Still-life paintings at the Bernard Jacobson Gallery, London – extended into January 2022.
By ANTHONY HOWELL.
‘STILL LIFE’ – THE term prompts a fit of despondency. If anything can be dull, this genre can be. The two words joined together seem almost an oxymoron. Surely the essence of life is its liveliness? They suggest a view peculiar to the English, inured as they are to the dullness of tea and dreary afternoons when the phone just sits there doing buggar-all. It would seem a mistranslation of nature morte – the French term – and closer to the German stillleben. But the French words reference memento mori, which I consider to be part of the history of this kind of painting: worms tunnelling out of apples, ivy wending its way out of the eye-sockets of skulls. It suggests a grotesque aspect, conveyed through adept eye-fooling – the painter showing off a mastery of trompe l’oeil as well as the wealth of some patron. Still-life paintings in the past often celebrated wealth as often as they referenced death, depicting half-peeled lemons, objects that gleam, helmets and silver chalices, items that were notorious in the sense that they were difficult to paint. So it’s a genre that all too easily celebrates the artist as a show-off.
That said, there is a show of Georges Braque’s still-life paintings at the Bernard Jacobson Gallery in Duke Street Saint James’s. And I travelled to see it, wondering how on earth Braque would manage to overcome the cliché that ‘still life’ represents for me. As we waited, under the earth, in some station, for the service to regulate itself, I mused about who in the twentieth century had managed to rejuvenate the notion of assembling objects to exercise a skill in depicting them. Cezanne died in 1906, so that rules him out to my mind, and besides, I feel about Cezanne as I do about Botticelli – that is, I can’t feel much. I overdosed on Botticelli in my adolescence, and on Cezanne in my early twenties. Few admit to the destructive force of overdosing in art and literature – but as a deterrent to looking it is actually pretty effective. Sure you can paint apples that really give one the impression that these apples are there, ripe, ready to eat, but so what? You can’t. It’s the same problem with those plums of William Carlos Williams, and this is just to say, hear a poem quoted too often and it feels like its plums are being rammed down your throat.
Three or four names had come to mind by the time the doors slid together and we’d moved on. William Nicholson was one. The Lustre Bowl with Green Peas, painted in 1911 demonstrates how strong this artist was, despite labouring under the shadow of Ben, his far more modernist son. A black background, an object that gleams, and a few peas breaking out of their mangetout pods. This work takes the figurative problem down to its bare essentials, a revolutionary simplification in its way, despite the figurative concern being in itself disparaged by all those modernists and their support rarin’ to go. Today this painting looks revolutionary in its adherence to its own imperatives, bucking the trend towards abstraction per se, while composed entirely of its traditional yet abstract values. Of course one can always cite precedents for innovation – some of the pared-down still lifes of Spanish renaissance art, for instance. Nevertheless, the Nicholson canvas is striking, a display of sheer technique which instils a sense of dedication, for me at least, rather than of exhibitionism. His paintings of Miss Jekyll’s Gardening Boots and of Miss Simpson’s Boots may have been lifted from Van Gogh, but that is just how a genre gets rejuvenated – one innovation being recognised for what it is and taken further by another artist. Sometimes, in other works, you can feel William Nicholson struggling with the assemblies of objects viewed from above which so preoccupied the modernists, but in his best still lifes it is the deck-clearing, the rigour of just two entities being focused upon, maybe even just one, which drives the artist’s work towards an unrivalled intensity.
Morandi has to be acknowledged here. I have spent ages considering his work, and yet I have never ODed on it. His mysterious groupings of boxes, vases, bottles, executed without the high-class virtuosity so treasured by the trompe l’oeil exponent, bring painting to the fore. Morandi himself speaks of the matière that characterises the work of Chardin, and it is this, the texture of the painting that causes the eye to linger, and, as it lingers, we dream or we ask questions. This object hides the contours of the object behind it, so that object at the rear becomes a matter for conjecture. Ambivalence and ambiguity seem the very subject matter. How can all those objects actually balance on the top of that frail table, a top which seems tilted in our favour? I very much admire Morandi’s landscapes as well as his still lifes, but what is interesting about his doing so many of the latter is that he explores a multiplicity of ways of going about it – from the metaphysical, almost in the style of De Chirico, to gatherings which suggest a family arranging themselves before a wedding photographer, or to austere blocks of objects that can only be considered in a sculptural way. But it’s clear that Morandi’s contribution to the twentieth century’s view is undisputed.
Then the name of Jane Freilicher comes to mind as I recall that the first time I encountered her work was when visiting John Ashbery in New York, and there was her marvellous canvas The Painting Table – completed in 1954. Nothing here has been assembled. The painting table is how it is, painted as found. In other works, it feels as if styles have been juxtaposed, one object painted by a modernist, another by an impressionist, so an element of collage is there, although nothing seems actually to be collaged. Or the still life may be painted against a window, opening onto a landscape in the Hamptons – reminding us of how in the wall paintings of Pompeii bowls of fruit and loaves called Xenias might be painted in front of illusory windows. Such windows suggested the land of the dead, and these were offerings: painted offerings you contemplated as you feasted on the take-away brought into you from the corner-shop by your slave (Roman houses had few kitchens). Yet in Freilicher’s work, one senses that the bowl of flowers is actually there, as the landscape behind it is, along with the canvas propped against the window and resting on the floor, along with the spaniel curled up asleep on the low table next to the table with the flowers. It is just how things happened to be on one particular day. Maybe it’s not quite the case – but that is what is being suggested.
When I get to the gallery, I realise that it is difficult to simply “look” at Braque in the twenty-twenties. I try to divest myself of the paraphernalia of knowing, to let go of what I ought to think, with reference to cubism, and to the art-feuds of the twentieth century. Those feuds are no longer mine. I can appreciate an Algernon Newton as much as a Ben Nicholson. I smile to myself as I think of Mark Tansey’s The Innocent Eye Test – which shows academicians introducing a cow to a life-sized painting of a cow. I’m not a lemon looking at a lemon (lemons don’t have eyes). I am a creative person looking at the work of another creative individual.
One thing I notice is that some of these canvases are panoramic in terms of their horizontal length. These remind me of a stave of music, except that they can be read from right to left as well as from left to right. A brown base-theme is encroached upon by green then white, then a softer green intermingled with yellow then darkness and white again, and then we return to the brown. So it strikes me as musical painting. As a friend remarked, nothing looks particularly edible, so it’s not about conveying reality – as expressed by the juiciness of a fruit, or the sugary quality of a preserved fruit on the compotier.
Next, a painting which is a square projects darkness. The inclination is to read darkness as an emotional state, but then, perhaps this is a still-life painted at night – a night in which the objects need to be felt in order to be recognised: a sheet of music, a vase, apples maybe, the ghost of a pattern on the wall-paper. I am intrigued by the notion of someone painting what is hard to see. Yes, it is my subjective take, but the ambivalent shapes in their darkness encourage me to make my own projection. My mind is prompted into activity by the work. Alan Renton, discussing film-theory, once suggested a difference between a film which is a spectacle, encouraging you to sit back passively and just take it in, and a film which is more concerned with the materiality of its medium, a film with which the viewer enters into a dialogue. Braque’s work is not a spectacle: it is material painting, concerned with its own making, and to engage with it is to enter into a dialogue with its surface, with its marks, with its drips.
Braque brings a graphic element into the development of this genre, a sense of collage, of already printed textures, a wallpaper swatch, perhaps a newspaper headline, and an advertisement for glacée fruits rather than the fruit itself. This introduces a fictive quality which, when expressed in visual terms releases the imagination and makes for poetry.
Perhaps the painting which strikes me most in this show is a painting simply of plums. It’s a richly dark triangle, and it prompts sexual thoughts in me. A muff of plums: a mauve to purple agglomeration of globes secreting deeper darkness in the curves where they rub together. These are separated by what might be a white table-cloth from the brown darkness of a wooden wall. So here we have two darknesses, subtly different from each other – a brown darkness and a mauve darkness, mediated by greenery. In one sense, this painting is clearly figurative, and on another level it is pure abstraction. Out of this polarity, I feel free to make what I can out of it.
There’s a very good catalogue to this show, full of illustrations, and at the gallery I also picked up a little book called Georges Braque: a methodical adventure – written by Pierre Reverdy and ably translated by Andrew Joron and Rose Vekony. It is published by John Yau at Black Square Editions – which I appreciate because I have just been reading John Yau’s Hyperallergic review ‘Paintings Rather than Pictures‘ – which discusses a show of Jane Freilicher and Thomas Nozkowski called True Fictions in New York. Serendipity – considering my meditation on the Victoria Line earlier.
Reverdy asserts that today (and his ‘today’ was some time ago now),
The painter, like the poet, is obliged to forge his own language. Whether he wants to or not. And he pursues his venture all alone, without support from an artistic doctrine whose boundaries have been firmly established. Only fools believe that this is easier or more pleasant. When a painter as aware as Braque says: the aim of art is to disturb – to disturb and not to move – should we believe that to be a free and easy paradox?
Reverdy also makes this insightful remark that arts journos should treat with due consideration:
After all, the aim of painting has always been, and has never ceased to be, to captivate the eye rather than loosen the tongue.’
Taking this to heart, I will allow Georges Braque himself to conclude, as quoted in the catalogue:
Objects do not exist for me except in so far as a rapport exists between them, and between them and myself. When one attains this harmony, one reaches a sort of intellectual non-existence…which makes everything possible and right. Life then becomes a perpetual revelation. That is true poetry.’1
Anthony Howell, a former dancer with the Royal Ballet, was founder of The Theatre of Mistakes and performed solo at the Hayward Gallery and at the Sydney Biennale. His articles on visual art, dance, performance, and poetry have appeared in many publications including Art Monthly, The London Magazine, Harpers & Queen, The Times Literary Supplement. He is a contributing editor of The Fortnightly Review. In 2001 he received a LADA bursary to study the tango in Buenos Aires and now teaches the dance at his studio/gallery The Room in Tottenham Hale. He is the author of a seminal textbook, The Analysis of Performance Art: A Guide to Its Theory and Practice. Details about his collaborative project, Grey Suit Online, are here. In 2019, his exploration of psychic chaos, Multilation (with Consciouness), was published by the Fortnightly’s imprint, Odd Volumes. His latest collection is From Inside (The High Window).