Still Life painting challenges accusations of triviality
Cezanne declared, “With an apple I want to astonish Paris!” And he did, challenging accusations of triviality in Still Life as a genre.
In the past, still life was seen as merely a technical skill representing inanimate objects, and ranked below other genres like portraiture, landscape and historical scenes. It was criticised as mere copying that lacked artistic imagination and placed no intellectual demands on the viewer.
But avant-garde modernists declared still life a form of pure painting, drawing attention to the painted surface as opposed to the subject matter.
A great painting can be made of any subject, if painted well enough
Cezanne’s apples are celebrated not because they are good enough to eat, but for their composition, colour and brushwork. He demonstrated that a great painting can be made of any subject, no matter how mundane, if it is painted well enough.
Contemporary artists have extended the narrow definition of still life painting through the use of new subject matter and new media. Inspired by Pop art and the ‘found object’ the genre has been extended even further. With this liberation of artistic opinion, still life has come to be a major focus for contemporary artists.
Still Life: disrupting the quotidian
One of the purposes of art is to disrupt the way we look at things, to make us aware of things we often overlook. Still life celebrates the prosaic, but it can also disturb by making us see common objects as unfamiliar and new.
Anything looked at truly attentively becomes transfigured. There is value in the ordinary and no subject is really unimportant.
Still life has been classically defined as a work of art depicting inanimate objects, but this description conveys little about the associations inherent to this genre.
From the early years of painting, objects were used as coded messages and symbols. They conveyed more than their everyday purpose. Humble objects are evocative, they show history, human endeavour, the visual beauty of ageing and use.
Objects portrayed in Still Life painting are not static
Objects portrayed in still life almost always evoke a duration: the burning of a match, the life span of food, the time before dishes are cleared away, before shadows change with the moving sun. They are not static.
Still life continues to be a viable and vibrant genre due to its flexibility in incorporating new techniques and subject matter. Collectors of art enjoy its status as a vehicle of expression and its ability to successfully span the wide stylistic changes from abstract expressionism to Pop art.
Still Life will always be alive because of its meaning and association. It is intimate yet worldly, simple yet powerful, quiet yet evocative.