Monday, August 4, 2008

pears and flies

Today I went to the Städel Museum here in Frankfurt. I spent the most time at one particular special exhibit, “Die Magie der Dinge. Stilllebenmalerei 1500-1800.” These paintings are mostly from the low countries and Germany-though the show ends with Chardin. I seriously considered buying the catalogue, which is a pleasingly designed and large book, but I am not, just at the moment, buying this kind of book. So all I have is the brochure, which reproduces only a few pictures. Happily, the brochure leaves out the kind of silly still lives that the curator (or the curator’s boss?) thought it would be in good taste to include. In the entryway to the exhibit there is a large and beautiful vase of flowers-but then inside there is a pile of gourds and melons that looks more like a cheap thanksgiving centerpiece than anything else. I don’t get it.

This show has a definite narrative. It begins with ‘precursors’ to still-life painting found in various kinds of religious art. The first paintings are of the ‘Madonna and Child,’ but also with flowers in a vase. In one case, these are lilies and irises, symbolizing both her purity and the extent of her compassion for Jesus’ suffering (the lilies are familiar, but the iris is less so-certainly these flowers have a fleshy and perhaps bloody appearance). Similarly, we get a large-scale painting depicting a biblical scene, but with the foreground taken up by a market, and so by animals and vegetables. The curatorial materials called this a religious ‘peg,’ soon discarded, but at the time necessary for the real subject matter. I suppose this might be so, and I shouldn’t ask for too much from a blurb on an info-card; but the painting seems more interesting to me than that. The narrative of the exhibition demands that the juxtaposition of biblical/mundane subject mater be understood as transitional and provisional, but it seems to me that it would be interesting to read such a juxtaposition in terms of Erich Auerbach’s large narrative of mimetic levels, style and genre in literature. Indeed, this particular painting (Pieter Aertsen, Market Scene with Christ and the Adulteress, 1559), seems to me to have a triadic structure-the trades-people sit among their wares, and then above, in the background, Jesus writing Hebrew in the dust. Also in the background, with the biblical scene, there is another vegetable stand and selling, looking on. In contrast, those sellers in the front seem oblivious to what is going on behind them. It seems to me that the forward scene is at least as much about the people as it is about the objects they are selling. So I wonder if the biblical scene, rather than a peg on which to hang a market scene, is perhaps commenting on, or mediating between, the people and their things. Indeed, there are some pleasing formal connections between the two groups of figures.

What we have here in the first room, then, are the elements which will go into still life paintings, and the first movements toward disentangling it from other genres. In later rooms we get various forms and subgenres. I found the ‘sottobosco’ (sp?) theme boring, but was surprisingly intrigued by the niche paintings. These are paintings of another painting, or a window onto a scene, surrounded by flowers and other standard still life figures. Seeing a number of these paintings in one place made me think of them less as elaborate tromp-l’oeil exercises, and more as, in fact, efforts to create a space from which to look. This is to say that the outer band of the painting creates a space for a viewer to be, as they view the inner image.

Most of the memento mori type paintings I found relatively crude and blunt; for me without emotional resonance. There was one, however, made on a larger scale than the others, displaying many objects of vanity (cards, coins, drink...) and then off to the side, a candle just gone out, with smoke trailing up off of it in just the way it does only in the two seconds after the flame has gone. This motif (the just-extinguished candle) was in several paintings, but this particular one (I wish I had written down its information-perhaps I will go back next week) managed to capture a moment perfectly; duration-a time object-as well as the physical objects.

The narrative arc of the show is that the still life begins as extremely heavily symbolic, sometimes allegorical, and as the genre developed, the objects themselves became more important than their symbolic meanings. The artistic excellence and luxury of the painted flower became more and more important than the fact that the flower is an iris, for instance. As formal perfection becomes more important, driven then as now by the art market, it becomes difficult for succeeding generations to outdo their teachers. By the later part of the 18th century, as we see in the icon of the show, the object itself is literally put on a pedestal. This is the point, I think, of the curatorial emphasis on Justus Juncker’s 1765 ‘Stillleben mit Birn and Insekten’ (which the brochure has incorrectly in English as ‘Partridge and Pear’-there were in the museum many instances of bad English; however, it must have been intentional on someone’s part that in the English-language chronology of Max Beckman’s life, we learn that in 1947 he moved to Amerika). Then the reason that the show ends with Chardin, a French painter, is that with Chardin we can say that the painting itself, rather than the object depicted, has become the real point. This is to say, the beauty of depiction is no longer than which is valued, but the act of depiction itself.

Such was not the only point of the show-for instance it did want to locate this genre in terms of social structure, as pointedly bourgeois, and in the hunting pictures, for instance, apparently a way of claiming something of the aristocratic life-style. This argument was made in particular in reference to one large-scale hunting picture, which is dominated by a brilliantly painted hare, hung upside-down in the center and well lit. In the background, we see a sort of mansion. This is supposed to mean a claim to aristocracy. I am not so sure, since the picture was for me interesting because of the tactile tension between the bright, torsioned, beautifully textured hare in the center, and the snarling terracotta lion’s head just behind it.

But I also do not think that I am wrong about this basic narrative. I am of course in no position to argue that the narrative is wrong. I know very little about these paintings, or indeed art history in general. However, it does seem an awfully familiar story to me-in fact it is one story of modernism. The logic of the content purifies itself and eventually develops into reflexive formalism. The connection to the Dutch bourgeoisie (whatever that means) is necessary to as a driving force, but basically has nothing to do with the shape of the changes within the genre-it is an engine, but not a steering wheel.

So, finally, because I have been reading History and Class Consciousness, and Lukács’ words are ringing in my ears, I wonder if it makes any sense to offer a more Marxist reading of this sequence. Lukács often argues that one hallmark of capitalist ideology is the tendency to view objects in isolation from one another-atomization rather than totalization. Do we see in this narrative of still life painting the stripping-away of old cultural prejudices (symbolic meaning), and the isolation of objects qua objects in an increasingly rationalist fashion? Kind of. Certainly there is a stripping-away, but I am less certain of the rationalism. We can probably say atomization. Indeed, perhaps it could be argued that what we see is the painters slowly ceasing to paint the objects that society has made, and starting to paint things themselves. The pear is sitting on the altar to things in themselves as they are.

But it is also the case that many of the things pictured are commodities. In this light, what we have is the Dutch bourgeoisie tearing objects out of the old social structure (Mary’s irises), and turning them into commodities which then take on a life of their own, outside the control of their ‘masters.’ No doubt there is a great deal of Marxist art history already on the Dutch still life-it does seem obvious that it should be understood as an art form that helps this class to manage or process its world. Maybe some enterprising art historian has synchronized changing trends in still life painting with Giovanni Arrighi’s periodization of Dutch capital. Seems to me like a good idea.

On the other hand, I am a little suspicious that the show has made one genre out of what are in fact several genres. Flowers, for instance, seem to be a genre all on their own, with meanings and a dynamic that is not the same as for pictures of meals, or dead game, or especially living animals. Where do we find the genre boundaries between still life and domestic painting? The memento mori paintings, for instance, are very clearly and obviously allegorical. This is true of some, but not all of the other sub-genres of still life. The flourishing industry devoted to painting fish, for instance, does not seem to have put a great deal of symbolic ballast into their pictures.

In all events, the show was very interesting. I may well go back to the museum before it ends (August 14th-soon), and look at it again, this time writing down what I want to remember.

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