Exercise: Research twentieth-century still life

Twentieth-century still life makes more sense to me than in other periods – it has evolved to become many things and now there is the question that the course material asks concerning modern criteria for still life?

Initially the course material asks me to look at how  the Cubists explored new ways of depicting still life.

Cubism was not a style I previously understood before my studies  but the use of faceted volumes or fragmentation to depict the still life is fascinating.  The Cubists were not concerned about perspectives or the portrayal of three-dimensions but they were concerned with the fact in their paintings at least the work would be two-dimensional – they wanted the fact that they were painting on canvas to be obvious as they were not aiming to depict reality and were keen to explore multiple viewpoints.

What is noticeable in the work of the Cubists regarding still life is there are are recognisable objects – if you look at Georges Braque’s Violin and Candlestick you can clearly see the outline of the violin or the candle stick or another example is Picasso’s Still-Life with Chair Caning in which you can clearly see the chair caning but also the handle of a knife and a citrus fruit. I particularly the fact that you can immediately see the remnants of the object but the works are still abstract.  Another of Georges Braque’s works Piano and Mandola you can clearly see the piano keys and parts of the mandola but the volumes are faceted and you feel you can see the image from varying viewpoints – the concentration is not on the colour but on the abstraction and the still life depiction.

The course material for this exercise jumps forward to the 1960’s to the Pop Art movement and here the viewer sees a radical change.  Pop artists used every day objects – the famous soup can works of Andy Warhol are a prime example or the depiction of Coca Cola bottles in other artists works.  I love the still life works of Roy Lichtenstein – there the use of dots, simple lines and colours in his Still Life with Palette of 1972.  Many Pop artists portrayed objects for still life works  in witty expressions – there is the almost classical mouth with the cigarette titled Smoker #3 (Mouth #17).  Still life seemed to give Pop artists the imagination to depict the world around them in new ways but ways with are now iconographical of the era and movement.

If I was asked to choose my preference between the Cubists and the Pop artists I am not sure I would be able to – both styles are so synonymous of their eras and depict still life works in the way that the individual artists saw them and wanted to portray them.

The Gagosian Gallery held an exhibition of Roy Lichtenstein’s still life works in May 2010 and he wrote this for the press release:

” ‘When we think of still lifes, we think of paintings that have a certain atmosphere or ambience. My still life paintings have none of those qualities, they just have pictures of certain things that are in a still life, like lemons and grapefruits and so forth. It’s not meant to have the usual still life meaning.
—Roy Lichtenstein’ ” (www.gagosian.com).

It is very interesting to read the artist’s viewpoint and also the fact that he did not intend his still life works to have the meanings previously associated with chosen  objects  – no longer do still life works have hidden moral messages. Roy Lichtenstein wanted to depict just the objects and not the ambience previously associated with still life studies – those earlier works are full of atmosphere and that aforesaid ambience in their use realism or expressionism depending on the era or stylistic movement.

The course material poses the question over whether the Pop artist’s use of every day objects qualifies as ‘still life’ and also are they are any criteria for still life works?  Before I studied art history I feel my answer would have been considerably different to the first question and it would have been a definitive ‘no’ but now I understand the evolution of still life art then my answer is now a resounding ‘yes’.  Pop art still life takes objects that were part of our every day world in the 1960’s and depicts them simply but stylistically – these are objects that are so familiar it almost seems revolutionary because no-one would have considered previously a can of soup could be classed as art in the same way as the ready-made art of Marcel Duchamp was revolutionary in 1917.

For the second part of the question – are there any criteria for still life works?  I am not sure there is specific ‘criteria’ but there are techniques used by artists depending whether the student wishes to obtain a realistic or abstract or expressionist outcome.  Still life objects can be wide ranging from fruit to flowers to even an arrangement of mechanical tools – it is literally what most excites and intrigues an artist to draw, paint or sculpt or even stitch.  Still life works can be a celebration of something or to depict the passing of time or decay – there seems to be no set rules.

We now live in a time where artistic expression encompasses a wide range of styles and influences – the economic, political or social experiences of our time will affect the choices of artists in the same way the Pop artists chose the objects they deemed modern at the time.  Artists now have an increasing range of media available to them which also enables them to explore still life studies in graphite, pencil, paint of all types or a mix of different media and only time will tell how history records this.


AO Art Observed. (date unknown). New York – “The Pop Object:  The Still Life Tradition in Pop Art” at Acquavella Galleries, through May 24th 2013 [online].  [Date Accessed:  November 2016).  Available from:  http://artobserved.com/2013/05/new-york-the-pop-object-the-still-life-tradition-in-pop-art-at-acquavella-galleries-through-may-24th-2013/

Gagosian. 2016. Roy Lichtenstein Still Lifes  [online]. [Date Accessed:  November 2016].  Available from:  https://www.gagosian.com/exhibitions/may-08-2010–roy-lichtenstein

KhanAcademy. (date unknown).  Picasso, Still Life with Chair Caning [online].  [Date Accessed:  November 2016.].  Available from:  https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/art-1010/early-abstraction/cubism/a/picasso-still-life-with-chair-caning

Life+Times. 2013. The Pop Object:  The Still Life Tradition in Pop Art [online].  [Date Accessed:  November 2016].  Available from: http://lifeandtimes.com/the-pop-object-the-still-life-tradition-in-pop-art

Metropolitan Museum of Art.  2000-2016.  Cubism [online].  [Date Accessed:  November 2016].  Available from:  http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/cube/hd_cube.htm

Phillips Collection. 2016.  Georges Braques and the Cubist Still Life, 1928-1945 [online]. [Date Accessed:  November 2016].  Available from:  http://www.phillipscollection.org/events/2013-06-08-exhibition-braque

Tate. (date unknown). Cubism [online].  [Date Accessed:  November 2016].  Available from:  http://www.tate.org.uk/learn/online-resources/glossary/c/cubism

Tate. (date unknown). Still Life [online}.  [Date Accessed:  November 2016].  Available from:  http://www.tate.org.uk/learn/online-resources/glossary/s/still-life

http://www.GeorgesBraque.org. 2009.  Violin and Candlestick, 1910 by Georges Braque [online]. [Date Accessed:  November 2016].  Available from:  http://www.georgesbraque.org/violin-and-candlestick.jsp

http://WWW.ARTFACTORY.COM. 2016. Cubism – The first style of abstract art [online].  [Date Accessed:  November 2016].  Available from: http://www.artyfactory.com/art_appreciation/art_movements/cubism.htm

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