Tag Archives: Still life

Andrew Wyeth : Is this still life?

What do you write about? Or…sometimes…What do you write?
This followed by a frantic pause (sic).
What do I write? What has been published? What do I write about?
What do I paint? Where can they be viewed? What do I paint about?
The second set of questions seems, to me, more obtuse and that quality throws light, for me, on the precariousness of the first.
What do I write (about)?
I have been ‘writing’ – consciously, compulsively ‘making up stories’ whether as prose or plays or poetry – since I was at least 11 years old – 47 years.
But what was I writing about?

In Andrew Wyeth : A Secret Life, Richard Meryman’s biography of A.N.Wyeth, the American 20th Century realist painter, he asserts that Wyeth’s painting ‘Spring Fed’ has ‘in the back-ground’ – in its emotional and aesthetic hinterland – the death of Robin Hood. The tempera – in Wyeth’s characteristically austere cold tones – depicts a water trough in a byre, fed by a trickle of clear water ‘spring fed’. A bucket hangs on the wall to the right. Through the window above and beyond the trough, cattle graze the middle ground before a gently sloping hill in the distance. Reading more deeply into Wyeth’s biography, the cattle are Swiss-Brown. The byre, trough and hill belonged to Karl Kuerner, a first-generation German immigrant who farmed near Wyeth’s home in Pennsylvania. Wyeth was a 3rd generation immigrant to the US on his father’s side (German-Swiss). Kuerner had been a machine gunner in the German Army during World War One.
These are, of course, the details I select. What resonates for me amidst what resonated for Meryman (and Wyeth). Robin Hood, dying in the hospitable seclusion of a convent gathers his men, shoots a final arrow through the open casement and wills that where that arrow falls will be his final resting place. My heart is in the Highlands, my heart is not here etcetera.
Windows, and people looking out of windows, are a regular feature in Wyeth’s work. Even, paradoxically, in a painting such as Christina’s World there is a sense of the protagonist being on the inside looking out. So too is the device of painting a portrait of an individual, a deep and emotional, biographical representation of a lived life through the depiction of a lived in yet presently vacant interior (as in Groundhog Day for example) or of implements or clothing by which/in which the individual has lived (as in Sea Boots or Willard’s Coat). Like Kuerner’s trough and Kuerner’s bucket. Like the spring water that flows from the hill into the byre and the viewer who gazes back from the byre towards the hill and Wyeth’s childhood romance of the aging hero longing to be again. Cattle apart, this is a still life. Nature morte. And yet, with interpretation, each element orbits mood and meaning.
Once again, I think, we are in the territory of still life as innuendo rather than eye-candy but not, simply, the wistful-moralistic mood of Dutch ondbitjes – ‘all flesh is grass’, ‘there’s always the morning after’ – but rather an entire life-theme, not a whole life but strand of it, a sustained emotional strain.
So what do you write about? And – what do you write?
Life.
Really? Whose life?
Aye, there’s the rub.
For a while now I have been very interested in (auto)biographical writing – Life Writing in the current parlance. How do you earnestly and honestly engage with lived experience and attempt to excavate – the only verb I feel that fits – some sort of narrative ‘explanation’ for ‘what happened’? I’ve been aware for many years that a great part of the motivation to write – to fabulate and to confect fictions – is, in me, to clype – to point out that that’s not really (quite) how it is or was and that some of us (at least) don’t experience life that way and mothering can be an ambiguous experience and the apple pie may well be laced with strychnine.
One’s self-confidence, in this, is, of course, undermined by shame and, in my case at least, the suspicion of a certain psychological ‘volatility’. Is that really what happened? I know you think that happened but…? So one creeps into the undergrowth – the long grass I suppose – and conceals oneself amidst the ‘make it that’. And ‘make it that’ becomes the laboratory in which our personal Mr. & Mrs. Hydes can be conjured, cultured, trained.
The Arvon Book of Life Writing edited by Sally Cline and Carole Angier makes, in this context, salutary reading. It makes it clear, I think, that ‘Life Writing’ is a dodgy pastime, that autobiography is (always) morally reprehensible and biography problematic unless all of the protagonists, their children and their childrens’ children have shuffled off. It might be OK to write a biography of Sappho or Prester John – otherwise the author is on thin-ice frankly. One of the charms and virtues of the book, and there are several, is that the authors and contributors are so upfront about this aspect whilst encouraging wannabe life-writers (like me?) to ‘have a go’. Running a crack-house may result in socially questionable outcomes but think of the upsides why-don’t-you?
But what does a writer write about if not his or her lived experience? Fantasy alter-egos living a life of crime, historical importance, sentimental overload, sexual disinhibition or super-empowerment? I know that is what stories are ‘for’…but what do you write about?
In response to which, I return to a figure (on the viewer’s side of the picture plane) gazing out through a life, through a window – alone and reticent in his telling and remembering – observing a life, his own or another’s, and constructing an evocation in the present of how it is and how it was that everyone can (sort of) live with. An evocation constructed of trompe d’oeil make-it-that’s and a perfect command of tone.
Is that what I write about? Is that what I paint about? Well, it’s something to aim for.

Emin to Heda: Bed and Breakfast

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).

In 1999 Tracey Emin installed her piece My Bed in the Tate.

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?