Nine Apples

Illustrated above is Paul Cézanne’s “Still Life with Apples” (1893-1894). It is my second posting in my Gallery Talks series, based on a visit last week to the Getty Center in Los Angeles. I find that, whenever I visit an art museum, my mind tends to linger on the artworks that struck me the most.

To my mind, Cézanne is the modern master of the still life, easily rivaling the Dutch masters of that genre. Take a good look at the painting. What catches your attention?

Whereas most of the colors are muted greens, blues, grays.and off-white, what stands out are the nine red apples in two groupings, one of seven around a platter, and two more between two pieces of pottery. The table cloth is interesting in that we have no idea of how it covers the table, or how large the table is. Note that there is no real attempt at perspective: The folded dish towel at bottom right is clearly in front of the two jugs, yet the two jugs are not diminished in size. Then, too, what about those two vertical lines that emanate from the table up to the supposed ceiling. It is impossible to speculate from these what the shape or size of the room is. Or are those lines there just to direct our attention to the apples?

Each of the elements of the still life are nicely depicted, though the relationship between the various elements is difficult to ascertain. Was Cézanne telling us to keep our attention on those apples, especially the ones in the dish which seems to be on the point of dumping its contents onto the floor, or wherever?

According to the Getty’s own description of the painting:

During the last thirty years of his life, Paul Cézanne painted the same objects–the green vase, the rum bottle, the ginger pot, and the apples–over and over again. His interest was not in the objects themselves but in using them to experiment with shape, color, and lighting. He arranged his still lifes so that everything locked together. Edges of objects run into each other; for example, a black arabesque seemingly escapes from the blue cloth to capture an apple in the center; the sinuous curves of the blue ginger pot’s rattan straps merge with other straps on the body of the bottle behind. Giving form and mass to objects through the juxtaposition of brushstrokes and carefully balanced colors and textures, he gave the painting a sense of comforting stability.

I do not get a feeling of “comforting stability” from this painting. What I do come away with is a feeling of mastery with a touch of threatened instability. Cézanne knew what he was doing, and he probably enjoyed overturning the rules established by his forebears to point out new possible relationships between the depicted elements.

Enjoy It While You Can

Jacob van Hulsdonck’s “Still Life with Lemons, Oranges and a Pomegranate”

Jacob van Hulsdonck’s “Still Life with Lemons, Oranges and a Pomegranate”

I have always been partial to Flemish still lifes, ever since I first saw “Still LIfe with Oysters and Grapes” (1653) at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. See below for an image of the still life.

With both of these paintings, and with many Dutch and Flemish still life paintings of the Seventeenth Century, there is a strong moral dimension. According to Wikipedia:

Virtually all still lifes had a moralistic message, usually concerning the brevity of life—this is known as the vanitas theme—implicit even in the absence of an obvious symbol like a skull, or less obvious one such as a half-peeled lemon (like life, sweet in appearance but bitter to taste). Flowers wilt and food decays, and silver is of no use to the soul.

You can see this with the fly on the leftmost lemon in the plate, as well as the aging film showing on the cut pieces of fruit.

Jan Davidszoon de Heem’s “Still Life with Oysters and Grapes”

Jan Davidszoon de Heem’s “Still Life with Oysters and Grapes”

I had always thought of still life paintings are relatively innocuous. And so they are, but they also remind one that time is passing, and the food and flowers on display are the things of a moment.