Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Flemish Still Life: Feast for the Eyes and the Mind

Still-life with Peeled Lemon, Jan Davidsz. de HEEM

What a harvest is here in this still-life painting by the Flemish Baroque-period painter Jan Davidsz. de HEEM (1606-1684): a wooden table draped with a gold-fringed green velvet cloth, a glass of white wine and a cluster of white grapes hanging from a vine branch with large, veined leaves, a pewter dish supporting a peeled lemon, a cooked shrimp and a scattering of hazelnuts, behind which is a bowl full of strawberries and, to the left, a shucked oyster, and behind that, the handle of a knife.

But the painting's real essence is none of those things. Rather, it is this canvas's sombre atmosphere with its evocation of silence, luxury, stillness, and sensuous delight. The objects don't so much sit or stand as emerge from the enveloping dark.

Another still-life by De Heem. Note the snail slithering past the foreground oyster. (Ew!)

To step up the pleasure even more, most still-life paintings of this time period and geography contain a marvelous overlay of symbolic meanings. Present for original viewers who wished to read into them, each of the objects carried well-known associations accrued from their use in popular religious and moralist writings and sermons (the butterfly perched on top might suggest the soul, the fancy glassware and knife-handle signified preoccupation with material wealth, while strawberries and oysters pointed toward lust). Often the imagery preached a mini-sermon on the inevitability of mortality and the importance of looking after the upkeep of one's soul in preparation for the afterlife. So often is this the case that art historians refer to this type of painting as "vanitas" still life (for the theme of earthly "vanity," as in the Ecclesiastical "vanity, vanity, vanity, sayeth the preacher, all is vanity - vanitas omni est).

In this case, tiny details you can't see in this jpeg - the presence of various parasitic insects, wilting leaves, overripe or subtly rotting grapes, a worm-hole in one of the hazelnuts - remind the viewer of the transience of even the ripest, most luxuriant life in the material world.

Detail from a different Dutch still life.

Even without the symbolism, Old Master still life paintings from the Dutch and Flemish Schools continue to delight viewers. My own theory about why is not that they're so photographic-realistic, but that they're both hyper-realistic and super-artificial all at once.

The shadows are voluptuously exaggerated, the textures chosen and explored for their own sake, the colors carefully keyed to each other, and the multiple levels of reference constitute an unapologetic artifice right from the start. Further, the combination of the rich yet muted colors and the sparkling realism of the lights and textures captivates modern viewers on two delightfully divergent fronts - on one hand, we read the classically balanced composition and the harmonious, tonal palette as the artist's inventions, evidence of the artificial nature of art-making. Simultaneously, on the other hand, we read the exquisite details as the opposite - as convincing evidence of art's ability to render the real with supreme truth, to give us the wetness of water and the woodness of wood - it's there in the sparkling water droplets, the luminosity of the fruit, the nubbly (impasto) texture of the orange peel and the seduction of the velvet. Here is the Louvre's commentary on Still-Life with Peeled Lemon, (which I find rather masterful in its own way):

De Heem is a masterly painter of light and reflections, as seen here on the dish and glasses, or the droplets of water. Here, too, we see his virtuoso rendering of the fine, misty covering of bloom on the skin of the grapes, the veins of the vine leaves, and their infinite variations of color. The picture's thriving insect population, crawling around the fruit and other objects, creates a secondary world all of its own, waiting to be discovered upon close examination by the attentive viewer. A caterpillar climbs up the vine branch, which creates a striking diagonal across the upper part of the composition. A second butterfly has alighted at the end of the branch. A spider has made its home in one of the grapes and a hornet is making its way around the edge of the bowl of strawberries. These tiny living creatures may hold some residual symbolic significance – insects are traditionally associated with the concept of vanity (from the Latin vanitas), the transience and futility of earthly life. The same concept is expressed by the withered, diseased vine leaf, the rotten grape, or the small worm-hole in the hazelnut next to the lemon. Above all, these details testify to De Heem's supreme technique and visionary approach to still-life painting, his abilty to transform one corner of a dinner-table into a small, private universe.

Jan Davidsz. de Heem succeeds triumphantly in depicting the tactile values of his chosen objects, and their slow emergence from the penumbra of the picture's plain, dark green ground. An artist of remarkable distinction, he settled in the city of Antwerp, where the practice of still-life painting took a wide variety of forms – from the art of the greatest animal painters and masters of baroque still-life (such as Jan Fyt or Frans Snyders, who often collaborated with Rubens), to the more austere output of painters such as Jacob Fopsen van Es. Their diverse images depict a world of silence and apparent stillness, imbued with tiny signs of life, and touched by the immutable forces of time and decay.