Researching still life as a genre is a very wide brief, and so I started with a very wide net. I search for the term on wikiart, at the Tate Modern and V&A. The breadth of the collection of resultant images can be considered by comparing the featured image by CARAVAGGIO with one by Mondarian.
So how should all this be considered? There are many similarities between these pieces of work, but they have completely different looks and feel. (c.f. Visual Language.) My next step was a visit to wikipedia to see how it structures its view of the genre. This provides a time-based view of the genre, discussing a series of periods in the depiction of still life artwork. I’m not going to try to reproduce that discussion in these notes, as there seems little value in doing so. It is better covered elsewhere than I could ever hope to do here.
What struck me are that there are different dimensions, or lenses, to consider this work on:
- How realistic or stylised is it and why?
- Why did the artist create the work?
- Who was it created for, and what is there interest in it?
Caravaggio, and to a degree Morandi, might both be described as creating realistic works. They used a different approach and focus, but both has believable three dimensional forms. The work of Caravaggio is highly realistic, and realism seems to have dominated the still life genre from the middle ages through to the 19th Century. It is clear however, that Roman art also included a selection of still life work that can be described as realistic – as illustrated by the painting from Pompeii on Wikipedia. This work may be laced with deep symbolism, but the items in the images are clearly recognisable and (presumably) are painted to look as closely as possible to the real thing – or better. By the time of the Academies this approach had become highly regimented and controlled.
In modern and contemporary work, however, this changes. The Impressionists started to diverge from the Academies and presented a much more personalised style. This was followed by a series of styles and approaches which valued stylised impressions over realistic ones. Morandi’s work looks realistic, for example, but it’s incorrect to assume that this is because he is following the realistic practices of the Academies. The work of Mondrian and Picasso borders on the Abstract.
Highly realistic paintings have been popular since Greek and Roman times. This, many painters are fuelled by a ready market for their works whatever the school or tradition they are working in. In this car the content and influences on the work would follow the styles and tastes of the time – that is follow what the Market demands. In observing this I’m not denigrating the work, just recognising that there is a Commercial element to much artwork.
The drivers behind less realistic still life works may still be Commercially driven, but the modern works are often much less accessible and so don’t fit the ready market of the realistic works. I have previously speculated that this more away from highly realistic images might be driven by the relative ease of creating realism with the advent of photography. Whatever the reason more interpretive work started to take the ascendance over time. A still life is, by definition, representational but that doesn’t limit the range of work very much. The artist is now trying to create something other than the most realistic make that they can.
So what are these artists trying to do? The answer varies significantly by school and artist, but key answers Includes:
Trying to represents multiple different viewpoints of the same selection of items within one picture. This is the approach of the cubists.
- Trying to represent an almost idealised, sometimes nearly abstracted, image of the scene in the case of Mondarian (http://www.theartstory.org/artist-mondrian-piet.htm) and Morandi (http://www.theartstory.org/artist-morandi-giorgio.htm).
- Exploring their own place in the world and providing some level of social commentary. This is illustrated in the following quote: “I constantly reevaluate my life through my paintings. All that I learn, or hear, or discover weaves its way into my work and becomes the fabric of symbolism and irony. The paintings become a vehicle that takes me through a journey of self-analysis, the discoveries of which I share with the viewer in hopes that my travels will somehow relate to theirs.” (from https://www.mrt.com/entertainment/article/Erion-mixes-social-commentary-still-life-painting-7474178.php)
It has already been mentioned that still life paintings have been popular subjects for artists since antiquity because of a ready market. This naturally leads to consideration of who this market actually was. The early artworks were mostly purchased by, or artists had patrons of, major figures of the state or church. The third major category in history and has gained ascendance more recently are the commercial /capitalist figures. The different figures of money and power were trying to decorate their homes and palaces in ways to show their wealth, status, power and tastes. The still life genre has been particularly good for this over time – as it can show opulence, plenty and exotic images very powerfully and accessibly. The selection of items and placement can also be rich with religious and social symbolism.
In contemporary art the audience is often the general public, as the age of mass production and consumerism makes the work of artists much more accessible. This has had negative as well as inspirational influences on art, as the ability to share and find images of art works could be argued to destroy the value of unique art. As artists harness this for their own benefit, however, it provides a new audience for still life artwork. This is evident in a recent Guardian article on the best in contemporary still life art. (https://www.theguardian.com/culture/gallery/2013/oct/19/10-best-contemporary-still-lifes) Many of these show the products of mass market consumerism, but their audience is also a particular segmented demographic within the general public. The audience may be much larger in terms of numbers of people than previously, but in many ways the interests of that audience are the same – to decorate their homes (or their social presence), show their tastes and obtain a slice of the exotic.