Weekly musings on the arts and current events.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Still Life--an Oxymoron

Ancient Egyptians painted still lifes inside the tombs of the pharaohs: sustenance for their journeys to death. Familiar subjects for European artists were bowls of fly spotted fruit and tables laden with carcasses of rabbits and fowl, set in rooms with somber walls. Until the Impressionists, still life paintings tended to be unappetizing; they caution against gluttony and remind us that the life of the flesh is fleeting.

Still life, taken literally, must mean death--life gone still. The foods presented repel us and scold us for being creatures that feed upon living things. Food is not a temptation but a memento mori.

Or am I wrong? Has buying meat in plastic wrap rather than on the hoof made me squeamish? Did people of another age look at the oysters on this platter and salivate?

I confess, I look away when I see a still life. Even the cornucopias make me think of dying.

Willem Claesz Heda Still Life with Gilt Goblet (Netherlands, 1635)
Click on the picture for a closer look.


DUTA said...

It's a nice, comforting thought that painted items of daily use (food, beverages etc..) could turn real for the dead in afterlife.

Jo said...

Food was much more natural when these pictures were painted. I must admit, when I look at them, I see the life that sustains us rather than the stillness.

I watched a wonderful show called "Food of the Tudors" and it showed how they grew their food, hunted for it, prepared it. Many of their recipes took much longer to prepare, and some of them we still use today. But they were quite sophisticated. A roast was literally roasted on a spit over an open fire -- not baked in an oven like we do now. It took hours, and the kitchen boy would stand and turn the spit. Butter was formed into creations such as swans and other designs.

The Tudors would look at our supermarkets and say, "Okay, this is nice, now where is the food?"My son-in-law is a trained chef, and I love being in his kitchen when he is working. Everything he buys is fresh (sometimes the fish, lobster, etc. is still alive) and his kitchen work-island often looks like a Dutch still life painting.

It is folks in the 20th and 21st centuries who have sanitized the life out of food.

TallTchr said...

Yes, Jo, that's the dilemma. While we may discern symbols of death in these paintings (the hilt of a knife sticking out from beneath the tablecloth) it's difficult to look at the food itself with the same eyes as their original viewers. Thanks for the comment.

momcat said...

I didnt notice anything too disgusting on the table. I must admit amazement at the ability of an artist to capture the three dimensional aspect of the scene. Also one can see that a food stylist has been at work on the scene. Casually scattered oysters and half peeled orange. Notice the fold line on the cloth. No irons in those days. I dont frequent art galleries unfortunately but a painting such as this is a glimpse back into the past.

Paula Slade said...

Actually, I enjoy still life paintings. I view them simply as a moment in time that has been captured by the artist. For me, I wonder who sat at the table and did they enjoy the bounty? Did they leave the table in haste or were they satiated or intoxicated? All these things come to mind as I look at this picture.