Thursday, September 19, 2013

Still Life (pt. 6)

One of the most prevalent themes became known by the Latin word "vanitas," from which we derive the English word "vanity."  A vanitas still life is an image in which all objects symbolize the theme of the transience of life.  That is a very important phrase: "the transience of life."  Life is not going to go on forever; it will end (and this bears implicit religious connotations as well—to remind viewers to live religiously in order to go to Heaven).  The objects are all placed out on display for us, but they are inanimate, robbed of life, still.  No matter how ornate, expensive, desirable, or beautiful these objects might be, they will never be moved from the eternal position in which they lay on the canvas, and we as viewers of the paintings can never remove them.  Often we see paintings of fruits and extravagant foods laid out on a table to be eaten, and yet no one is around to eat.  What a shame to leave the fruit there unattended—it will surely go bad!  "The grass withers and the flower fades," says the vanitas message of the painting, "but the Word of the Lord is forever"—the message of His truth and the inevitable reality of death are as enduring as the works of art themselves.
Even more solemnly are placed in still lifes evidences of human life that has left and left in a hurry.  This is the meaning behind the tipped glass that appears in so many artworks of this genre.  It implies that the person handling the object was suddenly called away—no one knows why.  A snuffed candle, objects in disarray, half-peeled fruit, and tablecloth that is falling off the table all show that the host or hostess left before they could finish their tasks, and that they were called away too soon by an incontrovertible call (perhaps the call of death when its time has come).  Jewelry no longer has an owner, books no longer have a reader, no matter how expensive or important.  The people in these paintings are simply gone and leave behind only remnants of things that they cannot take with them.  You'll notice many times the flowers in these paintings conceal small insects.  In a kind of post-apocalyptic tone, many painters decided to show Nature falling back unto its own after the people have gone.  The bugs are free to eat away at the fruits and flowers.  Also it was a chance for artists to demonstrate their skill in filling their subject with endlessly interesting finds that can be altogether new to the viewer even after years of owning it.  In my own experience from working at a museum, I have been allowed the distinct opportunity of getting to spend countless hours with paintings such as these.  Many times I would be called on to spend the entire day in the still life galleries.  There are often so many hidden things in a still life that only come out from long hours spent alone in a room, staring at them.  To spot the insects in the paintings became something of a game among us.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Still Life (pt. 5)

It is no coincidence that some objects appear more frequently in Dutch still life paintings than others during the Baroque period.  We see lots of paintings that include fruit, fancy silverware, flowers, candles, books, jewelry, musical instruments, and that ominous skull that keeps reappearing.  What does it all mean?  I will examine a particular still life in detail to provide the model for inspection into this genre, but it will be useful to first offer a bit of general overview.
Putting aside the purely material intentions of artists who were advertising trade with the Eastern world and a predominant fixation on tulips, these paintings do carry a prevalent religious theme.  Knowing the Protestant minimalist tendencies of Genre paintings and nature landscapes, a still life is a relatively simple work of art to look at.  The humility of man (and more specifically the humility of the artist) is being expressed through this latent simplicity, but the underscoring themes that reside beneath the surface of the work demonstrate the bent of the artist toward the deep, personal connection with God, profound philosophical thoughts, and the innermost sincerity of human emotion.  Compare this to Rubens' Raising of the Cross, an elaborate, huge painting that featured heavy action and drama with bulky figures and flowing, multicolored robes.  A still life, on the other hand, features the simple, Protestant mindset of a table set with certain objects, objects to be celebrated on one level for their sheer beauty and on a subliminal level for their deeper, philosophical connotations.  Objects, as I said, become symbols, representing abstract concepts of life, death, God, the universe, and mankind.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Still Life (pt. 4)

Early on, during the Baroque period which we are looking at now, objects presented in a still life carried the distinct connotation of being the personal property of the artist.  Whatever you saw in a painting he owned, and that turned into a kind of status symbol.  No other genre of painting so conveniently provided a way to show off all of your stuff to the wealthy patrons purchasing works of art at this time.  It may even bring you more customers if you are suddenly thought to be both talented and wealthy.
Dutch still life paintings did this; they celebrated the abundance of wealth that trade brought to Flanders and the Netherlands.  This is why many of the objects you see in these Dutch paintings (some of them aren't) are exotic, imported goods from other countries.  The market was flourishing during this time.
It was also the golden age of horticulture.  Tulips especially priced high on the market as exotic finery more desired at that time than jewelry.  They were first introduced to the Dutch from Constantinople.  The word "tulip" is itself a Turkish word, indicating a turban.  Holland society quickly developed a demand that soon grew broader than the supply, leading to a historic display of exaggerated economic inflation.  The Dutch people's obsession with tulips literally became known as "tulipmania."
Here is a source that can better explain it than I can.  This short article on tulipmania was taken from the 2012-2013 exhibition called "Significant Objects," from the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, California:
In a century characterized by inflation, the prices fetched by the tulips through sales and trade were constantly on the rise.  People eager to turn a profit flocked to the market to trade tulip bulbs.  Many gambled their homes, farm animals or other goods in anticipation of fortune to be made on tulip sales.  The intensity of this speculation appeared to operate outside the laws of common sense.  The phenomenon has been aptly named "tulipmania."
Particular tulips brought extraordinary sums.  The Semper Augustus, for example, was a rare tulip, characterized by blood-red flames and streaks on its white petals.  It sold for 1,000 guilders in 1623.  By 1637, just before the crash of the market, its price reached 10,000 guilders.  (To compare, the annual wage of a skilled laborer in Holland around this time was 200 to 400 guilders; a large house alongside a canal cost around 6,000 guilders).
In 1637, the combination of rumors about a failing market, and the fact that buyers and sellers could no longer transact business at such inflated prices, set off a selling spree.  Within months, the market for tulips collapsed.  Investors suffered heavy losses, and many went bankrupt.  Today, historians view this widespread market crash as "the first great speculation crisis of modern capitalism.
So.  A personal practicing exercise for artists, a display of wealth to viewers, an indiscriminate way to employ new artistic techniques collectively, a celebration of the successful trading industry, a cathartic expression of your tulip fetish: these are all functions that still life paintings served in the Netherlands during the Baroque period.  But apart from these mostly material purposes, still life art served a deeper role in communicating metaphysical sub-meaning and religious truth.  There is a lot of hidden meaning in most Dutch still life paintings; and if you thought the Renaissance imagery was difficult to follow, hold onto your berets.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Still Life (pt. 3)

As for the viewer, still lifes give an excellent opportunity to see into the mind of the painter.  How is this?  In a portrait, a landscape, historical scene, biblical scene, or any other genre of painting, the subject is, to a certain extent, already latent and manifest to the artist before he begins to paint it.  But with the still life, the artist has selected himself what is to be painted.  Everything we see within the frame is the artist's personal choice of objects.  When we see flowers, we can tell that artist has an appreciation for beauty and nature; when we see books, we can assume the artist is learned or probably well-read; when we see a skull, we come to different conclusions; and so on.  The images we see are not purposeless drawings; they represent something, either directly or indirectly, about the artist himself.
Many times the artist intentionally picks items to convey a particular message to his audience, not about himself but something else.  We will dissect this in greater detail later.  Unlike other kinds of paintings—landscapes, portraits, historical scenes, and so on—these works come solely from the artist's imagination as the scene is a created display of items handpicked by the painter, and these items begin to refer to ideas, making the assemblage of objects in a still life like a kind of narrative story, essay, or sermon.  The eye "reads" from left to right, after all, and the arrangement of objects is sometimes so precise that it almost forms something of a written text.
There can be many mysteries in a still life that at first hit the viewer with their stark visibility but then resonate back in the deeper sense only after careful study and thought.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Still Life (pt. 2)

Artists do use still life painting to polish their expertise.  Many of the most stunning paintings are still lifes.  The artist, as I said, has all the time in the world to painstakingly execute the minutest of brush strokes, leading to a stylistic element called photorealism.  This was known as trompe l'œil, which is French for "fooling the eye."  Linear perspective, chiaroscuro, tenebrism—all of the artistic elements we have looked at to date come into play here, making still lifes among the most dynamic paintings in all of art history to observe.  But, for me at least, there is something strange and almost unsettling about the realism of images that hangs inside a frame on a wall.  The objects are so close, poised on whatever cabinet surface or tablecloth, we feel we could almost stretch out our hand and touch it.  Why is that?  Approximately two hundred years early, I'll ask the question: why must paintings look real?  (Centuries later, artists will seriously contemplate this in their works).  What do you think is the point of making an inanimate object—that has no life of its own and that is painted two-dimensionally on a flat canvas—real?