The Enduring Still Life
The enduring still life
Lucy von Goetz
The striking thing about the still life, is that it’s still living.
Artists have kept the tradition alive over thousands of years. The continued resuscitation and reimagining of an ancient genre is still at play.
Artworks representing perishable objects is the medium of still life, which speaks to the passing of time. The contemporary still life is in deep conversation with the past. The rejection of the ephemeral is throughout. Still life artworks have always reflected the intrinsic struggle to accept our own mortality. Philosopher, Michel de Montaigne, in his essay, That to Study Philosophy is to Learn to Die, outlines that an understanding life and the art of living can only be reached through the understanding of death:
“Now, of all the benefits that virtue confers upon us, the contempt of death is one of the greatest, as the means that accommodates human life with a soft and easy tranquillity, and gives us a pure and pleasant taste of living, without which all other pleasure would be extinct.”
The still life questions the elaborate theatres of denial we construct around mortality and time.
There is something intimate and personal in the compositions of still life painting. In other genres of painting there is paused movement. A still life is still before it was painted, and after. Until someone or something comes to disturb it. Artists who compose still lifes conjure suggestive worlds, placing clues about their lives and often invented, absent characters into their work. Detroit painter, Nolan Simon’s cabinet works with their ultra-modernist objects represent a radical reappropriation of the still life style. It dusts off this artistic genre and polishes it with a contemporary brushstroke, sometimes humorously, sometimes vindictively.
The first known still life paintings were given to us by the Egyptians. The most famous ancient Egyptian still life was discovered in the Tomb of Menna, a site whose walls were adorned with exceptionally detailed scenes of everyday life. Ancient Greeks and Romans dallied with fruits, vases, and bowls in frescoes and mosaics.
“Still Life” was coined from the Dutch word stilleven when the tradition cemented itself during the 16th century. Still lifes were arguably a simple way for artists to display their skill with realism. Beyond this, artists referenced the transience of life with rotting fruit, flowers dripping petals, and memento mori objects. Willem Claesz Heda specialised in depicting half-eaten meals often with a white tablecloth, silver tazza, and partially peeled lemons.
In Italy during the Renaissance, still life painting was initially deemed inconsequential and lowly by art historians like Vasari. He viewed still lifes as an output of artisanal rather than artistic talent, not reliant on divinely appointed genius, simply on observation.
Leonardo da Vinci’s studies of fruits and trees, Giuseppe Arcimboldo’s fruit and vegetable portrait heads, and Giovanna Garzoni’s botanical sitters all challenged Vasari’s view and gave esteem to the tradition.
The still life in Britain arrived looking a little more impressionist and post-impressionist in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Vanessa Bell, Paul Nash, David Hockney, Ben Nicholson, and Eric Ravilious explored ways of adding weight and substance to the ordinary in a celebration of simplicity over ceremony. Glasgow boy, William York Macgregor’s, The Vegetable Stall from 1884 is a great example of homely goodness. Towards the end of the nineteenth century still life became more of a backdrop with which artists could explore aspects of stylisation, exaggeration, and abstraction. Scottish Colourist, Francis Cadell made vibrant, flattened studies of studio arrangements influenced by Oriental prints. Another Scot, Duncan Grant, laid his still lifes down in a bed of avant-garde post-impressionism.
Scottish post-impressionist painter, Samuel Peploe spent his lifetime dedicated to creating the perfect still life. Intrigued by the enigma of ordinary objects, Peploe is hailed as the greatest still life painter in the history of British art. His unwavering commitment to this conservative genre took on a radical dimension, influenced by his formative years studying and working in Paris before the war.
Upon his return to Scotland, Peploe underwent a transformative shift, departing from the restrained style of Dutch masters that had informed his earlier works. Embracing bold colours and dramatic forms, he became more experimental. Obsessed with achieving perfection in still life, Peploe meticulously arranged compositions, exploring the interplay of form and space, colour and tone, and the tension between naturalism and design.
In Edinburgh during and immediately after the war, Peploe focused on developing formal still lifes marked by meticulous craftsmanship and rhythmic satisfaction. His works reflected the cool, clear northern light of Edinburgh while also capturing memories of warmth and brightness. The sinuous linear depictions of drooping flowers against a cobalt background in pieces like, Still Life with Tulips and, Tulips and Fruit showcased Fauvish hues.
Dundee-based contemporary artist, Gavin Young is not just sitting-pretty in this rich history of Scottish still life painting, he has been experimenting with the camera obscura bringing his subjects to fruition with pain-staking detail. Employing stark and muted backdrops, he strategically situates his still life objects in a harmonious arrangement while preserving a touch of spontaneity.
In his work, Strawberry Bon-Bons, a ceramic vase takes centre stage, cradling a singular, exquisite baby pink rose. Strawberry bon-bon sweets are sat beneath the flower like edible petals. The brushstrokes are fine and directional, echoing the painterly style of the Dutch biggies. The petals and leaves exhibit a faceted quality, characterised by angles and graduated tones that sculpt shape and play with light.
In Young’s, Rose Flowers and Limes, the green fruits are set on a crisp white napkin, creating a strong contrast with the darkness behind. The colours in the painting are few, but juxtaposed with white and black they jump from the surface. In, Snowdrops and Stollen, Young employs a closely cropped composition against a grey-wash background, creating a studio-set ambiance. Young's work captivates with its apparent simplicity, yet closer examination reveals the artist's discerning eye and his ability to elevate a seemingly basic still life into something sophisticated and serene.
The still life will go on living in all its variant forms and calls to mind D.H. Lawrence’s, The Ship of Death, written near the end of his life, depicting death as, “the last wonder”. The still life gives a wink and a nod to our ships of death;
if you want to live in peace on the face of the earth
Then build your ship of death,
For the longest journey, over the last of seas.
- D.H. Lawrence, ‘The Ship of Death’