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The Allure of Still-Life

Are still-life paintings exclusively for the contemplators? Not exactly. One can discover the abnormal amidst the most normal and mundane. Staring at still-lives is like staring at sculptures: you secretly harbour a childish anticipation that somehow these inanimate objects will eventually move. But still-lives function more than mere drab figments of one’s otherwise fanciful imagination. Different from landscape or other outdoor paintings, in which the painters are more like photographers relying on beautiful chances that contribute to their artworks, still-life painters have more leeway of arranging their subjects. In this case the end product is not only an artwork, but a creation.

As hideously as they often appear to be, still-life paintings with raw meat nonetheless never cease to fascinate me. French painter Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin, who is considered a master of genre paintings and perhaps most noted for his Soap Bubbles (1733-34), a nostalgic image of childhood wonders and unspoilt naiveté, made a not-so-appealing still-life painting in 1728, titled The Ray. A pile of dead fish is placed at the centre of the table. Among them an especially repulsive-looking one hung on the meat hook, its entrails spilling forth unrestrainedly. The redness of the entrails is however what lightens up this rather sombre-coloured painting. I am immediately reminded of the colourisation in one of J.M.W. Turner’s volcanic eruption landscape paintings. This painting thus does not seem to me revolting at all; on seeing the red meat a shiver of excitement reaches down my spine. A frisky cat looks determined to stir up a pell-mell of the scene, but by no means can it easily overshadow the presence of the dead fish, which almost stands out as a singular star in this painting.

Even when life is still, it can always manage to play with your sense of reality. In Paul Cezanne’s Still Life with Cherub (1895), everything seems to take a reckless tumble. The painting creates a strong sense of disorientation. Cezanne’s initial conception was actually to present the views of approaching the cherub through various different angles. This is an ingenious attempt at creating a three-dimensional space and an optical effect. That makes the cherub bust the centre of the painting, whilst everything revolves around it. But again, the contrast of colourisation can easily dismantle the assumed ego of the star. Contrary to the pale-blueness of the bust is the brownish-green of the oranges, each of which asserts its identity and refuses to be lumped together as sheer adornment. Still Life with Cherub (1895) is a painting in which every element fights for the spot of the sole star.

Time is never still. Even in still-life paintings when the lapse of time is immeasurable, we vaguely second-guess the changes of appearances over time. In Roger Fenton’s Still Life of Fruit with Mirror and Figurines (1860) we are aware of the gradual diminishment of the freshness and sheen of the fruits; their uncorrupted beauty complimented by the angel busts poising beside. A mirror hangs atop the fruit basket, seemingly to serve as a cruel reflection of the fruits, bearing the record of their imminent rottenness. Fenton’s still-life photography is the representation of decadent beauty- one which is not so anomalous within the aristocratic circle.

For me Fenton’s photography, amidst other even more artistically beautiful paintings, ingrains the most indelible impression in my head. It reverberates with what we feel most tangibly as human beings, that everything just eventually peters out and fades.


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