One of the remarkable features of painting in the twentieth century was the persistence of the still life. Through what turned out to be a long and largely self-destructive period, painters didn’t abandon the genre which had been developed during the Dutch Golden Age: far from it, still life painting continued to develop.
Unfortunately, for copyright reasons I’m severely constrained in the paintings that I can show as examples here. I particularly acknowledge the kindness of White Cube and Ellen Altfest for allowing me to show a couple of her wonderful paintings.
Felix Esterl eschewed fine detail in his curious collection of objects in Still life with Skinned Hare, Chicken, Fish and Turtle from 1929, which is perhaps just as well.
The New Zealand artist Frances Hodgkins, working largely in Britain, painted several innovative still lifes: above, Still Life Eggs, Tomatoes and Mushrooms, and below Vase of Flowers, both completed in 1929. The former is a development of the traditional meal setting, and the latter is a good example of one of her favourite compositional devices, a still life in the foreground of a window, which in turn frames a distant landscape.
Hodgkins’ The Painted Chest from 1938 is another composite of still life and outdoor view. Standing on top of the painted chest are two jugs and a vase, the latter containing flowers. In the distance is what appears to be a laid-out vegetable and flower garden.
Among the great specialist still life artists of the latter half of the century is Janet Fish (1938-), whose breathtaking paintings can be seen at DC Moore Gallery. She has taken the showpiece of glass and other reflective surfaces to a new level.
Ellen Altfest (1970-) has pursued a rather different course, in painting the real world one morsel at a time. A good overview of her paintings is at White Cube.
Her early works explored segments of trees, logs, plants (including a marvellously intricate rendering of tumbleweed), and a still-life collection of gourds. As if in transition, in 2009 she painted a composite still life of a rock, a foot, and a plant. Since then she has concentrated on small rectangular segments of the human body. She achieved some notoriety in 2006 when this included a penis, which met with press hubbub when shown at the Royal Academy in the Saatchi USA TODAY exhibition.
Altfest is as detailed and precise in her methods and techniques as are her works. To ensure that her painted representations are exact, she measures angles with metal skewers, and places marks to maintain her orientation in forests of hair. She eschews grids and projections so that she can retain a sense of herself, and not lapse into mechanical reproduction. She only paints in natural light, and often outdoors, even during Arctic winter weather.
The end result is nothing like a photograph. These are oil paintings which result from the most prolonged and intense looking, and painstaking painting. They are exquisitely crafted, and thoroughly evocative. They are both very modern and deeply traditional, living still life, rather than nature morte.
Even the Golden Age vanitas painting has been effectively revived, as in Jeylina Ever’s topical Vanitas Symbolizing Childhood Disease, Culture, Time Passing and Death from 2009.
Tjalf Sparnaay’s ‘mega-realistic’ Sandwich Ham-Egg (2014) brings us well into the twenty-first century of fast food, following the tradition of the meal table and bodegone, the eternal still life which concludes the paintings in this series.