Complexity and the Still Life
I’ve been thinking lately about what constitutes good still life, or at least the received wisdom about what constitutes good still life. Most of the still lifes in the canon of great art are fairly complicated, meaty paintings. The ideal seems to be creating deep layerings of textures, forms, light and shadow, and color families, resulting in brainy works that are in a sense “Painter’s Paintings”. Manet said somewhere that still life was the touchstone of painting, and many artists create real tour de force works in the genre. Fantin-Latour springs to mind, and of course the Dutch beat the pants off everyone.
I’ve been doing small and simple stills lately, and I’ve been realizing I have a subconscious prejudice against the value of such work… to be a good still life, it needs to be complicated… anything less than the layered complexity of Dutch still life falls short.
A few moments comtemplating the historical record proves this riduculous. Everybody loves the little goldfinch painting by Fabritius (I’ll sidestep the issue of including birds in still lifes), and then of course there’s Chardin. His larger stills fit the classical mold, and sit nicely next to the Dutch masters. But there seems to be another strain in his work, towards the much simpler and more intimate painting. Many of his smaller kitchen and food paintings demonstrate this particularly well… just 3 or 4 objects, rendered very simply and directly. This is not flashy art, but the effect is like a punch in the gut; undeniably immediate and powerful. His small paintings are some of his strongest work.
I’ve been taking this idea even further, to the point of creating small paintings of just one object. While in doing so, it’s possible to retain some of the still life ideals (single objects can have multiple planes/textures/color fields, etc), there is a sense in which it works differently. Rather than traditional still life, it becomes more of a “portrait of the object”. What they lack in complexity, done correctly they make up in real charm.
So… off to my studio to paint some more miniatures…