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19th Century European Paintings

A Very Brief History of Still Life

The still life has witnessed a transformative and interesting evolution from the bottom of the hierarchy of artistic genres – its subjects not considered important enough by humanists to be worth painting – to the magnificent Dutch Golden Age still lifes, which arose under a protestant spirit that deemed every part of God’s creation worth depicting. In France, it underwent a revival in the late nineteenth century, when modernist painters discovered it as the perfect subject for the formal exploration of different styles, colours and compositions. Still lifes were ideal for bourgeois households and quickly rose in popularity. Modernist pioneer Edouard Manet explored different subjects ranging from ham to lilacs and expressed that ‘a painter can say all he wants to with fruits or flowers, or even clouds.’

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HERMENEGILDO ANGLADA-CAMARASA, DAHLIAS AND OTHER FLOWERS, 1951. ESTIMATE £70,000–90,000.

If the Catalan painter Hermenegildo Anglada-Camarasa was trying to say anything through his flowers, it must have been sheer joy. This luminous bouquet of fresh dahlias and wild roses, a highlight of the upcoming 19th Century European Paintings auction, shines so livelily, that the French word for still life – nature morte or dead nature – hardly applies. These flowers express life as vivid as it gets, a moment of beauty is captured for eternity. Putting it into context with Old Master works of the genre, Rachel Ruysch’s magnificent flower still life celebrates nature’s beauty enthroned on a marble ledge as if it were presented on an altar. Unlike Anglada’s work, it is probably not a realistic representation of an actual bouquet but brings together blossoms from different seasons, often even from various parts of the world, which complement one another; tiny insects feeding on the leaves are reminders of the brevity of life and the contingence of beauty. Anglada’s flowers are painted from a slightly elevated viewpoint, close-up rather than removed, and arranged as if freshly plucked from his humble garden.

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RACHEL RUYSCH, A STILL LIFE OF ROSES, POPPIES, CARNATIONS, A TULIP, HONEYSUCKLE AND OTHER FLOWERS IN A GLASS VASE RESTING ON A MARBLE LEDGE, 1716.

Unlike Anglada, Ruysch neither gives us a notion of what kind of bouquets people had in their homes, nor does she capture a particular moment of life. Though each flower will have been studied individually from nature, the composition is the artist’s invention, created for a decorative purpose as well as for contemplation. Not coincidentally is this bouquet crowned by a tulip, the popular and at the time vastly expensive flower that has become a sort of national icon of the Netherlands. But Anglada’s work does more than just capture a bouquet – it mediates the artist’s impression of it. The viewer is actually able to feel what the painter felt when he painted these flowers, which seem to be growing out of the picture, towards the light, using vivid paints applied in thick impastos, set into relief by the dark green background. Anglada was fascinated by fireworks and pyrotechnics borne out in the explosion of colour in his still lifes and landscapes. Here, the flowers shoot up like fireworks in a night sky.

So what of still life today? As everyone lives life fast, art can make us pause and really look at our environment and our rushed activities. The German photographer Wolfgang Tillmans captures life and our surroundings in great detail. He regards the photograph as ‘a body entangled in the world. It does not just exist passively – it is a sociable and open body that actively meets the real world around it.’

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WOLFGANG TILLMANS, STILL HOME, 1996. © WOLFGANG TILLMANS, COURTESY MAUREEN PALEY, LONDON

His still lifes are thus in no way dead nature but on the contrary, very much alive. Still Home shows half-eaten fruit and nuts on a plate. The sun shines warmly onto this arrangement to which the viewer is drawn by the pleasing colours and which looks so appetizing despite essentially being food waste. Dispersed pomegranate seeds are mixed with pistachio shells and the skin of a grapefruit, covering the bread knife used to cut open the fruit. Through his hanging, Tillmans always emphasizes the medium of the photograph, exposing them mainly without frames. They are no longer windows to another world but objects – or bodies if you will – in the room to which the viewer is drawn and which provoke a reaction. Standing in Wolfgang Tillman’s exhibition at Tate Modern, we do not marvel at arranged compositions but are confronted with various angles of life standing still, focusing our attention on a variety of objects, activities and issues at the same time. One is essentially surrounded by life – still life.

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