In the autumn of 2015, I participated in one of the University of Iowa’s excellent creative writing MOOCs – How Writers Write Fiction. Among the varied and interesting (and occasionally exasperating) advice and insights offered by a variety of authors in the course material, I was particularly struck by a comment by the Salvadorean author Horacio Castellanos Moya that the voice of a character in fiction, whether a protagonist or a narrator, reveals the ‘mentality’ of that character.
In Castellano-Moja’s view, what a character notices and comments upon, the world and experience the author imagines the character deems worthy of remark, paints the picture, for the reader, of what kind of person this imaginary being ‘is’.
For me it was one of those key-stone clicks. ‘Well obviously! Of course!…And I never thought of that!’
I encountered the idea again recently in Norbert Schneider’s commentary on Still Life in the Taschen edition of that title. That the objects selected by the painter reflect the mentality of both the painter and his milieu. The objects are deemed worthy of remark and record. The painter makes some kind of calculation that his target ‘market’ will find a representation of THOSE objects desirable (even if that ‘market’ is only the artist himself or herself).
Schneider’s book, in fact, focusses exclusively on the still lifes of the ‘Early Modern’ period – the Dutch Golden Age, the work of Velasquez and Cotan, Caravaggio and their contemporaries. Chardin is not touched upon. The dislocations of Braque and Picasso are far in the future – though Archimboldo gets to mess with our senses. No Cezanne.
For myself, in this period, I am particularly attracted to the early to mid-17th century breakfast pieces – ondbijtjes – of Pieter Claesz and Willem Claesz. Heda. Almost monochrome in subdued greenish -grey and warm earthy-golds, these pieces do not represent opulent display, conspicuous consumption or fanciful connection as in other still lifes of the period – by Kalf or de Heem for example. Despite the fabulous and sudden wealth of the Dutch Republic, in these subdued ondbijtjes what is represented is ‘the morning after’ – the half eaten pie, the flat, left over beer in the tumbler, the cowped goblet, the broken wine-glass, as for example in Heda’s Breakfast Still Life with Blackberry Pie. What a night we had last night! We set the world to rights and broke that lovely glass that Marten liked so much.
As Norman Bryson comments in the BBC documentary Apples, Pears and Paint, this is ‘consumption as destruction’ – in contrast to other ‘banquet pieces’ which celebrate accumulation with their lobster, nautilus goblets, Chinese porcelain. These are vanitas. Heda even includes a pocket watch, abandoned on the table’s edge to remind us that time is ticking by.
There is a beautiful melancholy about these pieces. They are not (quite) representations of a hang-over – there is a wistful sense a good time was had by all…and yet?
Someone bought this stuff, displayed this stuff, over the centuries cherished and curated these images…for their meaning and their artistry.
On the internet, it seems, there is a thriving interest in and market for pastiches of Dutch Golden Age Still Lifes including a sub-genre of beautifully realised photographs replicating composition, lighting, mood but not involving ‘paint’ (or painting).
The piece provoked comment, outrage perhaps – stained sheets and underwear, condoms, vodka bottles, ashtray, ‘detritus’ – fewer pundits remarking on the fluffy toy, her slippers.
I admire the reckless autobiographical quality in much of Tracey Emin’s work. I know, and have disagreed, with, others who feel she is ‘taking the piss’ but her response to the accusation that ‘anyone can exhibit an unmade bed’ was, allegedly, ‘Well, they didn’t, did they?’ And the impact of the piece was, unquestionably, greater than a painting of her unmade bed – no less ‘confessional’ – might have been.
The ‘found object’ was fair game in 20th century art from Duchamp onwards. Emin found the left over trace of herself (an inadvertent pun) …staged and unstaged…and presented it – just as Heda found and staged the broken glass, the half-eaten pie…did he eat it? An assistant? The difference is he transposed and encapsulated it in the two-dimensional ‘wrapper’ of a painting. But what do you do with an unmade bed? Saatchi allegedly kept it in a special room in his house. What can the ‘person’ who purchased it for £2,546,500 in 2014 ‘do’ with it…apart from ‘own’ it.
Yet for me they sit ‘together’ – Heda’s ondbijt and Emin’s bed – as representations of the aftermath of experience and consumption…consumption as destruction. And, in some sense, in Emin’s case the object of consumption was her self even as it made her reputation as an artist.
It is a common-place that we are said to live in a ‘consumer society’. The economics of late-capitalism (what a hopeful touch that word ‘late’ is!) demand continuous consumption and exorbitant waste. Durability is anathema. The evanescent is paradigmatic. The dematerialised – streaming video and audio and one-click digital downloads – replace the painted, the sculpted, the printed, performed and the real – recording, replication and dissemination are privileged over creation and performance – unique creations become asset-categories or events – bankably particular. This blog, of course, exploits the same evanescent facility…if you want to see Heda’s painting, it’s in Dresden.
But if consumption is destruction doesn’t that make a consumer society a destructive society? And if this is so, isn’t there more need for the vanitas as a genre in our art…to remind us, gently, of the cost of that ‘good night in’? Shouldn’t we value that reminder?