Part 2 – Research Still Life

Still Life  – Research

As I have previously noted in an earlier Reflection I had done all the research and reading at the beginning of this module without taking any notes.   Hence I have had to go through the content again and try and pick up the pieces.

Starting and ending with Morandi via Tacita Dean

I don’t know when I happened upon this article about Tacita Dean (Krcma) but suffice to say that it is about her visit and the making of her film “Day for Night” in Morandi’s studio in Bologna.

A couple of months before starting this drawing course I had visited Bologna, a hidden gem of Italy, and had come across Morandi inevitably.  Unfortunately his studio was undergoing renovation and so the only work which I saw was in the Modern Art Museum. I looked and looked at his paintings and have subsequently spent time reading more (Abramowicz) and am still left with a very blank reaction to his work despite the reverence with which it is held.

So I was captured by another artist’s response to him. Tacita Dean has made a number of films on artists some of whom have subsequently died. (Mario Merz, Joseph Beuys, Cunningham & Cage, Cy Twombly).  Therefore it is with interest that I approach her 3 concerns:-

  • Confrontation with finitude, transience and morality
  • The staging of decelerated and heightened attentiveness to the worn surfaces of the material world
  • The elaboration of formal and conceptual reflexivity which addresses the meaning and value of the artwork as a problem in itself, beyond the technical demands of its making (Krcma)

Evidently what she was captivated by was “the abundant evidence of idiosyncratic procedures and devices” Morandi used. His objects were wrapped, painted or modified in various ways. This reminded me of Cezanne’s still life when he “fixed the objects in their positions by artificial means at the angles he needed for compositional requirements.” (Lloyd)

In naming her film “Day for Night” she also alludes to the Truffaut film (1973) of the same name and the filmic device.

Starting to work on still life drawings I am only just becoming conscious of how many devices are in operation in order to come to the composition of any piece. This includes of course the objects themselves their significance, how they are posed, the light sources, the place etc. etc. That is of course without the political, social, historical, and economic considerations.

I put together a short table to begin to look at the historical development of the genre with significant artists:-

Date Artist/s Place
16th Century Sanchez Coton

1560 -1627

The Pantry


Xenia I – a simple meal – raw

17th Century Cornelis de Heem

1631 – 1695

Jan Davidsz de Heem

1606 – 1684

The Banquet

Xenia II – cooked




18th Century Jean-Baptiste Simeon Chardin

1699 – 1779

The Kitchen



19th Century Paul Cezanne

1839 – 1906

The Kitchen.

The Dining Room


“Non-Illustrative Discourse”

20th Century Juan Gris

1887 – 1927

Henri Matisse

1869 – 1954

Giorgio Morandi

1890 – 1964

The Café

The Studio

The Home

1920s/30s Laszlo Moholy-Nagy

1895 – 1946

Man Ray




Still life was considered a very minor genre compared to historical painting from the 16th Century onward.   I have related my interest in the early work of Sanchez Coton in relation to the choices of subject and composition for my Assignment 1 composition.

Cotan Still lIfe with Game Fowl

Suffused with meaning Joanna Woodall (Laying the Table 2012) takes up the narrative of Dutch still life into the 17th Century.  Where power, trade, accumulation, wealth and exploitation become the signifiers of the compositions which have moved into the dining room and more significantly depict the banquet. She quotes Roland Bathes (1953) “ Man has washed away religion only to replace it with man and his empire of things….this superficial sheen and shine, this visual intensity as a fetishistic projection on the part of the artist and view.” However it is also made clear that this was an age of emergent scientific thinking and deep philosophical debate on the nature of” knowledge and truth.” (Woodall)

Further reading should include Adorno’s Theories of Aesthetics (1970), Walter Benjamin’s The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (1934)  and Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida (1980).  There are areas of philosophical and artistic theory which it has not been possible to include at this time.

Stepping briefly into the world of Cezanne Lloyd remarks that “one of the most intriguing aspects of many of Cezanne’s still life’s is the special ambiguities that he introduces into them”.

You could argue that the work of the cubists including Picasso, Baraque and Gris was an extension of this development. Flattening out the planes, tones, colours, and perspectives extends “analytical exercise for the purpose of comprehending the world as he (Cezanne) saw it”. (Lloyd)

Lucy Somers – The Implications of the Still Life in the Context of Contemporary Art” takes on a fairly simplistic interpretation matching her arguments to those of Platonic thinking.

She does however point out that “with modernism, artist began the most dramatic reinvention of the still life has seen, and adapting it as the static clothes horse, on which to hang their post-impressionist and cubist experiments.” Moving on through to the 20th Century where “The attitude now is that art is in the motivation, intention and idea regardless of how it is carried out.”

Bringing us to contemporary work “The value system of a piece have changed wholesale now, by the fact that the very choosing and placement of the objects is now given artistic value.” (Somers)

The “modernist school” for Somers “The statement is not the assemblage of the objects, but the treatment of them…the manipulation and thus the art would be in the viewing of the paining”. However I believe that the artist has constantly been manipulating the “image, field, content, context etc etc.   What has changed is not necessarily how that is being done but in the means by which it is done.

For this I revert to the original article about film being used (and I have not had time to review this in relation to the development of photography from the 19th century and its influences). Note to self – re-read Susan Sontag – On Photography

And Morandi – I still don’t get it – I get Dean’s filmic response to his objects and studio without becoming more appreciative of his paintings. I’ll keep trying!


In terms of looking at contemporary still life I find myself drawn to mainly female photographers whose compositions are funny, mocking and thoughtful.

Krista van der Niet

Krista van der Niet

Laura Letinsky 2

Laura Letinsky


Saara Ekstrom

Emma Bennett

Emma Bennett

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