‘No one has ever been amazed by an apple’ – sorry Cézanne, but still lifes are boring as hell

High on the wall in the first room of Tate Modern’s successful Cézanne exhibition was a quote from the revered post-impressionist: “With an apple, I will astound Paris.” To which, surely, the only answer is: “OK man. No one has ever been amazed by an apple. Least of all Parisians, who tend to greet most things with a Gallic shrug.

There is no doubt that Cézanne was extremely influential and truly amazed. The very fact that a 19th-century artist has been exhibited in the modern arm of the Tate is due to his avant-garde impact on Cubism and beyond. And the exhibition, which has just ended, is striking for its exhaustive exploration of the painter’s masterful career: from the first self-portraits to the almost Baroque and romantic styles of the Eternal Feminine, from the nudes of bathers to the splendid representations of seas, forests and the his beloved Mont Sainte-Victoire. But there were also – over and over again, deliciously – apples.

Cézanne created more than 270 apple works. Among these are the apples entitled Ronseal (1878); Still Life with Apples (1890); Still life with apples – still (1894); The Basket of Apples (1893). And so on. From time to time he mixed it, as with Still Life with Apples and Pears (1892) or Apples and Oranges (1900). But that’s too many apples.

In all fairness, Cézanne is arguably the greatest of all apple-depictors: the surface light he catches; the color transitions as the fruit ripens and then rots; the masterful hint that you are about to roll off the table. He influenced and worked alongside other accomplished brawlers, such as Renoir, Monet and Manet (who called the still life the “touchstone” of painting). But he’ll just say it: for the most part, still life is boring as hell.

Here We Go Again… an anonymous 17th century Dutch Golden Age oil painting, discovered last year in Australia. Photograph: AAP/The National Trust NSW

This is not exactly a niche opinion: even in Cézanne’s day, still life was at the bottom of the hierarchy of subjects deemed worthy. Portrait and landscape painters were almost always held in high esteem. And in my opinion, rightly so. Humans, nature: teeming with verve, vigor and vitality. But a vase? A candlestick? A jug? Silverware, I ask you! Not so much.

Still life in art has existed throughout history. Ancient Egyptians daubed small paintings of their dinner on cave walls and inside tombs, and I’ve seen up close the surviving Roman frescoes of fruit from Pompeii. But the still life established itself during the Renaissance. The emergence of a wealthier middle class, and with it a focus on materialism, as well as a growth in secular over religious subjects, contributed to its rise. The Dutch in particular were enthusiastic, along with the Italians and the French. Jacopo de’ Barbari is often cited as the artist who started the explosion of still life with his Still Life with Partridges and Gloves (1504), and so much of the blame can be placed on him.

There are canonical still lifes that I adore. I mostly give flowers a pass. I’m not sure there is a better flower painter than Maria van Oosterwijck, the Dutch Golden Age artist whose use of chiaroscuro and vibrant color produced blooms almost as stunning as the real thing. And I will allow Van Gogh’s sunflowers. I can also appreciate the texture and motif of Maya Kopitseva’s kitchen landscapes.

Sunflower oil paintings by Van Gogh at the Alive experience at the Propyard in Bristol, 2022.

Sunflower oil paintings by Van Gogh at the Alive experience at the Propyard in Bristol, 2022. Photograph: Ben Birchall/PA

I would not quibble with the impact or poignancy of Duchamp’s Dadaist Fountain (1917) or Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Cans (1962). Or there’s Harold E Edgerton AKA Papa Flash, the MIT professor and inventor of the electronic flash, whose visceral 1964 Bullet through Apple photograph appears to freeze time, and was a demonstration of advances in photographic technique and scientific understanding. (Due to an adamant desire to decorate each room in my house appropriately – bathroom, kitchen, etc. – I own prints of all of the above.) I marvel at the supreme beauty and detail of a Qing Dynasty vase as much as the next person, and I love Martin Parr’s glorious spill baked beans on toast on a traditional red and white gingham tablecloth.

But I’m afraid there isn’t much to learn from, say, a blown candle or rotting fruit. The symbolism of vanitas paintings is heavy; their memento mori a commentary on mortality. It’s just that skulls and hourglasses aren’t subtle, while I’m not sure if a banana turning brown is synonymous with the end of a human life. A banana has not fallen in love with other fruits; felt joy or loss. A banana doesn’t know what a sunset is. A banana didn’t turn 33 and had an existential crisis (hello!). For a more penetrating elucidation of death, I’d recommend Daphne Todd’s haunting portrayal of her deceased mother from 2010, or perhaps David Kirby on His Deathbed (1990) by then journalism student Therese Frare, who did so much to fight the ignorance and prejudice during the AIDS crisis.

I like art. I am a frequent visitor to galleries and museums. I also paint, draw and photograph. I doodled endlessly as a youngster but art lessons at school weren’t exactly thrilling, they’d open crayons and make me draw an orange that the teacher had bought from Tesco that morning. There was also something incongruous about 12-year-olds drawing wine bottles and something anachronistic about copying chandeliers in the 2000s.

It makes sense, however, for children to learn drawing and painting through still life. It is a useful genre for artists of all ages to play with and experiment with when it comes to form, color and perspective (which is partly why Cézanne made so much of it), but it lacks the sense of satisfaction that capture a human being the expression does, or under it – without wanting to sound like the most pretentious individual in the world – that of a person essence. It cannot inspire the feeling of summer heat on your skin when you look at the sunlight shimmering on the surface of the seas; or conjure the crunch of leaves and twigs underfoot in the woods; or capture the contrasting human emotions – stress, nonchalance, concentration, resignation – of students before an exam.

Untitled (With Suitcase) by Michael Craig-Martin on display at the Royal Academy in 2020.

Untitled (With Suitcase) by Michael Craig-Martin on display at the Royal Academy in 2020. Photography: Nils Jorgensen/REX/Shutterstock

One could argue that it is part of the everyday nature of still life that’s the point. But if still life is a reflection of how we live, how come most contemporary still lifes say nothing about how we live now? It approaches the counterfactual. A friend had a print framed for me, which I love. It’s a photograph that was included in a book by him, and in its romantic light of candles and flowers it’s decidedly Velázquez-esque. But I love it precisely because its echo of the past is instinctive and organic, unintentional rather than parody. Many artists, however, are still making jugs and bowls of fruit, when the remains of Deliveroo packaging, or perhaps an air fryer, might be more likely.

To their credit, there are artists producing such works. Michael Craig-Martin, the Irish-born artist, began documenting changing consumer culture in the 1970s, focusing on objects that define each era or capture the zeitgeist. His current subjects include headphones, coffee cups and debit cards; and his recent show in Amsterdam included renderings of pandemic staples: face masks, sanitizer bottles and laptops. He has created a visual vocabulary of the times and the vivid, contrasting colors he works with inject a sense of fun into the everyday (his bananas are blue). In addition to his paintings (a mix of computer drawing and acrylics on aluminum), Craig-Martin also creates large-scale sculptures, which make the minutiae of our lives grand.

I was scrolling through Instagram the other day (the iPhone is another Craig-Martin subject) and came across a Flo Perry painting of a set of house keys hanging on a hook above the kind of intercom ubiquitous in modern apartment buildings . For me, it beckons – consciously or not – on a macro level, towards the density and development of skyscrapers, in this era of housing shortages, rents and shared ownership. Those intercoms are a signifier of millennial lives. And, more personally, where does the apartment occupant go every time he takes those keys and opens the door? Who are they buzzing? What is the rest of their house like? I’m also a huge fan of Lucy Sparrow’s witty iterations of corner stores and pharmaceuticals, from antidepressants to candy bars to pregnancy tests to ketchup bottles.

Lucy Sparrow's felt chemicals.

Lucy Sparrow’s felt chemicals. Photograph: Kirsty O’Connor/PA

During the pandemic, there has been an organic movement in the creation of still life compositions. Many were created by people who had never picked up a pencil, brush or camera. There was even a hashtag on Instagram: #stayhomestilllives, a play on the British government’s slogan “stay home, save lives.” This common and creative encounter was edifying. My skepticism about still life has softened. Then I got tired of the upside down cups balancing on colanders, and the world opened up again.

For most of us, that is. For some not. And that’s why the still life work of inmates at the Pentonville Prison art club in London is instructive. It could be argued that the reason for so many still lifes in the past was due to similarly limited subject options. But I’m afraid it just didn’t fit when Turner was out there literally painting a storm. Or Schiele drew everyone masturbating (and, indeed, the Romans had their most vivid frescoes). Basically what I’m saying is: there is absolutely no excuse for Morandi to leave.

I tried, really. But I don’t think a plate on a tablecloth will ever speak to me. I pricked up my ears, I listened carefully. Nothing but the echo of the footsteps of a gallery owner going from room to room, and me staring at the grapes.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *