Contemplating Still Life, part 2

Lately, I’ve known what my next project is going to be well before I finish the one I’m working on. But Christmas took everything I got, and now with the down time, I feel the need to start again.

I’ll probably repeat myself through my posts, but journaling has become an important part of the process. It’s a clearinghouse, a dumping ground for the day-to-day for one thing. Sometimes you can just take the energy of it away. It’s a pretty loose system. No time limit or requirements. If. want to write about the weather I will, and I do. But if. need to et to work, I will start with it in the journal. What is holding me back, what do I need to think about, explore, fears, worries, what have you.

Today after merely recording what had happened, I was thinking about what I want to do next. I was exploring my most recent project, but felt I needed to go inward again. And for some reason it got me thinking of a short film I want to make, an why, not having written the story I was inspired by, why I thought I could tell this particular story. That film needs a budget, I can’t do it alone. So how could i communicate that same… feeling, for lack of a better word in a still? Without going into details it was about loss and grief. Words like poignant and bereft came to mind. And in like so of my earlier work (The Suitcase – did I title that work that way) in particular, I needed to do some discovery on what my personal signifiers were for that.

And as I was tapping into those feeling and writing in my journal, I looked at the pears in front of me. And I suddenly understood 17th century still life painting in a way I hadn’t before. This is just a quick snap from my iphone, of the very pears themselves.

Phone snapped just the paint a picture (pun intended).

I lost my husband to cancer 15 years ago while my eldest was a toddler, and the youngest still a baby. It’s not difficult to tap into that loss. It’s a big loss, was an overwhelming one. I watched him die over a period of excruciating months, was with him at the moment of death, knew it was coming, even within the last 24 hours, and yet was still surprised when it happened. And yet still left wondering after, where did he go? How could he be here, and then so very not? And the bigness of it was not just checked off with sadness and tears. I literally did not know what to do.

I looked at those pears and suddenly understood the life of it. The poignancy of it. Plucked from a tree, when it should have promised more life, there it was ready to be eaten or decay. Life is fleeting. Death not discerning. Why him, why so young? Why when we needed him so? Questions so predictable they should be mundane and yet we never ever experience them this way.

I have done a little still life before when I was exploring the technique of light painting (you keep the shutter open, and literally paint the light on with a variety of sweeps or whatever your technique is). I did an interesting one with a rusty vise. And this one of cherries was another, and really more about my obsession with the silver than the cherries although certainly an acknowledgment of my art history studies.

Still Life Silver Bowl of Cherries

But there they were. The pears, probably a foot or two right in front of me, if I looked up from my writing their they were.

How would you look upon these promises of life picked for our table in grief? How would you look at them with only them to console you, to speak to you. The pointlessness of death. It’s arbitrariness. Your inability to control it. It’s an inevitability. The preciousness of life. My goodness. I thought it was just artfully arranged and painted fruit and stuff.

Life and Death

But in the 17th century, I imagine death was a much bigger part of your day to day life than it is for us now. People more frequently died long before old age. They died from disease and plagues, and childbirth. You probably would have been lucky if all your children survived into adulthood. It would have always been around you. You lived with it with the full knowledge it could be coming any time for you. There would have been no hospitals with visiting hours to shield you or take the burden from you. And pain. Pain of the things that ailed you, of cavities, of treatments that didn’t work.

The threat of loss would have been a daily part of your life. You would have been more in fear, more superstitious, much more willing to do a deal with the spiritual world. And there they were these fruit, these flowers, in their still lives, how poignant it is that a painting can capture their beauty, that moment in time before they are claimed, us having snatched away the possibility of living an eternal life through their progeny.

In other words, a still-life was more than a pretty picture. From my classes in art history I knew that still-life painting represented life and its fleeting quality, of course. That’s why it is so often about things that are or were alive. But it seemed almost as if this was a justification for why it should be seen as worth painting. It’s about life, okay? Big meaning. Okay. But it was an intellectual understanding. While I appreciate the craft of the painting (in particular the silver and reflections), it, dare I say it, seemed little more than decorative art made important by history.

But communing with the pears this morning, with a heart newly full of old loss, I don’t know if I will see another still life painting again in the same way. I don’t think I’ll see it quite without the knowledge of the pain and recognition of beauty again that those paintings must have evoked in those that gazed upon them.

I’ll admit they did not have the black taped together foam core behind them when I was looking at them, but trust me, it’s better this way, cracks in the foam core and all.

Clearly, my phone snapped pears do not do the actual art justice. Below are just a few.

Not all still life paintings have these dark backgrounds, but many of them do, or have what I can only describe as sobering colors. Was it just a matter of making the fruit or flowers stand out? Or does it reflect life and death, too? What did the artists think about as they painted these? (And if you thought all old paintings were painted by men back then, a couple of these are female painters).

Fede Galizia - Cherries in a silver compote with crabapples
Fede Gallizia, (1578–1630), Cherries in a silver compote with crabapples on a stone ledge

Fede Galizia, (1578–1630), Maiolica Basket of Fruit (c. 1610), private collection
Giovanni Ambrogio Figino - Teller mit Pfirsichen
Giovanni Ambrogio Figino,  Metal Plate with Peaches and Vine Leaves (1591–94)
Giovanna Garzoni (Italian) - Still Life with Bowl of Citrons - Google Art Project
Giovanna Garzoni (1600–1670), Still Life with Bowl of Citrons (1640)

I am not further ahead with what my next project is, other than to remind myself that the journey must go inward for it to be more than just craft, for it to be worthy of the artist if nothing else. I have lots to draw from. But it might not be still life. Not just yet. We need to eat those pears.