In praise of Still Life

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Critics often say that still life paintings are a little uninspiring, an acquired taste, decorative yes, but a little dull. When compared to human subject matter and landscapes, still life ranks quite low in the pecking order of art forms.

My view is that still life art is more than just genre paintings, something pleasing to hang on your wall. So what is it about  the portrayal of some natural or man-made items that should make us reassess the impact of still life painting?

As an artist, and this is a technical standpoint, they are an exercise in looking once, and then looking again. For an artist it is the demand on the observation, the attention to composition and the arrangement of space and objects. The artist’s level of technical skill involves depicting colours, light, form and a response from the viewing experience. This experience could be anything. It could be realism, emotion or symbolism, but it depends on your style, your outlook and approach as an artist.

Still life paintings can be symbolic, as shown by many of the Dutch and Flemish 17th century painters. They would use books to represent knowledge, skulls to represent death and wine for pleasure. The still life painting would be bound up as an overall reminder for the viewer that we are all mortal and life is fragile. Known as ‘Momento Mori’ artwork (Latin for ‘Remember you must die’), http://www.tate.org.uk/art/art-terms/m/memento-mori and taken further with ‘Vanitas’ paintings http://www.tate.org.uk/art/art-terms/v/vanitas , they were a sort of visual cautionary tale that the pleasures and goods we pursued in our life were effectively worthless.

Obviously these paintings were symbolic, steeped in and framed by the strong influence of the church at the time. However, still life painting should act as a catalyst, making us look in more depth at the world around us. How many times do you watch TV, look at your mobile, answer a text while still talking to somebody? There is no focus on any of these things to any real extent, but that is how we seem to function these days. How many times have you walked to get somewhere, yet have no recollection of what you’ve really seen when walking? Do you really look at buildings, natural objects, people etc, other than a cursory glance?

Modern life has a bearing on how little we observe and really take time to look at something. Our attention span can be short on a variety of different issues. However, we know that many medical and technological innovations have come from somebody simply observing something in the first place. From really looking and understanding a problem or disease, a solution or medicine has been created. If we spend time really looking at something for more than a few seconds we can probably understand, appreciate and inform ourselves about what we have seen. May be our first impression was not entirely correct, may be we are not seeing the full picture!

Still life paintings take everyday objects we take for granted and show them in a new light. There might be symbolism, but the act of looking again is something we should probably try to practice in the outside world. In all this I’m not referring to spirituality or religion, but just the simple act of looking and observing. So the next time you see a still life painting, have a look, and may be later on see what’s around you in the real world. You might be surprised or look at things a little differently.