jan Fyt, Juan Sanchez Cotan) towards more colorist pictures (e.g. Paul Cezanne, Pablo Picasso) or more experimental, flat pictures (e.g Stuart Davis)
  • From domestic settings of still life (till the 20th century) were now added or replaced by settings in an urban environment (e.g,. Claes Oldenburg)
  • From oil paintings over collage impressions (e.g. John Peto) towards wide range of materials: Collage (Pablo Picasso), painted 3D objects on plaster or metal (Claes Oldenburg)

Stefan513593 - Timeline - Still life

My contextual research trail:

Microsoft Word - Research_trail.docx

Learnings:

This research brought me clearer the genre of still life. I understand better the evolution over time (illusonistic, or just flat), its main types and concepts and the way a narrative or symbolic significance is put across through. The selection of objects for the still life (precious or just everyday non-precious) can influence the appeal and the meaning. Usage of different materials, simplifications, and perspectives a meaning could be put to the overall pictorial image.

Reference:

 

 

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