Research point – the still life genre

Still Life history

For early still life drawings and paintings we have to rely on what has survived as mosaic, or later in books.

After the Hellenistic period, art lost its old connection to magic and religion, so the subject matter did not have to revolve around people. Looking at work done then, I am amazed how easy it was for people to misinterpret divine action. This always reminds me of the tower of Babel, how this is apparently the case of divine jealousy, it makes me laugh, I suppose life ought not have diversified spirulina a couple of billions of years ago and then we would really all be the same.

Anyway, back to still life, there are some beautiful examples in Pompeii preserved as mosaics, such as two lemons and a glass of water and pictures of animals.

Further ahead in time the Dutch painters made an art of still life. Subjects other than humans provided a great testing ground for painters to hone their skills. They spent their lives specializing in one area, becoming masters in their field. They succeeded in showing that inanimate objects can be intensely beautiful and also that the subject matter is really of secondary importance. In “The Story of Art” E.H. Gombrich describes this time as ‘the mirror of nature’.

By the late eighteen-hundreds art, as visual description, had come full circle. Paul Cezanne and the Impressionists began re-evaluating the same principles that had interested the Dutch painters. Painting was like a new language that had just been created and perfected over hundreds of years. The alphabet was made and words were created.

Some ‘work’ the painter does is creation, when he sets his mind to a task and solves it: makes an image out of an idea, for instance.

But sometimes the work of a painter is like translation. I think that is what I had not understood. When I paint a painting or draw, then it is done – I have solved it – but I was being asked to translate the solution, using a different tool perhaps.

Each tool has its own language and sometimes one language is better at expressing a picture than another, so the exercise can be useful. I think this is what Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque were trying to do with their still life paintings, or papier collé as it was called then; they probably delighted in the freedom and ability to explore new ways of expressing local colour as well as the light and depth of an image which they found in papier collé.

Still life has changed from being inanimate objects with people to just inanimate objects and more recently to include collage, moving images and installations.