Such are some of the bizarre titles of still lifes in the Hamburg KunstHalle. In the old Academic system, the highest form of painting consisted of images of historical, Biblical or mythological significance, with still life subjects relegated to the very lowest order of artistic recognition. But once the impressionists and post-impressionists emphasized design over subject matter, however, the hierarchy was shattered. Van Gogh’s Sunflowers are probably some of the best known still lifes. Cezanne also invented some geometrical versions of still life spatial organization.
All this seemed to make way for Picasso and the cubists, who painted things that look like still life collages. For example, Picasso’s Still Life with Chair Caning (1912, left). Who can deny it? Georgia O’Keefe’s still lifes (nasty, in my opinion) are within the same vein, and so are the photographs of Edward Weston. Indeed, even Andy Warhol’s Campbell Soup Cans can be traced directly back to the 18th Century still lifes. Then the photorealism of the 70s fused the message of pop-art with the image of the commodity, like Warhol, but incorporated the old trompe l’oeil (trick of the eye) of the old masters. For example, like making a painting look like a bunch of paper scraps hanging on a wall. That was Edward Collier’s invention. Some of the new works even paint on the frames, to make it look like the painting is coming out of the picture, or “Escaping Criticism”, as one is cleverly titled.
One feminist, Audrey Flack, has used this technique to portray feminist color schemes, for example in her Marilyn Vanitas (1977, right). The whole business of painting still lifes is good for historians to laud over and discover the precious objects of the past. Especially for church historians in their search for religious subjects and artifacts. But they’re all pretty boring. The have no “gravitas” like the other genres. All, that is, except the Vanitas still lifes, which project the idea that all is futility, all is meaningless, all is useless, for in the end we’re all dead. The Dutch arists often painted skulls on top of a pile of books. This was exactly what King Solomon was saying in the Book of Ecclesiastes, “Vanitum vanitatum omnia vanitas”. Rotten fruits (and casseroles) remind us that everything decays, everything ages. And bubbles are brief shots of air which are our short lives and sudden burstings into death. Smoke: hell. The hourglass: our short lives. In contrast to this, the silly Baroque kunstlers painted natural substances like rocks, or hot dogs. Or casseroles.
So every time I stand in front of an Jan van Eyck painting I basically get bored (or simply hungry, was not that the point?) and move away. Eyck is the kind of artist you buy cheaky calenders of and hang up in your crafts room (if you’re a 40 year-old house wife) and don’t want to reflect on your life.