Still life Part 1: Cotan, Zurbaran, Penn & Carr

In the move from photo montage of found and self-generated images to using entirely self-generated images I decided to focus on everyday inanimate objects as a starting point. This placed my work into the still life tradition. In order to gain understanding of the theoretical and historical tradition of still life I have read [among others] at the suggestion of Tanya Eccleston my supervisor, the book Looking at the Overlooked by Norman Bryson. This book I have found to be very insightful and informative. The purpose of this entry is to document some of the learning I have digested from this text and more specifically how it informs the theoretical and studio aspects of my practice going forward. Here, I am attempting to trace through history and gather together some threads that are important and resonate with the recent work I have been doing. In addition to this I have been looking at some contemporary artists who either work in still life or provide inspiration for me. Another aim is to provide a backdrop for speculative work up ahead where my desire is to attempt to translate historical forms of the still life tradition into a contemporary context and further push them out as far as I can to find a new form of expression that both sits within contemporary art practice while still maintaining links to history.

Below is a summary of the book taken from the forward. I include this as I think it provides a very good reference for this piece of writing including definitions of terms that will be used.

Chapter 1 – Xenia – concerns the painting of ‘still life’ objects in the decorative schemes that survive from antiquity, and considers them in relation to issues of representation (realism, hyper-realism, simulation) on the one hand, and on the other to issues of power (class difference, control over nature, control over representation). Chapter 2 – Rhopography – examines the discourse in which painting is itself divided into two sectors: one dealing with the exceptional act and the unique individual, with the narrative and the drama of ‘greatness’ (meglography), and another dealing with the routines of daily living, the domestic round, the absence of personal uniqueness and distinction (rhopography). Chapter 3 – Abundance – explores still life painting in the Netherlands in the seventeenth century in terms of Dutch society’s attitudes towards its own wealth, and the spectrum of responses to affluence, ranging from high moralism, to anxiety concerning the role of consumption, the exuberant enjoyment of plenty. In particular this essay analyses how the sphere of consumption was re-absorbed, in still life imagery, back into the values of production. Chapter 4 – Still Life and ‘Feminine’ Space – asks what the distinctions between low-plane reality and high-plane reality, between rhopography and megalography, between still life and the supposedly ‘higher’ genres of painting, may have to do with gender positions and gender ideology. (Bryson, 1990, p. 15)

The roots of the still life tradition lay in Xenia of antiquity. Xenia though they seem close in content to later still life painting have their own unique specificity (Bryson, 1990, p. 17). This specificity comes out of understanding what they meant to their Roman viewers, their symbolic implications and semantic charge (Bryson, 1990, p. 17).


Xenion – still life painting based on the tradition of supplying guests with uncooked culinary provisions.

The Xenia come to us as a ruin and surviving texts about them are few. One helpful text is by Philostratus, the Natural History of Pliny, with suggestive asides by Plato and Vitruvius. Philostratus wrote the Imagines, this is a text that has the specific purpose of guiding Roman students through the paintings of their culture (Bryson, 1990, p. 18). Paintings are made of raw, fermented and cooked foods – the human order is referenced and with it the distinction between what is nature and what is culture and further how this relates to hospitality, social order, wealth and status.

The defining feature of all forms of still life painting including the Xenia of antiquity is the exclusion of the human form. Not only this still life also dislodges the values that human presence imposes on the world.

Charles Sterling makes the distinction between rhopography and megalography in this definition: Megalography is the depiction of those things in the world, which are great – the legends of the gods, the battles of heroes, the crises of history. Rhopography (from rhopos, trivial objects, small wares, trifles) is the depiction of those things, which lack importance, the unassuming material base of life that ‘importance’ constantly overlooks (1990,p.61). These two categories are intertwined because what is important can only become clear by separating it from what it declares to be trivial. “In this way still life takes on the exploration of what ‘importance’ tramples underfoot” (Bryson, 1990, p. 61). The work I have done so far would fall into the category of rhopography with some objects being categorized as kitsch (for example crocodile key chain). Another stand of my research is looking at kitsch and how contemporary artists use it in both positive and negative ways. [This will be discussed in a separate blog entry].

From September seminar what has been noticed and commented on as interesting about the objects I have been photographing is the ambiguity of exactly what they are i.e. trinket or heirloom? kitsch or valuable? handmade or bought? I have considered the possibility of continuing to develop still life work that is commenting on western culture using everyday items and kitsch objects. Another possibility is to develop photography in the vanitas genre; this would carry narrative, symbolic meaning and allegorical reference [all of which I am interested in]. While these options still remain a possibility for me I have decided at this point [at least until the end of this year] to test out different ways of expressing the still life tradition that are immersive and experiential rather than pictorial.

Speculations: Can I translate the still life tradition into socially engaged art? Can I engage my desire for my art to support and give voice to issues of social justice in interesting ways? Can I find an interesting way to mediate my desire to represent the divine in the everyday in an immersive way that is not didactic, but is open? Can I combine all these in an interesting way? Rather than being object or image based?

The decision to broaden out and test new possibilities has developed out of my thinking around the vanitas still life work exhibited in the recent RAW5 group show. In this I was satisfied with the symbolic aspects and contemplative reading of the work however I am not entirely satisfied with being an image-maker or of necessarily confining myself to photography or of trying to represent contemporary still life but still in a fairly conventional way. I am looking out for how I might combine installation/sculpture with photography and painting or how I could create immersive environments that function with the potential to mediate experience between one dimension and another and the possibility of cathartic experience.

The work of Steve Carr has provided inspiration for me in particular his recent work Stretching Time (2014), Transpiration (2014) and American Night (2014). This is because they contain the elements of contemporary still life and immersive experience that I am interested in. The following information about Carr’s work Stretching Time (2014), is paraphrased from the Dunedin Public Art Gallery website.

Transpiration (2014) is a six projection ‘surround’ installation, he literally and metaphorically slows the act of spectacle down and in the process expands our sensory experiences. In this thirty metre screening viewers are made very aware of the materiality of video, and in particular the frame, through the repeating and sequencing of a series of highly manicured flower arrangements. In a way he wants the spectator to be overwhelmed by the films, distilling the shoot to a simple set of technical principles; close-up/blow-up, duration/time-lapse, still/loop. While this is a rather dry technical process the final films are more physically and optically expansive.

American Night (2014), is a smaller piece of work within the exhibition which makes playful references to cinematic history and its artifice, particularly the closing sequence in David Lynch’s dark masterpiece Blue Velvet (1986). By setting a small electronic bird against a theatrical backdrop and also condensing the period and effects between sunset and sunrise to fifteen minutes, Carr reminds viewers how fake this entire set-up is. The films reveal a lot, and essentially reduce a large durational period down. And, it is through this process that the sense of time is stretched. With the cinematic moment being elongated you are able to lose yourself in the immersive situation. As Carr notes, “the idea of stretching is important in a physical and personal way, because I want people to be aware, even before they see the show, that this is as much an exercise in relaxing, absorbing and sinking into a cinematic experience as it is contemplating the effects of time.” Dunedin Public Art Gallery. (2014). Stretching Time. Retrieved from


Steve Carr, 2014 Transpiration Dunedin Public Art Gallery.

Here Carr like the Spanish masters Cotan and Zurburan makes use of the humble and the commonplace; a carnation flower [and a primary school science experiment] and elevates it through electing to use it as the central signifier of a contemporary art work to be exhibited in a large public gallery and on large-scale. Although the scale alone, I suggest facilitates this elevation. The addition of the American night serves to remind us that we are indeed suspending a state of disbelief, it isn’t real. To my mind this opens the work up and provides the viewer with options for interpretation. It also, in my opinion, lightens the work which could possibly due to the dramatic scale, dark environment and historical references be experienced as overly serious and heavy.

Back to Bryson;

Bryson comments “It is in the monastic culture of seventeenth-century Spain that rhopography’s potential for overturning the scale of human importance is first revealed (1990, p. 63). Seventeenth-century Spanish painter Juan Sanchez Cotan (1561-1627) paints kitchen pictures or bodegones which reverse the scale of values of traditional painters. He reverses the worldly mode of seeing by taking what is of least importance in the world – the disregarded contents of a larder and lavishing on it the kind of attention usually reserved for what is of supreme value.


Juan Sanchez Cotan, Quince, Cabbage, Melon and Cucumber, 1602, San Diego Museum of Art

A contemporary example of this kind of reversal is found in the work of photographer Irving Penn (1917-2009). Penn gathers discarded cigarette butts and photographs them as still life.


Irving Penn, 1999.
Street Findings,
New York.

In contrast, traditional paintings for example Velazquez’ Las Meninas, conform to the social hierarchy where the King and Queen are at the apex.


Diego Velazquez- Las Meninas, 1656. Museo del Prado, Madrid.

From one point of view the worldly scale of importance is deliberately assaulted by plunging attention downwards, forcing the eye to discover in the trivial base of life intensities and subtleties which are normally ascribed to things of great worth; this is the descending movement, involving a humiliation of attention in the humble milieu, by imprisoning the eye in this dungeon like space, attention itself gains the power to transfigure the commonplace, and it is rewarded by being given objects in which it may find a fascination commensurate with its own discovered strengths. (Bryson, 1990, p. 64) Steve Carr’s Transpiration I think is a very good contemporary example of this reversal and transfiguration.

Another important aspect of the work of Cotan is to “ …to awaken vision to a sense of its own powers” (Bryson, 1990, p. 64). In other words to awaken a new and fresh vision in the audience, to birth another way of seeing that is different in fact the very opposite of traditional hierarchical painters and paintings. In order to mediate this intention he uses the device of hyper-reality, including great focus and brilliance. Bryson explains “Through this powerful, carefully assembled imagery the vagaries of fallen imagination are brought to an end; the strong, centrally organised images banish the dispersed and fitful field of ordinary vision to the shadows”(1990, p. 65). Chiaroscuro is another important feature in the work of Cotan because the profiles it builds along the dividing edge between dark and light create shapes for the eye that correspond to nothing known by the hand. Chiaroscuro elicits from objects a dramatic object-hood that is for the eye alone (Bryson, 1990, p. 74).

Spanish painter Francisco de Zurbaran (1598-1664) shares with Cotan the same Ignatian mission of reproving and refining worldly vision through a transfiguration of the mundane. Yet he uses a very different procedure. Zurbaran is more interested in the artefacts surrounding food than in food itself. He is engaged with the sense of touch and the action of hands on matter. He too and to even greater degree uses the technique of chiaroscuro to create impact in his work.


Zurburan Still Life with Pottery Jars
Oil on canvas; 46 x 84 cm; Museo del Prado, Madrid

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