Still Life, Symbolism and Vanitas

Fig. 01 Watch from the series My Dad's Stuff - 1/60 at f/11, ISO 100

Fig. 01 Fob Watch from a series My Dad’s Stuff – 1/60 at f/11, ISO 100

Assignment 4 “Applying Lighting Techniques” initially appeared to offer a wide choice of subject and approach and I was considering the merits of building a series of photographs in the landscape, this led me to Edward Weston. However, my tutor had also suggested that II looked at Iriving Penn and this began to pull me further from Weston’s nudes in the landscape and towards Weston and Penn’s still lifes.

The more I looked at the photographs in Penn’s book Still Life *(11) the more I became interested in still life as a genre and, given Penn’s background in the fashion industry and his still life style, there is a natural progression from assignment 3 to 4 and this in itself is appealing.

Still life, as a photographic genre, makes its entrance nearly simultaneously with the “invention” of the medium. Liz Wells tells us, in Photography A Critical Introduction *(1), that Henry Fox Talbot and Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre both announced the process for making and fixing a photographic image in 1839 and it is notable that many of those earliest photographs are forms of still life. In 1839 Daguerre photographed Shells and Fossils *(2) and Fox Talbot sent a “Table Set for Tea” to his friend, the Italian naturalist, Antonio Bertoloni *(3).

There are no doubt many reasons for the genre’s early entry onto the stage, not least of which was the restrictions of the new technology calling for long exposures and still subjects, but it is also relevant that Henry Fox Talbot was a frustrated artist who referred to his invention as the “art of photogenic drawing” and who named the first photographically illustrated book “The Pencil of Nature”. According to Graham Clarke *(4) The Pencil of Nature “both predicted and set the terms of reference for the way photography was to viewed for much of the nineteenth century”. Fox Talbot saw photography in the context of painting, describing his techniques using the language of the existing visual arts and thought as a painter. From the outset Fox Talbot was in no doubt that photography was an art and that he was drawing “without any aid whatsoever from the artist’s pencil”.

So, from the outset, the new artists were thinking in the language of painters and as well as assuming the most obvious techniques such as compositional rules and lighting they started to use the same types of subjects and, perhaps most importantly, the same symbolism. In “The Open Door” 1844 Fox Talbot carefully constructs a scene containing positioned objects, even the “set” is manipulated to provide the effect he was seeking, the half open door, the backlit window, the twigs symmetrically crossed in the bottom corner. The photograph is as constructed as a painting, it is far from casual, far from capturing a chance moment.

Many of the early photographers were painters and many had enjoyed a formal education that would have included gaining an understanding of the great painters so it is not surprising that when they took up photography they came to the medium heavily laden with the baggage of fine art. Roger Fenton, who had studied painting before qualifying as a lawyer, made his name photographing great places and great people before turning to still life in the late 1850s. Still Life with Ivory Tankard and Fruit (1860) *(5) is one of his most famous works and as well as displaying his mastery of both technique and composition it reveals his roots as a fine artist by borrowing symbolism from the much earlier work of the Dutch artists. He includes the religious symbols of a chalice and bread, but the chalice is on its side suggesting consumption, there are grapes in the background suggesting Bacchanalian pleasures, over-ripe fruits suggesting that life is fleeting and the two ripe peaches have been associated with buttocks and the pleasures of the flesh.

This type of symbolism could be traced directly to the Dutch painters of the 17th century *(9) who used still life to communicate a religious, moral message in a style of painting known as “vanitas” from the quotation in the book of Ecclesiastes “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity”. The message of these paintings is not complex; live a better life, spurn the pleasures of the flesh in this life and focus your attention on the next. Their audience was offered repetitive symbols in paintings that, on face value, celebrated the wealth of a trading nation that was punching well above its weight in the 17th century with compositions built around an abundance of fruit, flowers, wine, imported goods and the fruits of the sea but often included snuffed candles, timepieces, books, musical instruments and human skulls.

The symbolism would have been understood by the wealthy residents of Amsterdam and Rotterdam in the the 1600s. Over-ripe fruit spoke of the brevity of life and if mixed with citrus suggested the sweet and sour nature of existence. Flowers symbolised the fragility of life, everything beautiful is short lived, beauty is transient, it decays. Skulls, more obviously, signified impending death whilst clocks and snuffed candles said “time flies”. Oysters, thought to be an aphrodisiac, represented sexual pleasures, an idea that could be underlined by the careful positioning of a knife. Books and musical instruments, expensive luxuries at the time, symbolised worldly pursuits. (A more comprehensive list of symbols can be found here)

The overall message was saying we are living in a rich and successful country with the fruits of the earth coming to our door but don’t get carried away as life is short, all these earthly pleasures are short-lived, focus your attention on the hereafter. The Gospel of Matthew 6:18-21 was at the heart of their thinking: “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” The obvious irony being that only the very rich could afford to commission such works of art.

The work of the vanitas painters, their predecessors and those that were influenced by them, can be viewed at another level all together *(10). In their day these were highly sought after pieces of art attracting the wealthiest patrons and some of the most accomplished artists of the time worked extensively in this field. The still lifes that have been preserved represent the work of highly skilled master technicians who were creating objects of great beauty. The Dutch prized flowers and wanted accurate and skilful renditions to brighten up dark winter evenings, the aristocrats wanted paintings that expressed the wealth of their country estates, the merchants wanted to show off their ability to import the rarest plants, fruits and objects from across the world. Many still lifes have no hidden message other than the artists’ delight in form, colour and texture and, more prosaically, market forces.

Photographers not only adopted the genre they often adopted the symbolism and we can see the same symbols repeated by Roger Fenton in the 1860s, Edward Weston in the 1920s and 30s, Irving Penn in the 50s and 60s right up to Ori Gersht in recent years. This lineage is intriguing and we can see a clear connection between Caravaggio’s “A Basket of Fruit” *(6) painted around 1599 and Ori Gersht’s Pomegranate *(7) in 2006, despite there being over 400 years between the two.

This connection is exciting and continues to be exploited by contemporary photographers but we are not restricted to the symbolism of the 16th and 17th centuries or the interpretations of the 19th century. Mat Collinshaw, a British photographer born in Nottingham in 1966, whose work spans many genres published a small set of still life images in 1994 entitled “Natura Morte” *(8) which are feasts of American junk food and speak simultaneously of wealth and waste, gluttony and over-abundance. Collinshaw communicates a strong message using the broad style of the Dutch Vanitas painters but using his own set of symbols. We readily understand his message because we recognise the Macdonald’s fries and the chicken nuggets and this in itself makes it easier to understand how effectively the 17th and 18th century artists communicated their message using symbols that were as quickly recognised and read by their audience.

Sources

Books

(1) Wells, Liz. (2009) Photography: A Critical Introduction. Abingdon: Routledge.

(4) Clarke, Graham. (1997) The Photograph. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

(5) McCabe, Eamonn. (2008) The Making of Great Photographs: Approaches and Techniques of the Masters. Cincinnati: David and Charles.

(11) Penn, Irving. (2001) Still Life. Boston: Bulfinch Press.

Internet

(2) The Metropolitan Museum of Art – A Table Set for Tea –  http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/36.37.36

(3) The Metropolitan Museum of Art – William Henry Fox Talbot (1800–1877) and the Invention of Photography – http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/tlbt/hd_tlbt.htm

(6) The Bridgeman Art Library – Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio “A Basket of Fruit” – http://www.bridgemanimages.com/en-GB/asset/737485/caravaggio-michelangelo-merisi-da-1571-1610/basket-of-fruit-by-michelangelo-merisi-da-caravaggio-oil-on-canvas-1594-1598?context=%25searchContext%25

(7) Museum of Fine Arts Boston – Ori Gersht Exhibition – http://www.mfa.org/exhibitions/ori-gersht

(8) Collinshaw Mat (1994) Natura Morte – http://www.matcollishaw.com/art/archive/natura-morte/

(9) Metropolitan Museum – Still Life Painting in Northern Europe, 1600 – 1800 – http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/nstl/hd_nstl.htm

(10) The National gallery of Art – Still Life Painting – https://www.nga.gov/kids/DTP6stillife.pdf

Rodriguez, Levin. The Berkemeyer Project – http://levinrodriguez.blogspot.co.uk/2012/02/symbolic-meaning-of-objects-used-in.html

Phelps, D G. the Art of D.G.Phelps – http://www.easy-oil-painting-techniques.org/still-life-symbolism.html

 

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4 thoughts on “Still Life, Symbolism and Vanitas

  1. Vicki M

    Steve

    You might also want to look at Olivia Jeczmyk [http://oliviajeczmyk.com/?s=3300;]; Sharon Core [https://artsy.net/artist/sharon-core], Paulette Tavormina [https://artsy.net/artist/paulette-tavormina]; Kate Breakey [http://www.katebreakey.com/KB-home.html] Sarah Cusimano Miles [http://sarahcusimanomiles.com/index.php] and Klaus Pichler [http://kpic.at/images/2569] for some contemporary still life/vanitas projects.

    Reply
    1. stevemiddlehurst Post author

      Vicki
      Quite a list, thank you. I will take a look and add them to my ever growing research plan. Vanitas seems to have been back in fashion for a while, perhaps because the issues it speaks to are much the same now as they were in the 17th Century, just being looked at through a different optic.

      Reply
      1. Vicki M

        Yeah—I really wanted to do vanities for my lighting assignment—but my apples would not rot; and my pumpkin disintegrated from the middle. So I gave up. I love the lighting quality that one can get for the style—so I will be watching your progress with interest! Good luck.

      2. Vicki M

        Just thought you might also want to take a look at Sam Taylor-Woods videos “Still-Life” and “A Little Death” [strong stomach required]—both available on youtube

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