Still life (Cezanne) with mandolin, pewter vase and electrical tape (Photograph, collage and digital manipulation – Stan Dickinson 2014)
It’s fair to say that ‘still life’ (leaving aside any precise definition of what that might mean, for now) has already played a significant part in my own practice development and in my BA Photography studies. Early and Modernist photographic fine art protagonists made extensive use of “… anything that does not move or is dead …” (the Tate’s essential definition of the art term still life, from their website) as suitable subject matter, both because it did not move and was, therefore, ideal for the long exposure times required, in low light, by early photographic technology, and, maybe, because it was one of the accepted art genres through which their output might gain recognition and acceptance, as “Art”. Contemporary artists working with photographic methods continue to experiment within the genre – for example Laura Letinsky, Daniel Gordon and Lucas Blalock – and it also has substantial presence within commercial photography, notably in advertising. Researching the background to still life took me to the ‘traditions’ of Spanish and Dutch artists, the French still lifes of 18th & 19th century and the genres importance for the Cubists; all of which directly informs and influences what the photographic artists did and continue to do. Rather as the Cubist and Surrealist artists of the 20th century experimented in the studio with their new ways of looking, thinking and making, many experimental photographers/artists of the 21st century take to their studio – often including the use of digital space – to explore the boundaries of picture-making in a post-internet, post-digital context.
In the context of this module and the still life Research Point I have, as well as revisiting my previous studies, been reading Norman Bryson’s Looking at the Overlooked: Four Essays on Still Life Painting (Reaktion Books, London 1990), which I have found to be an interesting, readable and, at times, thought-provoking approach. Bryson acknowledges, as have many others, that still life has tended to rank low in the perceived hierarchy of art genres; and that, as cause, consequence, or both, it has received relatively little attention within critical discourse. His collection of essays sets out to redress some of that balance. Still life exists, he says, and is almost as old as painting itself. Whilst it might be perceived as the genre furthest removed from narrative (particularly, perhaps, historical narrative – though Bryson disputes this later), it has meaning in terms of its signification and in the painters’ intentions. The latter, he sees as forming a ‘series’, as Chardin adapts the conventions of the 17th century Dutch still life painters, as Matisse refashioned de Heem’s designs for his own purposes, and so on. He finds coherence for this notion of a ‘series’, a still life category, in “… three cultural zones …” – the life of the table (using, perhaps, the ‘table’ as representative of the day-to-day activities of ordinary consumption) and the associated acts/artefacts; the domain of sign systems, codes associated with the life of the table which relate to cultural concerns in other domains; and the technology of painting, a material practice with its specificities of method and development.
Thinking about that idea of the developing ‘series’ and the way it might be applied to contemporary still life, I came across this – 10 best contemporary still lifes, selected for the Guardian by artist and curator Michael Petry. This is just a (hopefully well-informed) personal selection but the subject matter includes flowers, food, skulls, tableware, personal paraphernalia and a worn toy monkey. The media include photography, video, painting, installation, found objects, cast sculpture (in blood). The cultural signifiers are partly evident in the subject/media lists, but there are references to popular culture e.g. women’s magazines and to environmental issues. 21st century still life reflects backwards, of course, such as the representation of flower displays; but it it is very much of its time in both media and subject – such as Ori Gersht’s video of an exploding flower display (he has produced similar of a falling bird in the style of Dutch still life paintings). This selection seems to confirm the impression I gained when researching photographic still life, that the genre, series, category (or whatever label we choose to use) is a space for exploration and experimentation, for the pushing of boundaries. It also provides a controlled space within which to structure an artist’s contemporary signification whilst placing the resulting work within an identifiable artistic tradition (series). The choice of subjects, composition, lighting can all be carefully arranged to suit the artist’s intentions and methods (compared, say, with figure work or landscape).
Bryson’s four essays sweep the history of still life up to, broadly, the early 20th century. The first, Xenia, looks back to the earliest examples in classical Greek painting and the representation of gifts of hospitality. The second, Rhopography, I found more interesting and relevant. It refers to the representation of the ordinary, painting the day-to-day paraphernalia of life – such as food and utensils – rather than megalography, which represents the narrative and drama of ‘greatness’. In the Guardian list, this might particularly relate to, say, Darren Jones’ installation of a collection of personal objects acquired on journeys, or even the apparent triviality of the meals in Matt Collishaw’s photographs (until we understand that they are the last meals of Death Row prisoners). I am attracted by and interested in the idea of presenting the apparently trivial in a manner that appears to glorify its presence and significance whilst, in the end, offering no more meaning than that constructed in the viewers mind. The questions posed by such work encourage (I think) reflection on the values we impose on the superficial within the context of the capitalist spectacle. There are, one feels, some direct parallels between the hyper-real 21st century representations of objects that we see every day and the similarly hyper-real representations of ‘ordinary’ vegetables or fruit in Cotán’s 16th/17th century paintings.
The third essay is titled Abundance and looks at the manner in which still life, especially in 17th century Netherlands, relates to the economic successes of the country – the appearance of affluence in the pictures as the subjects include fruits/flowers from colonial sources and much more exotic tableware (often, of course, alongside reminders of mans mortality – the vanitas). Bryson does not seem to over-stress the notion of vanitas, of morte nature; not disregarding it, certainly, but seeing it alongside other signification within still life. And the fourth essay, Still Life and ‘Feminine’ Space explores the proposition that the rhopography/megalography distinction, the lower esteem of still life in relation to other genres, might be gender-related – the subject matter being ‘domestic’ space, associated with the feminine, as opposed to the external achievements of the masculine. It makes for an interesting and thought-provoking read, in line with a feminist view of art history. I wonder whether there might also be a parallel view that considers ‘class’ or ‘labour’ or ‘wealth’ (lack of) as much as gender.
In relation to this Drawing Skills module, still life offers an opportunity to learn from and copy/reproduce the compositions, subjects and methods of a long tradition of artists in a controlled manner. It is, one feels, another of the reasons why the genre has been less well-regarded within art hierarchy – because it is one of the first areas for artists to learn and develop their skills. The objects are chosen, arranged and lit – and then, on the whole, they stay where they are for us to draw at our leisure, unaffected by weather conditions or the tendency of the ‘animal’ to move around; ideal subject matter for the novice!
An image without meaning (Photograph, 2014, Stan Dickinson)