No doubt, when most people hear the words 'still life', the images that come to mind are of apples, pears, grapes and other fruit glistening in a bowl, with perhaps a vase of flowers on the side. Been there, done that, got the art class t-shirt. As an exhibition currently on display at the Old Town House in Cape Town suggests, however, this is only one aspect of a very complex art form.
The question posed in the title of the exhibition itself - "Is there Still Life? Continuity and change in South African Still Life painting" - implies an interrogation of recent and contemporary interpretations of the genre by local artists. But it also brings up the problem of definition: what is still life painting? What kind of painting can be included in or excluded from this category? The wide variety of works selected by curator Michael Godby would seem to endorse this problematisation: the subjects portrayed range from hospital equipment and kitchen utensils to rat traps and fighter jets, while the styles employed reveal realist, Impressionist and abstract influences.
Nevertheless, in the excellent catalogue that has been produced to accompany the exhibition, Godby ventures an explanation of what they all have in common: "There is a degree of artifice in Still Life subjects that is not necessarily present in the related genres of 'Interiors' or 'Studies' of individual objects ... the objects may be arranged to make a pleasing or challenging set of relationships between themselves and the space in which they are set. Or the arrangement may have been made in order to make symbolic connections between the different elements in some sort of narrative."
Both of these concerns are evident in a handful of seventeenth-century works that reflect the European tradition to which many of the twentieth-century South African artists on show have responded (it is doubly appropriate that they appear in this context, as the Old Town House is the permanent home of Iziko Museums of Cape Town's Michaelis Collection of Dutch Masters).
In Abraham van Beyeren's Still Life with a Nautilus Cup, for instance, a cornucopia of shellfish, fruit and other foods is intended to reflect the wealth of the patron who commissioned the painting; ironically, the larger 'narrative' here is the growing trade in Europe that placed pressure on land and resources and would, ultimately, lead to the colonial expansion of European powers - while van Beyeren was painting in Holland, Jan van Riebeeck was establishing a settlement at the Cape of Good Hope.
But, although still life painting can celebrate material success, it can also caution against it. Jacob van Els's Still Life with Plums and Carnations can be seen as part of a counter-tradition in Dutch painting that affirmed simplicity in reaction against such excess. Other works of the period contain the memento mori motif ('remember that you, too, will die'), often symbolised by a skull, and this 'death's head' resurfaces in two of the South African pieces: Robert Hodgins's A Conservative Still Life and Pieter Hugo's photograph In Tyrone Brand's Bedroom.
Moreover, as Godby points out, the tension between decadence and moral integrity is echoed in many of the South African artworks in the exhibition. "There can be no doubt that Still Life flourished in South Africa as a result of an increase in prosperity" for the middle and upper-middle classes from which most of the artists on display were drawn; yet, at the same time, "the choice of familiar domestic subject-matter, particularly around food and the table, and the evident joy with which it is rendered, suggests an ethical dimension." Artists such as Cecil Skotnes, May Hillhouse, Frieda Lock, Terence McCaw, Cecil Higgs and Jean Welz "appear to propose that contentment resides in the appreciation of modest, everyday things".
This notion of 'sufficiency' has been adapted by contemporary young artist Vivien Kohler, whose Basic Necessities presents in four panels the fundamental needs, or even rights - food, water, clothing, shelter - to which many South Africans still don't have access. In contrast, Penny Siopis's Piling Wreckage upon Wreckage shows hundreds of objects cluttering the scene. The painting dates to 1989 but offers a critical assessment of post-apartheid consumerism and also hints at environmental concerns.
This ecological critique is foregrounded in Simon Stone's Conservation, which shows a tray of discarded fishing weights presumably collected by the artist, hinting at the extent to which we are over-using our ocean resources. Having said this, although Stone is addressing the need for environmental awareness, by carefully gathering this fishing miscellany together and depicting it on canvas, he has in fact engaged in a different form of conservation: the conservation of 'things'.
An important element of still life painting is the celebration of objects, not because of the materialism of their owners, but because of their materiality - shapes, contours, textures and colours. Godby describes this process of acute observation with the twin phrases "seeing different things" and "seeing things differently".
Alternatively, there is the exercise of "seeing through things": a Platonic study of forms "that can induce a near meditative state" or, to take it further, an attempt to dissolve the physical world of objects in order to discern a "spiritual dimension". This is also the realm of the symbol. Paul Stopforth's painting of a hinge on the door to Nelson Mandela's cell on Robben Island can, through a chain of association, indicate "transcendence and thus the strength to triumph over physical restraints".
The familiarity of the subjects that are typically represented in still life paintings also facilitates formal innovation. It can be taken for granted that the viewer will recognise shapes such as bottles or wine glasses, which allows Nel Erasmus, for example, to experiment with a Cubist representation of these everyday items in Still Life with Bottles and Glass. This is equally true of Wolf Kibel's Impressionist Still Life, Erik Laubscher's abstract Still Life with Red Pear and even Henry Symonds' Cézanne Reconsidered and Abandoned. Godby also notes that still life emphasises the medium chosen by an artist; two works by Gregoire Boonzaier, although similar in composition and subject matter, differ greatly because one is a pastel on paper and the other an oil on canvas.
Novelty in artistic form came late to South Africa. In the early twentieth century, while the international art scene was ablaze with new stylistic approaches, most local artists were still imitating earlier European generations. This would change mid-century, just as the subjects depicted by both black and white still life painters acknowledged an 'African reality'. It began slowly: Irma Stern placing an African mask incongruously on top of the archetypal fruit bowl, or Gerard Sekoto combining Van Gogh's working-class iconography (a chair, a candle) with a copy of Peter Abrahams's Mine Boy to protest against the socio-economic difficulties facing migrant workers on the reef. Subsequently, Simon Lekgotha would produce a still life of a sangoma's paraphernalia in Divination Scene.
There is a more explicit political anxiety in two works by Willie Bester. One sets ordinary household items such as a paraffin lamp, matches and food against newspaper headlines and photographs describing the extraordinary and often turbulent transition to democracy in South Africa, while the second - specifically commissioned for this exhibition - has the standard plate with fruit but surrounds it by disturbing, violent (and apparently post-apartheid) images.
"This review appears courtesy of The Business Day Weekender"
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