And freely men confess that this world’s spent,
When in the planets and the firmament
They seek so many new; they see that this
Is crumbled out again to his atomies.
‘Tis all in pieces, all coherence gone,
All just Supply, and all Relation—John Donne, 1611
The exhibition All Coherence Gone? Historical currents in contemporary still life at Bay Art Gallery, Cardiff, (20 September to 17 October, 2014), included paintings and photographs by artists from the Netherlands, Wales and England: Emma Bennett, Clare Chapman, David Gould, Kenne Gregoire, Piet Groenendijk, Clive Hicks-Jenkins, Jacco Hinke, Heather James, Alan Salisbury, Margriet Smulders, Krista van der Niet, and Dawn Woolley (figs. 1-12). Two of the artists, Emma Bennett and Alan Salisbury, had recently been included in Dr Michael Petry’s book Nature Morte: Contemporary artists reinvigorate the still-life tradition (2013: 36, 90), the title of which echoed my own research interests. Whilst Petry refers to a wide range of contemporary art as nature morte it is useful to note here that many contemporary artists do not use this term to categorize their own work. Neither do they tend to use ‘still life,’ though they acknowledge its historical presence in their work. I chose to use the term ‘still life’ both with regard to the exhibition and the accompanying catalogue as a way to identify, curate and write about a historically informed contemporary practice of object depiction.
In the exhibition title, All Coherence gone? Historical currents in contemporary still life I took Donne’s poetic lament, written in England at the start of the seventeenth century, and transformed it into a question. His words, which at the time of writing were so concerned with the perceived rupture between past and future understandings of the world, seemed to me to be particularly pertinent when considering contemporary art’s relation to still life painting of the past. That is, whether certain contemporary art was being borne out of a rupture with historical still life or whether there was indeed coherence to be found in its ‘conversations’ with the origins of the genre. In order to address this and associated questions I visited exhibitions and searched the Internet for artworks. Over time, I narrowed my search down to paintings and photographs. Eventually, I selected twelve artists from the Netherlands, England and Wales. I invited them to participate in conversations in the course of which we would also select two or three artworks for the exhibition. It was understood that these paintings or photographs should be sympathetic to the aims of the exhibition, have the potential to create a dynamic conversation with others in the gallery, and reflect the particularity of each artist’s conversation with art of the past. As preparations began to take shape my enquiry became increasingly focused on the ways in which contemporary art practice, conversation, and curation could come together as mixable, interpretive methods for my research.
The exhibition, once hung, revealed issues and concerns that went beyond those addressed in the exhibition catalogue. This article then is an opportunity for me to identify and expand on three ideas: contemporary art’s conversations with historical art; the potential for interpretation that historical art might offer up to art in the future; the circularity of interpretation, that is, the power of contemporary art to transform our looking, what we look at, and how that affects creative interpretation of historical art. With this in mind, my essay sets out a brief overview of historical still life and contemporary practices before turning to a discussion of my research methods of curation and conversation and how they can be put to use in order to sustain this dynamic genre. Finally I consider the genre of still life as a bounded yet boundless space, singularly able to generate conversations from which contemporary and future practice can flourish.
Still Life: An Overview
What is meant by a still life? In the catalogue to the exhibition I wrote: ‘A still life is a representation, a reflection, a transformation and a revelation of the objects around us’ (Woodley, 2014: 13). But in reality, and partly for practical reasons of selection, by the time the exhibition was hung, I had already narrowed this down further to the representation of objects in space in relation to a surface. Northern European still life painting of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, had certainly depicted objects in ambiguous settings where, as Norman Bryson writes perspective’s jewel – the vanishing point – is always absent’ (Bryson, 1990: 71). Some contemporary still life, and some contemporary art that is informed by historical still life, are striking up significant conversations with still life paintings of the past and transforming them through new forms of interpretation made possible by developments in visual technologies, materials and processes and contemporary zeitgeist.
Although it was as late as the eighteenth century that still life finally became known by that term, the genre had its roots in sixteenth century Antwerp, a thriving and predominantly Catholic city in the Spanish controlled Southern Provinces. Here, decorative or vanitas images were painted as memento mori on the back of religious or portrait panels. An early example of this is Flower Still Life (c. 1490) by Hans Memling (1430-94) where an arrangement of symbolic flowers, arranged in a Hispano-Moresque vase decorated with a prominent and illuminated christogram, is set on a carpeted table top. A little later enormous paintings of market and kitchen scenes by Pieter Aertson (1508-75) and Joachim Beuckelaar (1533-73/4) became popular. Here, piles of raw and prepared foodstuffs were piled high and hung deep, with any reference to religious narrative becoming gradually inverted until it disappeared altogether. These paintings were to take still life in a distinctly different direction most evidently in protestant Holland, where its religious associations with patrons and iconography were severed. In the first half of the seventeenth century however a series of five paintings entitled Allegories of the Five Senses (1617-18) were painted by the Flemish painters Jan Brueghel the Elder(1568-1625) and Pieter Paul Rubens (1577-1640). These included among their wondrous array of objects, depictions of real or imagined floral still life paintings, no doubt as signs of the wealth and culture of their royal patrons at the Spanish court in Antwerp. At much the same time the Antwerp painter Frans Francken (1581-1642) was also painting arrangements of precious and curious objects, natural and man-made, as if they occupied a cabinet de curiosités, a kunstkammer or a rariteitkammer.
By the mid-seventeenth century however, Holland, that federation of newly independent, predominantly protestant, Northern Provinces, had wrenched themselves from Spanish control. Newly prosperous and confident, it was driving a booming and cosmopolitan art market. Well appointed patrons as well as bourgeois and less well endowed customers, were keen to acquire secular still life paintings to hang in their homes. It is therefore from Holland, rather than Flanders, that we come to know the categories of still life such as the ontbeitje (breakfast), pronkstilleven (the sumptuous still life), the smoking, book, and floral still lifes and so forth. In their depiction of grand or ubiquitous objects these paintings often embodied warnings of the perils of over-indulgence, avarice, and sloth and were a constant reminder of their owners’ unavoidable mortality. But at the same time they offered up opportunities for visual feasting and the meditation and celebration of the good things in life. They were, as Barthes writes, a veritable ‘empire of things’ (Barthes, 2000: 3). The genre of still life, in avoiding and being avoided by the art academies of Europe, excelled in this environment due to artists’ pragmatic responses to the demands of a free market and the commercial advantages a scientific taxonomy of sub-genres afforded its products.
Two points struck home in the course of preparing for this exhibition: firstly, the ways in which traditions, conventions and skills of still life painting had been transmitted in the past, and secondly, how the creative practices of copying, imitating and appropriation had been transformed into new and playful methods and interpretations in contemporary art.
What came to mind were the floral still lifes painted by Jan Brueghel the Elder in Antwerp in the early years of the seventeenth century and how they had been copied and imitated by his son and pupil, Jan Brueghel II (1601-78). This was in contrast to Daniel Seghers (1590-1661), who, though he was also a pupil of Jan Brueghel I, surpassed his master to develop floral still life into a highly specialist and refined practice. So it would seem that Seghers found an opening in Brueghel the Elder’s floral painting that Brueghel II did not, an opening in which circumstance and opportunity would have played a part, but for which Seghers own subjective responses to his subjects and medium would also have been significant. Jan Davidz de Heem (1606-84), born in Utrecht and trained in Leiden, later moved to Antwerp where it seems, he emulated Seghers’ style of floral still lifes. In this already receptive and competitive environment, de Heem’s bouquets expanded beyond Seghers’ compositions, their baroque repertoire of dramatic and flourishing forms extending into the viewers’ space in ways that the religious Seghers might never have intended. Here we see one artist learning from another through copying and imitation, a process after which a particularly gifted artist would push the boundaries imposed by convention and open up his practice to new interpretation, extending the genre in the process. Such an account of the past also recognizes that the genre of still life was subject to change in much the same way as any other art form, and that it too was complicit in ideas of progress from which it was often excluded in art writing.
The most illustrious artists, Jan Brueghel the elder or Pieter Paul Rubens for example, headed workshops with assistants whose painting they would ‘improve’ and refine prior to sale. In turn, these assistants might also be tasked with copying and adapting works to accommodate the preferences of collectors. As demand for still life paintings grew, and prices came down, lesser artists often reverted to formulaic composition and poor handling of their materials. Masters of the genre, however, perhaps egged on by well-informed patrons and the lure of rich returns, continued to outperform one another with skill, size, exotic objects, and ‘tipping points’ that reached audaciously for the limits of invention. In the works of de Heem, Abraham van Beyeren (1620-1690), and Jan van Huysum (1682-1749) still life became a series of performances of tumbling objects, slippery fish, or wayward flowers. The profusion of still life painting that followed them in later centuries, testifies to the coherence of a genre previously honed to varieties of specialist perfection.
This raises questions of what might be similar and different in contemporary art now, and where these methods have migrated to, if anywhere, and what remains to be uncovered and recovered by contemporary artists? And, crucially, what might be available to contemporary artists in these works that was not available at the time of its making? Mieke Bal states:
Contemporary art appropriates from baroque art to re-invigorate issues that were certainly present in this historical other but not necessarily with the same emphasis and under the same premises. (1999: 29)
What distinguishes the historical genre of still life from other genres is that, almost without exception, it eschews explicit figurative, narrative, religious or historical content. A notable exception mentioned by Celeste Brusati is the occasional reflection of an artist in the depiction of highly polished objects (1990: 168-182). Such still life painting generally mirrors changing orders and attitudes to things without their owners being present. Whatever period it is painted in, and whatever its subjects, still life painting cannot be encountered other than as a manifestation of its own time in the time of another. This genre of still life is arguably more open to interpretation by later artists and viewers than any other. It is the absence of specificity and the presence of ambiguity, of time, space, or invites our scoping, contemplation, association and conversation across time.
Still Life: Contemporary Strategies
Contemporary art coexists with historical still life and engages with it in interpretive realms such as the poetic, ironic, semiotic, phenomenological and playful. Dawn Woolley states: ‘I read the paintings from a phenomenological perspective, so I think about what my experience of looking at them is’ (2014: 92). Contemporary artists are not bound by historical conventions of still life, but they do acknowledge them for without them, ambiguity and irony, appropriation and reference, would not be possible. Instead they explore, interrogate and challenge them. Contemporary artists act as mediators between the contemporary, the recent, and the historical. At their most effective, contemporary artists can unsettle our looking at historical still life. Here I set out some of the key methods and modes that are used to do this:
Copying and reproduction – Copying is frequently ironic in contemporary art. Given that there is no longer a need to copy by hand, it comes with a certain pointlessness and vacuity into which the artist must pour new significance. Digital reproduction of images, on the other hand, opens up the infinite potential of repetition and alteration, compilation and construction. However, Emma Bennett, inverts this principle by working painting from historical print reproductions of still life paintings, the sort to be found in old book illustrations and postcards.
Analogy, allusion and ambiguity – These are methods of suggestion that contemporary artists’ employ in order to play with perceptions of similarity, affinity, uncertainty and uncanniness. They rely on compensation and association by the viewer.
Appropriation and quotation – The armory of the postmodernist artist includes lifting, stealing, borrowing, bricollage with which to reference art of the past. To appropriate and quote is not to simulate or copy. As Alan Salisbury appreciates, ironic appropriation unsettles the habits of art history, memory, value and context.
Reassembling, recasting, restaging – This might be the painted or photographed reconstruction of an historical still life using models made with contemporary materials, such as William Daniels (1976-) has done. Alternatively it might be an imagined remix of elements conceived of in the act of making. Such re-imaginings invoke more than the original image, they change its meaning, its context, its materiality and more.
Conversation and curation – Forms of conversation undertaken between artist, curator and artworks are not necessarily verbal but intuitive, poetic and affective. Conversation implies an open-ended process of give and take, exchanges in which what is exchanged is never fully understood or interpreted thus creating residual traces and limitless excess for a return in the future. Conversation is an inter-medial process that creates bonds and possibilities, but also uncertainties. What has been exchanged resides from that moment on in our understanding of the historical and contemporary artwork each of which is changed by the encounter, as is their capacity to bring about new conversation and curation.
In the exhibition All Coherence Gone? it was possible to see how certain contemporary artists had revisited and expanded the historical genre of still life through the use of recent material and digital innovations, ways of seeing and organizing images. When taken together, it was clear that the artists’ methods and modes of working had enabled them to retrieve, resurrect, reconfigure, re-imagine, remix, re-interpret and reinvent still life of the past in a remarkable range of new images. In the course of the exhibition it also became evident that the ongoing coherence of the tradition, though often challenged and re-cast, continues to offer up potential for interpretation.
Curating the Exhibition
The curation of this exhibition was intended as an extension and an outcome of the conversations I had been having with artists, historians and the gallery curator. My aim was to create the conditions in which mediated conversations between artworks could take place, artworks that had arisen out of conversations with historical still life. During the course of the project I became also became more aware of my own preferences and prejudices and how they had informed my curatorial decisions, as well as my selection of works. To cite an example, I became very interested in the risks that Clare Chapman was taking with the nature of objecthood (fig. 2). Her seemingly endless exploration in one painting after another of the same unidentifiable object expanded my understanding of what was possible at the very edge of the genre. As Chapman states: ‘my paintings are fundamentally abstract things, but they are still life’ (Woodley, 2014: 50). In the exhibition, even more so than in the studio, her paintings resonated with tension as their squeamishness inducing hue and blur were challenged by the huge, voluptuous and hedonistic floral photographs by Margriet Smulders that I had placed on the adjacent wall next to hers (fig. 10). Both artists’ works hung there in stark contrast to the monochromatic and absurdist little still life paintings by Piet Groenendijk that were hung opposite them, and whose quiet idiosyncrasy was their only defense against this onslaught of colour (fig. 5). Artworks have very different things to say when in different company, and here, it seemed that the still lifes of Goya, Chardin, van Huysum, Claesz and Magritte were also circulating in this unconventional conversation, each having had a part to play in the making of these more recent artworks. I was aware that it was through my mediation as curator that these particular conversations had become clear to me, and hopefully, to others.
The contemporary paintings and photographs that hung in the exhibition acknowledged a tradition of still life practice that, as I have indicated earlier, appears as having been remarkably coherent over time. In general terms this coherence exists because of a continuing three-way conversation between an artist, their artwork and the art that precedes it. Conversation, however, includes many unorthodox forms of dialogue and exchange and can just as well be non-verbal, intuitive, and unpredictable. Such conversation is open-ended and full with creative potential. It inhibits the tacit and passive acceptance of still life’s conventions and instead unsettles and transforms them. Such conversations are highly personal and subjective and depend on openness to suggestion and an anticipation of transformation.
Gadamer’s writing on the ‘hermeneutic circle’ suggests that interpretation not only brings about transformation of past art into new forms, but ‘the interplay of the movement of tradition and the movement of the interpreter’ (2006: 293). As this exhibition has exemplified, past art can itself be transformed in the process. After encountering a contemporary interpretation of a historical image or convention, historical art is itself transformed at our next encounter.
Here is a case in point. Our previous understanding of a game still life by Jan Weenix (1640/9-1719) several of which depict hanging finches and other small birds, is transformed by our encounter with Emma Bennett’s Hollowed (Unhallowed) (fig. 1), in which a pair of such tiny birds are depicted as though hanging in an abyss. Such a visual encounter, in which an historical original is suspected, even recognized, makes the first experience of that original unrecoverable. It is changed forever by its contemporary interpretation. As Gadamer states in his discussion of play in art:
Transformation means that something is suddenly and as a whole something else, that this other transformed thing that it has become is its true being, in comparison with which its earlier being is nil (2006: 111).
Conversation is also an important method and metaphor for what happens when a contemporary artist engages with historical still life painting in their search to create new worlds. Monika Szewczyk writes:
… if, as an art, conversation is the creation of worlds, we could say that to choose to have a conversation with someone is to admit them into the field where worlds are constructed (2009).
The traces of such conversations surface in contemporary artwork and in conversations with its creators. In a question to Emma Bennett that concerned the visual disruption she had created between what were otherwise appropriations fromtraditional still life paintings in Hollowed (fig. 1) she replied:
The other thing the pour does, well it does lots of things. It’s chaotic, it adds that chance and lack of order, but they’re very controlled pours because I’ve done them for years but they’re very fast, they happen in a moment, they’re very much to do with exactly how you are in that moment. And they disrupt what’s gone before and then you have to respond to what they’ve given you so they sort of change the pace of the painting. They make the change, they make the dialogue in the painting very much alive. (Woodley, 2014: 68)
The difference between conversation and appropriation is that conversation is an open-ended engagement with the historical artwork, whilst appropriation is resistant to interpretation other than what the artist ascribes to it after appropriation. Conversation is open to the historical artwork’s affect and to the potential to affect it in return; it is built on irresolution and suggestion, fluidity and ambiguity. Appropriation is closed to such conversation. Bennett’s painting plays with the tension created when her appropriation is challenged by her intuitive gesture. As she has said, she understands this process as dialogue.
Krista van der Niet’s Flinders (fig. 11), though an appropriation, or perhaps an approximation, of Balthasar van der Ast’s Still Life with Fruit and Flowers (1620-21), is at the same time open to its painterly qualities, making her photograph similarly delicate and affective. In contrast David Gould’s conversations with historical artworks tend to recall, rather than appropriate, such qualities: ‘there’s that classic sort of Rembrandt quality, the pile of leather-bound books. … That interests me, the subtleties of those kinds of colours’ (Woodley, 2014. 44) (fig. 3).
No conversation between works of art can take place without the presence of a viewer or the intervention of an artist or a writer. And, the open-endedness of transhistorical conversation cannot be perpetuated into the future without the continuing interactions of participants and interpreters. Crucially, the contemporary artist must be participant, mediator and interpreter in their conversations with the past.
Such exchanges between contemporary and historical artworks challenge Barthes’ idea of historical art being in an ‘eternal state of suspension’ or ‘an infinite postponement of history’ (Barthes, 2000: 11). My research indicates that by throwing down bridges to the past and being open to the contingency of conversation, it is possible to claim new understandings and creative outcomes from these encounters. The historical still life is thus reclaimed and made dynamic again, whilst both are extended beyond their own time and place.
In this final section I consider the genre of still life: genre as a world, the excess of the genre, and the historical genre as a space of creative potential.
The genre of still life is a world that artists’ imaginations can inhabit, test and transgress. Its boundaries have often been guarded, and occasionally breached as is happening in contemporary art today. Barthes wrote of seventeenth century Dutch still life that it was ‘a substantive world of man, an adjectival world of things’ (Barthes, 2000: 10). Its traditionally descriptive style may make its objects appear familiar to us, historical still life remains a product of its own time, whilst existing in ours. Though transhistorical, traditional still life is not atemporal. So what is it then that changes over time and makes it open to interpretation? Alois Riegl wrote in 1901:
Art does not evolve with reference to the objects of nature as such, since these have always remained the same, but to the way in which people wanted to see the objects of nature reproduced (2009: 3).
The historical genre of still life holds within it an excess, something beyond description, that is attractive to certain contemporary artists. The excess of historical still life is that which may be hidden, invisible or uninterpretable at the time of making or in other forms of encounter or analysis, such as academic research, restoration or critical writing. My reading of Gadamer and Bal also leads me to think that this excess is likely to be manifested to each of us in different ways depending on our own subjectivity, openness and prior experience. Thus, it follows that in the contemporary art that was exhibited here I was able to see an afterlife of the historical at play in the contemporary in ways that artists of the past could not have foreseen.
Mikhail Bakhtin goes further than this. He argues that estrangement is necessary to new ways of understanding:
It is only in the eyes of another culture that foreign culture reveals itself fully and profoundly [to] engage in a kind of dialogue which surmounts the closedness and one-sidedness of these particular meanings, these cultures. We raise new questions for a foreign culture, ones that it did not raise for itself; we seek answers to our own questions in it; and the foreign culture responds to us by revealing to us its new aspects and new semantic depths (1986:7).
Whilst we can view, converse with, and interpret historical still life painting with the benefit of hindsight, a contemporaneous understanding eludes us and this causes our estrangement from them. This estrangement, in turn, contributes to the excess that the contemporary artist seeks out, works with, and makes visible.
Excess is ambiguous, un-nameable, unresolved, suggestive, and unsettling and so is full of potential. It is here that the breaches of meaning and sense become productive. So, whilst we may seek out conversation with historical still life, we are both hindered and encouraged by our estrangement. Furthermore, whilst our own individual prejudices, memory and experience are employed to reveal the potential of this excess they also blind us to other interpretive possibilities. When we encounter a historical still life for the first time we are helped to understand it by a museum label, a website, an art history book perhaps, and having had it explained we then become conscious of it, and may even recognize it transformed in a contemporary artwork like Bennett’s. Little wonder then, that on our return the original too is transformed, made ungraspable again and demanding of our renewed attention.
When looked at in these ways the genre of still life seems less an imposition of a convention than the means by which new worlds are opened. The genre keeps within in its porous boundaries the past, the present and the potential for its own future. But art and culture are always contingent, and though the case is strong for continuity and coherence, there is no way of knowing whether the fast-paced development in visual technologies and wider cultural change may yet make historical still life so unfamiliar to us that it becomes beyond conversation. For now it seems likely, though not certain, that artists will be able to converse with the genre of still life in the future. It might be argued that the very existence of the genre stands as a guarantee of it. But those future conversations will be also be very different to ours, most poignantly because what is now considered contemporary will itself become historical and require future artists’ conversations to revitalize it.
To conclude, it is inconceivable that still life artists of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries could have anticipated the nature of the conversations and transformations that recent artists would bring to their paintings. Yet there is no doubt that the seductive and scopic nature of their exquisite depictions, have undoubtedly worked as highly affective catalysts on recent artists’ imaginations.
The paradox is that the historical still life though familiar to us with regard to many of the objects it depicts, and its ubiquity in many museum collections, is also somewhat alien to us. And though it is true that these pictures have been revealed by critical historical research, connoisseurship, ekphrasis and curatorship, it is also the case that the interpretations that contemporary art can bring them is often overlooked. Mieke Bal’s Quoting Caravaggio: Contemporary Art, Preposterous History (1999) is a notable exception to this. The past and present have the opportunity to transform each other here. Rather than being an art historical notion of an unbroken tradition, this coherent genre holds within itself the potential for endless interconnected conversations between contemporary and historical art in the dynamics of its practice, its anticipations of a future, and in its moment of looking back in reflection.
If Szewczyk can write that ‘conversation is the creation of worlds,’ then the genre of still life is one of those worlds to which we can bring our own, and with which trans-historical conversation and transformation can take place in the making of new art.
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