Object and Art - A Timeline of the Still Life Through Artistic History


 

In Ancient Greece, Pliny the Elder recorded a story in the Naturalis Historia about a competition held between two artists - Zeuxis of Heraclea and Parrhasius of Ephesus. Regarded as the best painters in the fourth century BCE, the pair decided to compete against each other to determine the superior artist.


For the competition, Zeuxis was said to have depicted a bowl of grapes with such realism that birds tried to pluck the fruit from the painting. Happy with his work, Zeuxis then visited Parrhasius and asked that the curtain over his rival's painting be lifted so that he could view the artwork beneath. He quickly discovered that the curtain itself was the painting, the realism of the artwork deceiving Zeuxis so thoroughly that he immediately conceded defeat, acknowledging that while he had deceived birds, Parrhasius had fooled a fellow artist [1].


As Pliny the Elder's story reflects, artists from early history have gone to great lengths to portray still life subjects. Still life artworks are, for many, a way to analyse or stimulate sensual experiences. While many artists have embraced the still life as a way to impart messages or virtues, other have used the genre as a tool to study human nature, communicate messages or cultivate a sense of awe.


What is a Still Life?


The term still life derives from the Dutch word stilleven, coined in the 17th century when the still life saw immense popularity throughout Europe. A defining attribute of the still life is the artistic depiction of an arrangement of inanimate or still subjects. Fruit, deceased animals, flowers, shells, books, jewellery, instruments, glasses, insects and skulls are common subjects in still life art.


The Still Life in Ancient Times


Long before still life painting emerged as a distinct specialization in Western art, Egyptian artists often stocked the interiors of tombs with paintings of food and other supplies to equip the spirit of the deceased for their journey to the afterlife. One of the best-known examples of these painted food caches is found in the Tomb of Menna, in the Theban Necropolis on the west bank of the Nile.


The Ancient Greeks and Romans also made mosaics and painted frescoes of consumables. Skilfully executed wall paintings and mosaics unearthed at Pompeii and Herculaneum exhibit familiar motifs such as the classic depiction of fruits piled in and around decorative bowls [3]. Mosaics or emblema found in the abodes of wealthy Romans marked the variety of food enjoyed by the upper class.


Glass bowl of fruit and vases. Roman wall painting in Pompeii (around 70 AD
Glass bowl of fruit and vases. Roman wall painting in Pompeii (around 70 AD)

Medieval Art and the Renaissance


In the middle ages, most still lifes were tied to biblical allegories or iconography. Artists painted flowers and inanimate objects into the borders of illuminated manuscripts with increasing skill. The Hours of Catherine of Cleves, likely made in Utrecht around 1440, is an ornate example of this trend, with the artist building a creative collection of natural subjects into evocative frames. Over time, the intricately detailed execution of these frames influenced artists who worked on a larger scale. As seen in The Lady and the Unicorn series, mille-fleurs tapestries are another pivotal example of the increasing shift towards a detailed emphasis of plants and animals during the Middle Ages in Europe.


Hours of Catherine of Cleves, 1440 iris28 history of art still life
Pages from Hours of Catherine of Cleves, 1440

In 1504, Italian Renaissance artist Jacopo de' Barbari painted Still life with Partridge and Gauntlet.

Likely symbolic of death and war, the painting is the earliest surviving example from modern times of a vertically-oriented still life where objects manifest in much greater dimensionality. Also considered one of the earliest examples of a dedicated still life painting, the small oil-on-limewood-panel artwork depicts a slain partridge with two iron gauntlets, a crossbow bolt passing through all. Around the same time, German Renaissance painter Albrecht Dürer painted The Large Piece of Turf (1503). Originally intended as a study for later works, Dürer's watercolour has been praised for its naturalistic balance of chaos and order - a common feature in still life art further down the track.


Still-Life with Partridge and Gauntlets, Jacopo de' Barbari, 1504 |  The Large Piece of Turf, Albrecht Dürer, 1503
Still-Life with Partridge and Gauntlets, Jacopo de' Barbari, 1504 | The Large Piece of Turf, Albrecht Dürer, 1503

As the natural object started to be appreciated as a secular artefact, wealthy patrons began to collect animal, plant and mineral specimens which then served as reference material for artists. The Renaissance as a unified historical period ended in the mid-16th century and into the 17th century. However, the spread of interest in natural illustration throughout Europe resulted in the continuation of still life painting.


Vanitas and Memento Mori


Vanitas - Latin for empty - is a symbolic artistic device intended to evoke an awareness of the transience of life. Often juxtaposed with symbols of wealth and abundance, vanitas are closely linked to memento mori, though the former is much broader in terms of symbolic range. Musical instruments, decaying fruit, cut flowers, bubbles, hourglasses, smoke and deceased animals are common emblems of vanitas art, conveying a perceived worthlessness of worldly pleasures and goods.


The earliest known vanitas painting is Jacques de Gheyn II’s Vanitas Still Life (1603). In the bleak grotto, a skull with a large soap bubble floating above it alludes to humanity being as fragile as the globule itself. The figures flanking the arch above are Democritus and Heraclitus, the laughing and weeping philosophers of ancient Greece. Reflected in the bubble, a wheel of torture and a leper’s rattle indicate a selection of misfortunes that may befall the living. Cut flowers and a smouldering urn also symbolize the wispy brevity of life, while the coins and medallions scattered at the bottom of the piece are the mark of foolish worldly abundance[2].


First Vanitas Still Life,  Jacques de Gheyn II’s, 1603
Vanitas Still Life, Jacques de Gheyn II’s, 1603

The Expansion of the Still Life


Still life painting as an independent genre began to flourish in the Netherlands in the early 1600s when the demand for detailed flower paintings in oils erupted with popularity. Jan Brueghel the Elder and Ambrosius Bosschaer became specialists in painting elaborate bouquets. When religious iconography was banned by the Dutch Reformed Protestant Church, Northern artists began to paint detailed floral arrangements paired with a codified language of Christian symbols and social associations that built on the horticultural mania of the period. While a rose could signal the Virgin Mary, the tulip represented showiness or nobility. In addition, painted floral arrangements often featured symbolic insects - butterflies could represent resurrection and the ant indicated industriousness. Refined by the mastery of artists like Rachel Ruysch, these floral arrangements were viewed as both aesthetically enjoyable objects and an example of vanitas painting.


Flowers in a Glass Vase with a Cricket in a Niche, Rachel Ruysch, 1700
Flowers in a Glass Vase with a Cricket in a Niche, Rachel Ruysch, 1700

Painted around 1599, Basket of Fruit is a still life of significant scholarly interest today. In the painting, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, the Italian master of the Baroque, depicts a wicker basket perched precariously on the edge of a nondescript ledge, a crop of wilted, inset-eaten and discoloured organic matter piling out of the basket in a scene of abject decay.


Sticking to a popular motif, the prevailing theme of the artwork revolves around paling beauty and the inevitable decay of living things. Scholars have also speculated that the artwork might be a metaphor for a deteriorating Catholic Church [4]. The classical style of art at the time dictated that objects should be idealized through art, perfecting what nature has left raw. Caravaggio went against this, prioritizing realism over perfection. As opposed to Renaissance art, which generally depicted the moment before a key event took place, baroque artists chose the most dramatic point, the moment when the action was occurring. In depicting the precariously balanced wicker basket laden with rotting fruit, Caravaggio implied a tension suggesting the basket would fall at any moment, spilling into reality.


Basket of Fruit, Caravaggio, c. 1599
Basket of Fruit, Caravaggio, c. 1599

From the inception of the Baroque period, still life paintings (known as bodegón) also began to see popularity throughout Spain. The bodegón differed from the Dutch still lifes in several ways: while Dutch still life artists generally painted prepared banquets surrounded by ornate and luxurious items, the game in Spanish paintings are often waiting to be slaughtered or prepared for consumption. In addition, Spanish still life artists often arranged subjects on blocks or slabs. And while both Dutch and Spanish still lifes often carried an embedded moral undertone, Spanish artists steered away from the luxurious aesthetic tendencies of Dutch still life overall.


Still Life with Fruits and Vegetables, Juan Sánchez Cotán, c. 1600,
Still Life with Fruits and Vegetables, Juan Sánchez Cotán, c. 1600, Wikimedia Commons

Often banned from painting in other genres, Italian women like Giovanna Garzoni and Fede Galizia were celebrated for their masterful still life renderings. Garzoni, who favoured porcelain, shell and botanical subjects, was praised for her rigorous precision and harmonious executions while Galizia painted at least 44 catalogued still lifes over her lifetime - her only signed work marking the first known still life painted and dated by an Italian artist.


Cherries in a Silver Compote, Fede Galizia, unknown date iris28
Cherries in a Silver Compote, Fede Galizia, unknown date

Still life in Edo Period Japan


During the Edo period (1603 - 1867), a style of woodblock prints called ukiyo-e became a key part of Japanese art. Used to produce prints of everything from Kabuki actors to famous landscapes, artists carefully carved intricate designs into a woodblock, applied ink or coloured matter to the carved surface and pressed the block onto paper. In this way, many renderings (including of still life artworks) were produced and distributed across Japan.


Still Life, Unidentified Artist, Edo period
Still Life, Unidentified Artist, Edo period

Academic Art


From the sixteenth century, a number of specialized art schools began to spring up across Europe. Established to instruct according to the classical theories of the High Renaissance and the French Académie des Beaux-Arts, art students were taught the hierarchy of genres - a system that ranked the worth of an artwork based on subject matter. Historical, mythological and biblical content earned the highest merit, while still life painting, regarded as a form of copying, was relegated to the lowest rung.


By the 19th century, art academics used the hierarchy of genres as a basis for awarding prizes, scholarships and exhibition space. In addition, the academies had a practical monopoly on the teaching, production and exhibition of visual artistry. Without the approval of an academy, an artist could not obtain a qualification and it was much harder to exhibit work or access official patronage. The hierarchy also had a significant impact on the perceived monetary value of different types of art. Due to the expansive academic hostility aimed at still life art, it can be assumed that many artists avoided depicting still life subject matter altogether.


Still Life with Orange and Book, Raphaelle Peale, 1815
Still Life with Orange and Book, Raphaelle Peale, 1815

Despite academic art's low regard the genre, some artists continued to focus on the still life regardless. Considered the first professional American still life painter, Raphaelle Peale was one of a group of early American artists who focused on the still life. A Philadelphian, Peale devoted himself to still life painting at the turn of the eighteenth century, working under the glare of the academic establishment. In fact, Peale publicly proclaimed his esteem for the so-called imitative still life practice, claiming it as a personal artistic principle. Peale exhibited frequently, with encouragement from family and critical recognition [5]. However, the artist's work was largely forgotten until recently, when scholars began to examine his oeuvre within the context of American art history.


Eventually, academic art did begin to falter, criticized by realists like Gustave Courbet as being based on idealistic clichés and prioritizing mythical and legendary subjects over more pressing contemporary concerns. Impressionists also rejected the academic establishment and as modern art and the avant-garde gained momentum, academic art system faded into obscurity.


Korean Chaekgeori Paintings


Spanning from the second half of the 18th century to the first half of the 20th century, the Korean chaekgeori was a genre of still life painting that centres on objects of scholarly associations. With an emphasis on books as the dominant subject, Chaekgeori was personally propagated by King Jeongjo, an avid bibliophile known for establishing the royal library of the Joseon Dynasty.


Six-panel Chaekgeori folding screen, late 1800s
Six-panel Chaekgeori folding screen, late 1800s

Early chaekgeori paintings were prized for their realism by nobility. By the 19th century, chaekgeori had spread to the common class, which resulted in more expressionist and abstract depictions. Court chaekgeori were used in both ritual ceremonies and as decoration, and minhwa (folk paintings or paintings of the people) chaekgeori were displayed as decorative features in the home.


Still Life Photography From the Nineteenth Century


Soon after the invention of the photograph in 1839, photographers turned their attention to the tradition and stasis of the still life. Due to the lengthy exposure times required for early photographic processes, a static still life arrangement was ideal for sharp imagery and pioneering photographers like Jacques-Louis-Mandé Daguerre and William Henry Fox Talbot regularly took advantage of still life subject matter. Art photographer Baron Adolf de Meyer also applied innovative techniques to create still life photographs designed to look like drawings or paintings.


As camera technology improved, still life subjects were no longer a strict necessity, yet the genre remained popular for photographers and consumers alike. Renouncing pictorialism in 1922, Edward Weston forged a new emphasis on photographic form captured in crisp detail. In 1927, Weston created his first photograph of a pepper, launching a famous series of still life photographs based around peppers alone. At the time, Weston wrote in his journal:


It is classic, completely satisfying – a pepper – but more than a pepper: abstract, in that it is completely outside subject matter.

From his time photographing vegetables, one of Weston's most famous photographs was captured. Cabbage Leaf, taken in 1931, is a manifestation of the discerning artist's approach to visual texture, reinvigorating the artistic trend of still life artistry by emphasizing the possibilities of technological advancement.


Romanticism to Realism


From 1780, romanticism expanded through Europe and the United State. Defying the rationality of the Enlightenment, romantics valued emotion over reason, celebrating the individuality of imagination and intuition. Romantic artist Eugène Delacroix painted the occasional still life, as seen in Still Life with Lobsters (1826–27) while Francisco Goya produced many darkly atmospheric renderings of still life scenes. Théodore Géricault's still life paintings The Three Skulls (1812-1814) and Dead Cat (1821) fit among a tempestuous repertoire of visually murky vanitas.


Artists of the French realism movement were inspired by the mundane, the unseen or the unsightly. Motivated by the growth of leftist politics, realists rallied against the romantic and academic, renouncing the supernatural and the speculative.


In the wake of the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution, realism also had a far-reaching effect on art history. Led by French painter Gustave Courbet, realist artists worked amidst the revolution and societal transformation. Seeking to replace the tradition of idealistic or imagined imagery with concrete events, realist artists depicted marginalized society with the aggrandized manifestations once reserved for historical mythological and allegorical painting.


Still Life: Apples, Pears, and Primroses on a Table, Gustave Courbet, 1872
Still Life: Apples, Pears, and Primroses on a Table, Gustave Courbet, 1872

In 1871, the Paris Commune seized power in Paris for a little over two months. After the final suppression of the Commune by the French army on the 28th of May, Courbet was arrested and jailed for six months for his participation. In prison, Courbet was allowed an easel and paints, though he was denied a model to pose for him, so the artist pursued still life instead. The still lifes that came from this period are an example of Courbet's, keen sense of beauty in hardship. In an 1872 letter, Courbet’s sister Zoë (who supplied her brother with the flowers and fruits he required for his still lifes while incarcerated) described Apples, Pears, and Primroses on a Table (1871 - 1872) as:


...a large painting, a dozen pears, apples, etc heaped pleasingly on a table... the whole composition is delightful. Gustave is enchanted with it. He says that he has never achieved such gracious effects of colour [6]

Painted while recovering from surgery during his sentence, the darkened fruit, potted plant and extinguished fireplace may indicate Courbet's disposition in captivity, but his artistic perseverance through the still life is a clear expression of resolve.


Impressionism and Post-Impressionism


With small yet highly visible brush strokes, airy compositions, an emphasis on the accurate depiction of light and the articulation of movement, impressionist artists like Claude Monet and Camille Pissarro made highly gestural renderings of still life arrangements.


In his early still life examples, Claude Monet broke with the tradition of isolating objects with a shadowy backdrop. Instead, Monet embraced lighter backgrounds, creating the opportunity for further textural features. As seen in Still Life with Flowers and Prickly Pears (1885) Pierre-Auguste Renoir also took advantage of illuminated backgrounds as areas for further textural investment.


Fruit Displayed on a Stand, Gustave Caillebotte, 1882
Fruit Displayed on a Stand, Gustave Caillebotte, 1882

The impressionist still life also saw little allegorical and mythological content, with impressionist artists turning their focus to emotive brushwork, unexpected colour selections and unusual perspectives instead. Fruit Displayed on a Stand (1882) by Gustave Caillebotte is an example of an innovative perspective that mirrors the everyday experience of shopping for fresh fruit. However, it goes without saying that one of the best-known examples of the still life belongs to the post-impressionist period. Vincent van Gogh's range of sunflower paintings document the Helianthus in all stages of life, from flourishing blooms to shrivelling twists of dry matter. Making use of new synthetic oil paints, Van Gogh capitalized on the intense colours that were originally developed for the textile industry. Painting with particularly vivid yellows, van Gogh applied thickly layered paintwork, working from tiny pointillist dots to grand sculptural strokes.


When van Gogh died in 1890, his body was set out in his room, where it was surrounded by masses of yellow flowers - including dahlias and sunflowers. Later, in 1901, Paul Gauguin painted Still Life with Sunflowers in homage to the artist.


Still Life with Two Sunflowers, Vincent van Gogh, 1887
Still Life with Two Sunflowers, Vincent van Gogh, 1887

For Paul Cézanne, dubbed the father of modern art, the still life was a vehicle for reassessing spatial organization and geometric construction. In vivid deliberacy, he created purposefully problematic scenes, trading harmony and balance for a unifying state of unrest. In Still Life with Apples and a Pot of Primroses (1980), a potted plant frond seems to shove away from a wonky wall. The table droops to the left, making the piled fruit even more preciously arranged.


There’s a French word, repoussior, which translates to pushing back - a theme that constantly manifests in Cezanne's still life work. Compositions that initially guide the viewer into a scene, promptly let them go in an abrupt denial of visual resolution. Its vivid, electric and disconcerting, hidden in the guise of an ordinary still life.


Still Life with Apples and a Pot of Primroses, Paul Cézanne, 1890
Still Life with Apples and a Pot of Primroses, Paul Cézanne, 1890

Neoplasticism


First articulated in 1917 by Theo van Doesburg and Piet Mondrian in their journal De Stijl, Neoplasticism encouraged the denial of naturalistic representation in favour of stripped-down aesthetics characterized by straight, bold lines, rectangular planes and primary colors. Founded as a response to the devastation wreaked by World War I, Doesburg and Mondrian aimed to create harmony through reduction as a restorative model for everyday life.


Still Life with Gingerpot 1, Piet Mondrian, 1911 | Still Life with Gingerpot 1, Piet Mondrian, 1912
Still Life with Gingerpot 1, Piet Mondrian, 1911 | Still Life with Gingerpot 1, Piet Mondrian, 1912

Regarded as one of the most significant artists of the 20th century, Piet Mondrian is known for his pioneering abstractions. However, most of Mondrian's early work was naturalistic or impressionistic until he encountered the Cubist style of Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque in Paris. From there, his various still life studies were increasingly dominated by geometric shapes and gridded planes. Although his most familiar artworks are not still lifes, Mondrian's evolution from the still life to the abstract is an invaluable reflection on the development of the artist, his visual perspectives, influences, reasonings and techniques.


Expressionism


Expressionism centred on the visual response of an artist to the real world. Rendered in disproportionate sizes, unique angles and intense colors, expressionism for some was a reaction against art history, which, for many artists, resulted in a vivid reworking of the still life tradition.


Still Life with Duck and Snipe, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, 1920
Still Life with Duck and Snipe, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, 1920

A German painter and printmaker, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner was one of the founders of the Die Brücke, a seminal artist group leading to the foundation of Expressionism. In Still Life with Duck and Snipe (1920) there is an obvious disconnect between the set table and the slaughtered wild birds who somehow seem to hover above the scene. Here, Kirchner may also be referencing Still Life (Ducks and Snipe) (1840) by Charles Fraser, an artist who predominantly focused on depicting dead game in his still life oeuvre.


Georgia O'Keeffe


One of the defining artists of the American branch of modernism was Georgia O'Keeffe. Also known as the Mother of American Modernism, O'Keeffe used magnification and colour to analyse and abstract her floral subjects. As a female artist, O'Keeffe's compellingly cropped botanical studies earned her unprecedented artistic acceptance. Reconstructing the general perception of still life art, O'Keeffe also visited New Mexico during the summer of 1929 and was profoundly inspired by the natural artefacts she found in the desert, many of which featured prominently in other still life paintings, as seen in Cow's Skull with Calico Roses (1931).


Red Canna, Georgia O'Keeffe, 1923
Red Canna, Georgia O'Keeffe, 1923

Another modernist artist who focused on floral still lifes is Margaret Preston. Regarded as one of Australia's leading modernists of the early 20th century, Preston was a painter and printmaker who created over 400 known prints in her lifetime. A vast majority of Preston's surviving works feature Australian native flora, a reflection of her desire to make a distinctive characterization of the natural Australian landscape. Interestingly, it was Preston’s exposure to the Japanese Ukiyo-e that inspired much of her own work throughout her career. Flower species like the waratah, gum blossom, wattle and banksia inspired Preston to create still life artworks that earned significant acclaim in the Sydney art scene from the 1920s onwards.


Cubism, Futurism and Rayonism


Influenced by the representation of three-dimensional form in the late works of Paul Cézanne, Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque forged a new approach to the visual organisation of reality. By blending objects, figures, perspectives and time into one visual unit, the pair came up with a fragmented, abstracted and fundamentally modern manifestation of art - cubism.


Braque and Picasso both painted radical examples of cubist still lives, opening the door for later abstract styles. But by deliberately introducing industrially-produced objects into the realm of the still life, the two artists made a deliberate iconoclastic gesture. The artists endeavoured to test the elitism of the art world, which had historically separated so-called common experiences from the lofty realms of high art. The movement spread quickly, and artists like Roger de La Fresnaye and Georges Valmier continued to convey the still life through a cubist lens.


Still Life, Tin of Tea and Pot of Tobacco, Roger de La Fresnaye, 1913 |   Still Life No. 3, Georges Valmier, 1911
Still Life, Tin of Tea and Pot of Tobacco, Roger de La Fresnaye, 1913 | Still Life No. 3, Georges Valmier, 1911

When Italian poet Filippo Tommaso Marinetti swerved to avoid a cyclist and crashed his car in a ditch, the calamitous juxtaposition of the old vs the new inspired him to write the Futurist Manifesto. By 1910, Marinetti was joined by Umberto Boccioni, Carlo Carrà and Luigi Russolo - each seeking to conquer nostalgia and tradition [7] to forge ahead with a new, futuristic way of life.


Futurism emphasized the high speed, technologically dynamistic climate of the early 20th century. For futurists, aviation, the industrialized city and the car were frequent sources of inspiration. Alexandra Exter, a Cubo-futurist, represented a fusion of Cubist and Futurist styles and principles. Through paintings like Still Life (1913), Exter integrated cubism and futurism to engage with abstraction. In the same year, Rayonist Natalia Goncharova, a fundamental proponent of Russian art, painted Rayonist Lilies as a vehicle to deconstruct the nature of light and its interplay on fixed objects.


Still Life, Aleksandra Ekster, 1913 |  Rayonist Lilies, natalia goncharova, 1913
Still Life, Aleksandra Ekster, 1913 | Rayonist Lilies, natalia goncharova, 1913

Dadaism and Surrealism


Rejecting logic, reason, and the aestheticism of modern capitalism, artists of the dada movement responded directly to the carnage of World War I through satirical and often nonsensical artistic projects. In 1913, Marcel Duchamp commandeered a bicycle wheel and fork and a wooden stool to make Bicycle Wheel. These pre-fabricated and often mass-produced readymades were extracted from their intended use as a way to invigorate and question the tradition of the still life and the wider culture of visual art and society.


An informal dadaist and surrealist, Man Ray is probably best known for his pioneering photograms or rayographs. Placing everyday objects onto a sheet of photosensitive paper, Man Ray exposed the arrangement to light and then processed the paper in the darkroom - creating negative images. Although cameraless photography was not new, Man Ray embraced the process as a fresh form of still life artistry, reducing otherwise familiar objects to abstracted impressions of darkness and light.



Thriving on irrationality, surrealist artists sought to develop techniques that allowed the unconscious mind to peek through, guiding the artistic process. In the Manifestoes of Surrealism, André Breton stated:


I believe in the future resolution of these two states, dream and reality, which are seemingly so contradictory, into a kind of absolute reality, a surreality, if one may so speak [9]

Surrealist art operates on surprise, juxtaposition and abrupt or illogical junctures of visuality. For William Girometti, the bizarre assemblages of surreal still life art was the most gratifying in terms of conveying thought and observation. Painted during a period the artist called Nuclear Mysticism, Salvador Dali's Living Still Life (1956) was created to explore relationships between quantum physics and the boundary of the human mind. Combining elements of science and art, Dali focused on elevating the imperceptible hum of atomic materiality.


Still Life (1963), a sculpture by artist Louise Bourgeois, can initially be approached as the study of a bowl of fruit with two loaves of bread. However, on closer inspection, the work suggestively evokes anatomical forms - a frequent element in Bourgeois's late career. The coarse texture and minimal palette of Still Life emphasizes the artist's choice to make a still life sculpture rather than sticking to the more traditional painted format. Still Life reflects Bourgeois's masterful and often humorous synthesis of abstract and representational sensibilities in the art of the 20th and early 21st centuries.


From Pop Art to Today


As seen in the case of academic art, the still life has a history of marginalization. Pop art represented the object vessel for innovative expressions that centred around the still life as a reflection on post-war consumerist society. Tom Wesselmann’s laser-cut steel drawings of flower bouquets, for example, blur the distinction between painted fields and sculptural structures. Wesselmann's Still Life #30, is a large still life depicting a kitchen scene. With a table of fresh and packaged food, a pink fridge in the background laden with 7-Up bottles and a window that frames the city beyond, Still Life #30 is one in a series of still lifes with images from magazines collaged directly onto the surface of the painting. In these still life renderings, Wesselmann said that he chose to depict everyday objects for their aesthetic value, rather than making a social statement:


This kind of relationship helps establish a momentum throughout the picture… At first glance my pictures seem well behaved, as if—that is a still life, O.K. But these things have such crazy give-and-take that I feel they get really very wild [8]

From Roy Lichtenstein’s Black Flowers (1961) to Andy Warhol's Campbell Soup Cans (1962), the resilient still life saw reinvention and reinvigoration once again in pop art and our present artistic climate. The still life honours material pleasures such as food and drink, at the same time bearing a warning of the ephemerality of human life. In 2007 Israeli artist Ori Gersht made a series of photographs and videos recorded at high speed. The series, titled Blow Up, captured the moment a flash-frozen floral arrangement is obliterated to produce a catastrophic visual explosion, a dramatic exploration into technological advancement, the history of the still life and the visual manifestation of violence.


In the same years as many of Gersht's vividly deconstructed bouquets, Peter Jones painted Ollie Monkey, a portrait of a vintage toy monkey worn from time, love and/or neglect. Deceased animals have long been featured in the still life from its inception, and monkeys have traditionally been painted to hint at an internal beast within human nature. However, Ollie Monkey, and the many other stuffed toys in Jones' series are nearing the end of an artificial lifespan - they are vulnerable, fabricated to befriend children that have the capacity to outgrow them and leave them behind.


For Sharon Core, photography is inspired by a history of lavish realism in still life. Core strives to re-create iconic still life paintings, her carefully constructed images are designed to play with the relationship between reality and illusion in photography. From painstaking photographic recreations of the still lifes of 19th century American painter Raphaelle Peale, to work inspired by 17th century Dutch painter Otto Marseus van Schriek, Core's photography examines our understanding of photography as a truth-telling tool.


Lastly, Yayoi Kusama, whose trademark motifs include distinctive polka dotted pumpkins, operates on a notion of infinity carried out with obsessive artistic physicality. Kusama's repertoire of still lifes include renderings of flowers, vases, pumpkins and ashtrays. Inspired by her own hallucinations, Kusama depicts the still life objects she encounters through the lens of mental illness, meditation and spirit.


Final Notes


Just a few days ago, an unassuming painting of piled strawberries by Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin garnered a record-breaking $2.6 million dollars at an auction held in Paris. The work, titled The Basket of Wild Strawberries (1760) soared far beyond its $16.5 million estimates [10], a clear indication of the enduring popularity of still lifes into the contemporary climate.


Still lifes depict historical trends and reflect important societal values. Found in ancient Egyptian tomb paintings, the still life has persevered throughout history despite, for a time, being banished to the lowest rung on the academic hierarchy of artistic value. A celebration of material pleasures, the still life can also serve as a warning of the ephemerality of these pleasures and of the impermanence of human life.


Edouard Manet once said that the still life was the touchstone of painting. Defined by an interest in the inert, this genre of art has been translated and reinvented across movements, cultures and periods, with many contemporary artists continuing to build on the tradition today.


 

References


[1] Attalus.org


[2] Metmuseum.org - Vanitas Still Life


[3] Worldhistory.org


[4] Caravaggio.net


[5] NGA.gov


[6] JSTOR.org


[7] Italianfuturism.org


[8] Manifestoes of Surrealism - André Breton


[9] MOMA.org


[10] Theartnewspaper.com



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Latin American still life : reflections of time and place - Kirking, Clayton


Painters of the humble truth : master pieces of American still life, 1801-1939 - Gerdts, William H


Still life : the object in American art, 1915-1995 : selections from the Metropolitan Museum of Art

by Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York, N.Y.)


The chosen object: European and American still life - Joslyn Art Museum, Cloudman, Ruth H


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Megan Kennedy is a writer and multidisciplinary artist based in Canberra, Australia. More of her work can be viewed on her website or on Instagram.