I must admit I’ve always found the still life genre rather dull, but as with most things, a lack of understanding is usually at the root of the problem! For this part of the course, I’ve been looking at the concept of ‘nature morte’ from the traditional examples from the 1600s up to the present day.
Still life was a lowly subject matter in the seventeenth century compared to portraiture and landscape as dictated by the French Academy. I remembered my trip to the Prints and Drawings Room at the British Museum where our excellent guide said that at the time, your art was judged and you were assigned a rank and that is where you stayed. Interestingly though, the idea of still life was that the objects don’t move – you do. You are capturing the passing of time and especially in the age of allegorical references abounding in art of all types, still lifes could be infused with symbolism and meaning. I wondered if the subject matter – usually food or other consumables – meant that the moment had to be captured even though in real life it would have deteriorated over the duration of the task of painting the objects; there weren’t photos to refer to.
As I mentioned in my post about my final assignment piece, I wondered what constituted a still life. Is it the subject/collection of objects or more the approach or considered observation and recording of a moment in time? A still life is traditionally a group of man-made or natural objects, but I noticed a lot of historical still lifes have very much alive cats in them, usually on the verge of stealing some choice fish or piece of game on the display. I have a cat: I sympathise. Perhaps this is slightly tongue-in-cheek and the idea of cats being annoying is relatable down the centuries!
The still lifes of Picasso, Matisse, Cezanne and Léger are interesting:
The colours are more vibrant, the subject matter more simple, and the lighting is less naturalistic. With all the ones above, the picture plane is almost vertical. The influence of cubism – taking different surfaces of an object and displaying them on a two-dimensional plane – is clear and gives an abstracted view of the still life.
More recent artists have also instilled the principles of cubism. Patrick Caulfield, Roy Lichtenstein, Juan Gris and Ben Nicholson display their still lifes in an abstracted, cubist manner. Someone I follow on Instagram, Dan Morley, (@danmorelyart) does some wonderfully-lit still lifes, similar to Peter Kelly’s Brown Eggs and Gold.
William Scott has taken the still life concept and pared it down to its most abstracted form. Using everyday objects such as saucepans and painting them on a flattened plane, he endeavours to leave the viewer with a simple yet striking image. These diverse interpretations of the traditional still life are more interesting to me than a more representational drawing and I’d like to see if I can recreate some of these effects, although I’m conscious that the simplicity of the image belies the skill required to achieve it!