Exercise: Research twentieth-century still life

Still life took on renewed vitality in the twentieth century. Look at the work of Matisse and the Expressionists, for example. Research how the Cubists also explored new ways of painting objects by treating them as faceted volumes or fragmenting their appearance and reconstructing them from several different points of view. With the exception of some Synthetic Cubist works, early twentieth-century artists still portrayed objects in ways that suggested their individual histories. For example, Picasso’s mixed media sculpture, A Glass of Absinthe, included an actual spoon, which feels as if it had been taken straight from the table of a Parisian café. By the 1960s, however, Pop artists were beginning to portray soup cans and cleaning products in their pristine packaging as anonymous cyphers of modern life.
Make notes in your learning log about the artist’s choice of subject. If you can, find out what the artist had to say about their choice. Does this sort of image qualify as ‘still life’? If not, why not? What, if any, are the criteria for still life? (course notes, p146)

The tate defines Still life as ‘essentially, the subject matter of a still life painting or sculpture is anything that does not move or is dead’ (Tate Glossary, 2017).

Matisse here chooses quite traditional items for his still life, some pots and a bowl of fruit, all on an extrodinary blue table cloth, which he’s used in other paintings as a less central element. The point I think was not the items so much as the treatment of the panting, ie the bold colours and handling, trying to claw out from under the weight of Impressionism going on at the time choosing a simple set of traditional items and treating it differently creates a different focus to the art.

Henri Matisse
Still life with Blue Tablecloth 1909
Oil on canvas. 88.5 x 116 cm
France. 1909
© The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg

Similarly with the Cubists, focus was not really on the objects and dipicting them traditionally but on new ways to treat and old, easy at hand subject. Picasso & Braque started making relief constructions in 1912, which extended traditional still life painting into three-dimensional space in his Analytical cubism phase. They invented collage. Use of pre-printed oil cloth such as the Chair Caning pattern and rope in this image below introduced commercially made parts as raw materials into fine art work rocking the art market and forcing the discussion over the importance of craft skills for artists. Here his still life comprises of a top down view onto a glass table with a smoking pipe, newspaper, glass, knife cutting an orange or lemon with the reflections of the glass table and looking thought to the chair caning of the chair below. The Cubist treatment does away with traditional use of colour, lighting and perspective to really bring a ‘modern’ feel to this traditional subject matter.

Pablo Picasso, Still Life with Chair Caning, 1912, oil on oil-cloth over canvas edged with rope, 29 x 37 cm (Musée Picasso)
Still Life 1914 Pablo Picasso 1881-1973 Purchased 1969 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/T01136

Still life, 1914 appears to depict a small sideboard, with a knife, a beer glass, two slices of sausage and a slice of cheese or pâté. This is paintings of the time, the subject is less important than emphasising the painting as an object in itself. He incorporated found objects (thanks Duchamp), here including real upholstery fringe representing a table edging.

Later in the century, Andy Warhol was clearly not just depicting this Hammer and Sickle for their own sake as handy things to have in a still life, dispite the title, they are clearly alluding to the the symbols of the industrial worker and the peasant used as the emblem of the former Soviet Union and of international communism, turned on its head.

Andy Warhol – Still Life, 1976, Acrylic and silkscreen on canvas, 182.9 x 218.4 cm, Gift of Richard and Peggy Danziger, 1986, Met Museum, © 2010 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Later, artists like Patrick Caulfield are back to using simple neutral items for formal experiments.

Coloured Still Life 1967 Patrick Caulfield 1936-2005 Presented by Rose and Chris Prater through the Institute of Contemporary Prints 1975 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/P04077


Golding, J. (1988) Cubism :a history and analysis 1907-1924. Harvard University press

Harrison, C & Wood, P (Ed.). (2003) Art in theory 1900-2000, an anthology of changing ideas. Blackwell publishing

Honour, H & Fleming, J. (2009) A World History of Art. (7th Ed), London, Laurence King Publishing

Khan Academy. (2017) Picasso, Still Life with Chair Caning At: https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/art-1010/early-abstraction/cubism/a/picasso-still-life-with-chair-caning
(Accessed on 12 July 17)

Tate. (2017) Pablo Picasso – Still Life 1914 At: http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/picasso-still-life-t01136
(Accessed on 12 July 17)

Tate Glossary. (2017) Still Life At: http://www.tate.org.uk/art/art-terms/s/still-life
(Accessed on 12 July 17)


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