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Willem Heda’s Still Life 

 

This Christmas, Fortnum & Mason put an Old Master in the window: Willem Heda’s Still Life: Pewter and Silver Vessel and a Crab spilled out of its 3D frame, a very public example of a modern revival of interest in the food-themed still life. The bruised half light, necessitating the bold use of chiaroscuro, formed images of almost photographic intensity, creating language and meaning from a collection of everyday objects. Dutch-Flemish and Italian examples have influenced generations with their subtle documentation of shifting social and cultural attitudes and suggestion that seeing is a kind of truth.

Given the mundane nature of its essential parts, still life as a form, stands outside of history: you couldn’t identify from the wormy apple in the foreground what social and cultural changes were ravishing that particular country and any particular time. This stasis, however, lends still life a profundity that marries perfectly with its current incarnation as a symbol of the determined hedonism of a society in recession. Food is the most affordable of luxuries.

 


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Irving Penn’s New York Still Life

 

Irving Penn’s photography embodies the idea of food and drink as ‘accoutrements of the good life’.  The shapely folds of the napkin and the dusty shadowing of the grapes in New York Still Life (Elements of a Party) echoing the overtly luxurious curves of watch, earring, whistle and opera glasses in The Spilled Handbag (Theatre Accident). The fact that most of Penn’s food-themed still lifes were published as editorial photographs for Vogue further reflects this idea of images of food as contemporaneously fashionable.

One tradition which modern photographers continued from the Old Masters is the image of the table. It may sound obvious that the various parts of the image must be placed on some sort of table, but contemporary artists lend the table itself a role in expressing the tension between ripeness and decay which is the essence of our continuing fascination with food themed still life. Kathryn Parker Alamanas’ 2006 series Pastry Anatomy anatomised her images of pastries, reflecting her fascination with ‘the parts of ourselves both essential to our survival and responsible for our death’. Her table is a stainless steal metal tray, speaking of her anxiety about her own debilitating illnesses, making the dissected pastries symbols of the afflicted body. The idea of food alluding to a human presence is also suggested in Laura Letinsky’s focus on the aftermath of a gathering, as in the series I Did Not Remember That I Had Forgotten. The remnants of a meal, the stained tablecloth, all develop a sense of being ‘after the fact’, Letinsky commenting on the tension between ripeness and decay in modern society in her statement that ‘you can’t have utopia without its loss’.

This notion of modern decay is furthered in Penn’s photographs from the 1990s, where the stylistic influence of the Old Masters is subdued in favour of plastic line and colour. Images such as Ripe Cheese and Bread, Salt & Water embody this new representation of the still life in which the fusion of flesh and spirit is suggested by the interplay of the objects themselves and a clean light, which highlights the authority of the image’s subject.

 

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Kathryn Parker Almanas’ Pastry Anatomy

 

In the past few years, still life as a genre, particularly photographs, has reclaimed the shadowy influence of the old masters. Artists such as Guido Mocafico derive explicit inspiration from seventeenth century painters such as Floris van Dijck, rendering a modern version of the latter’s Still Life with Cheeses in his Nature morte å la grenade. Similarly, this art genre has come to influence popular culture in evermore striking ways, most notably in food styling and photography. From the stark simplicity of Penn’s Salad Ingredients (1947) we have moved to the moody, sensual shots of ruby vein chard, black peppercorns and treacle in Waitrose’s February Kitchen Magazine.

Still life is thus shown to be a genre for our times, reflecting in the vibrant solemnity of its various parts the fusion of decadence and decay which is drawing our fascination with consumption – and with art itself, into an evermore popular sphere.

Celia Bryan-Brown