27 May 2011

When does life become still?

First an apology to regular followers of this blog for not having posted much recently. It must seem as if I have been trying to illustrate today's title. In fact my life has been far from still on the professional front over recent weeks, and hence I have had little time to write articles and put together images.

Walking past an art gallery window late last night and seeing a fine Dutch still life in the window triggered off a thought process about this theme for painters.

Why is it called "still" life? I suppose because the objects being painted could not move of their own accord. So why call it "life" then? Surely living things move? The French call this genre "nature morte", which literally means "dead nature". In a way a more accurate term, although perhaps a little morbid.

I suppose by far the greatest masters of this painting subject have been 17th century Dutch painters such as Willem Kalf (above and below). One can but admire not only the incredible technical mastery of this work, but also the beauty of the colours and the subtlety of the composition. Dead nature? No way! Just the joy of looking at fine (or simple) objects and feeling through one's eyes the textures, colours and shapes as surely as if one was touching, smelling or tasting them.

A contemporary Dutch painter called Karl Zipser somehow perpetuates this tradition with his photographic-like yet very refined paintings of fruit that have a magical sense of stillness and timelessness about them.


Between these dates, and in a different spirit, we have the equally powerful work of Paul Cézanne, who produced, around the turn of the 19th and 20th century, dozens of paintings and drawings of (mainly) apples which are quite exemplary in the way they give life to the suject, not trying to copy nature, but to create another form of object with a life of its own on the canvas or the sheet of paper.

Not only does the technique of painting change here, there is also a shift in the conventions of composition: for instance, in the painting above, when the plate with biscuits is allowed to break out of the frame on the right, or the Japanese influenced use of space. And there is also the simplicity of the setup, close to that of the painters own life.

And you do not have to "finish" a painting or make the surface smooth to give it an incredibly intense "reality" of its own. This man is a master!

Next time you eat some fruit, think of these....



  1. Hello David,
    True !! I am not a connoisseur as I haughtily pretend to be with wine ! But I am touched and these paintings talk to me. This is probably why Cézanne is a master !
    I would love to be taught !

  2. Yes, I believe it is. He brings a life of their own to his paintings whch owe nothing to pure imitation of what he sees. And yet they also pay tribute to the beauty of the world we see, as well as to his vision and his way of handling his tools and materials. What I also find moving about Cézanne is that he was not a "natural", in the sense that Picasso or Rembrandt were. They could both instinctivly draw beautifully. Cézanne was a very poor draughstman and painter to begin with, but he worked very hard. I think that is also a messsage of hope.