BY Jennifer Higgie in Features | 30 SEP 13
Featured in
Issue 2

Still Lifes

A selective history of things on tables

BY Jennifer Higgie in Features | 30 SEP 13


About 2,000 years ago, someone painted a picture of a glass jug and four green peaches on the wall of a home in Herculaneum, a town on the shores of what is now the Italian Riviera. Two of the peaches are split open, their nutty kernels nestled in the fruit’s flesh like haloed comets. At the time of the painting, peaches would have been considered exotic; people were more familiar with grapes, apples, pears, plums, apricots, figs or pomegranates. Much of the food we now take for granted was unknown two millennia ago: carrots were not the same colour they are today; oranges weren’t introduced to Italy until the late 15th century. Though Alexander the Great first brought peaches to Europe after he conquered the Persians in the third century bce, the fruit only became popular in the Roman Empire around the time that this fresco was made. It is the earliest-known representation of peaches in existence.

We don’t know who painted this image or why. We do know that wall paintings known as xenia — a Greek word meaning ‘hospitality’, which was adopted by the Romans as a category of painting linked to the giving of gifts to visitors — were the early incarnations of what we now call still lifes, and would typically have been found in reception rooms. Popular subjects included dead animals, hanging from hooks, ready for the pot, as well as baskets of fruit, eggs and vegetables. However, Norman Bryson, in his book Looking at the Overlooked (1990), warns that: ‘Exactly because they seem so close in content to later still life painting, they [xenia] are easily elided with images produced in quite different cultural conditions […] the xenia essentially come to us as a ruin.’

Still Life with Peaches and Water Jar is both utterly familiar and absolutely alien. Yet, despite our cultural and temporal distance from the inhabitants of Herculaneum, we have some things in common with them: a peach, a jug of water, sunlight — this could be my table, today. It is also safe to assume that in its day this modest fresco would, in a sense, have been a touch boastful: it declares that the owners of the house weren’t simply open to new, fashionable sensations, such as the taste of peaches, but that they had the means to represent them too.

Light bounces off the glass. Herculaneum was a sun-kissed jewel of a town, popular with Roman holiday makers. Writing this on a grey day in London, the painting — touched with golden light — is seductive. Yet despite its charm, it’s clumsy: compare the skewed perspective of the jug and the curious, eye-shaped peach that floats awkwardly above it with the dazzling classical sculptures that were being created at the time. And why are the peaches green? Are they unripe? Has the colour (of the painting, of peaches) changed over the years or did the painter get it wrong — and what does the idea of ‘wrong’ mean here? Perhaps the owner of the house commissioned a struggling artist friend to paint it? Perhaps the household couldn’t quite afford the best painter in town? Perhaps they were ancient Surrealists who delighted in amateur translations of everyday scenes? Who knows?

In 79 ce, Mount Vesuvius erupted, spewing a deadly tidal wave of superheated rock and gas over the towns nestled at its base. Herculaneum, and everyone in it, was wiped out in an instant. The ferocity of the disaster can hardly be imagined: the mountain released 100,000 times the thermal energy of the bombing of Hiroshima. It buried Herculaneum beneath 24 metres of ash — almost 20 more metres than the town’s neighbour, Pompeii — which formed an airtight seal over the site for almost two millennia, preserving buildings, beds, cradles, doors, paintings, even a carbonized loaf of bread and bowl of figs (both of these were included in the recent exhibition ‘Life and Death: Pompeii and Herculaneum’ at the British Museum in London) — and, of course, this fresco. Excavations only began in the early 18th century and even today, two-thirds of Herculaneum remain buried. What a paradox that such devastation should have preserved such a delicate thing. Very few Ancient Greek frescos survive; Roman ones do because of a disaster.


In 1871, the 52-year-old Gustave Courbet was imprisoned for six months for his involvement with the Paris Commune — the revolutionary party that ruled France for two months of that year. He was charged with his role in the destruction of the Vendôme Column, which was erected in 1806 in Paris by Napoleon I to commemorate the Battle of Austerlitz. The column represented everything Courbet loathed: lack of originality, celebration of conquest, nostalgia for a brutal imperial dynasty. Best known for his enormous paintings such as The Stone Breakers, A Burial at Ornans (both 1849 – 50) and The Artist’s Studio, a real allegory summing up seven years of my artistic and moral life (1854 – 5), Courbet railed throughout his life against hypocrisy, religion and unearned privilege, while demanding that art reflect the realities of ordinary people. In 1861, he famously declared in a letter to a group of students: ‘Art in painting should consist only of the representation of things that are visible and tangible […] An age that has not been able to express itself through its own artists, does not have the right to be expressed by outside artists.’

Whilst he was in prison, Courbet’s sister Zoe visited him regularly, bringing fruit and flowers. At first denied materials, Courbet was finally allowed paints and canvas. He painted Still Life with Apples and a Pomegranate (1871 – 2) while behind bars. Compared to the enormous paintings for which he had become famous, it’s a modest picture of gently illuminated fruit in a chipped, terracotta bowl beside a metal tankard. Some have been baffled by the still lifes Courbet made in prison, questioning why he wasn’t responding more directly to the mayhem taking place on the streets of Paris. I have no way of knowing what was going through Courbet’s mind at this point, but I suspect that the fact that 30,000 of his fellow communards were executed, 38,000 imprisoned and 7,000 deported to New Caledonia might have momentarily tempered his revolutionary zeal — he was in no position to risk antagonizing the authorities.

This is not, however, to detract from the achievement of this painting. Although still life was traditionally considered the lowest of the genres (after portraiture, landscape and history painting) it was having a resurgence in mid-19th-century France. In the early 1860s, Louis Martinet’s Paris gallery had displayed 40 paintings by Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin — a master of still life — that had proven enormously popular; in 1870, Édouard Manet even painted a homage to Chardin’s painting of a brioche. Although Courbet had, in the early 1860s, made a small group of flowers paintings during a stay with a horticulturalist friend (pictures which are as joyful as these apples are gloomy), until his imprisonment he had never painted fruit. Art historians including Michael Fried have read Courbet’s fruit as substitutes for people — that is, the apples are crowded together in conditions as cramped as the one the painter found himself in. While possible, to my mind, it’s too literal a reading. I don’t doubt that Courbet was traumatized by his experience in jail: the knowledge that he had — in the bloody days preceding his imprisonment — evaded execution must have surely haunted his dreams. I imagine how therapeutic it must have been for him to concentrate on rendering, as realistically as possible, something as straightforward as a piece of fruit. And yet, despite the humble subject matter, there is something heroic about this painting. The 15 apples are gnarly, imperfect, unevenly coloured, yet there is nothing weak or self-pitying about the atmosphere Courbet so skillfully evokes. It is a compelling picture, painted with muscle and concentration; despite its shadows, the work emanates a profound sense of immediacy, of life. It is also possible that Courbet’s revolutionary tendencies weren’t entirely quashed — various writers have suggested that the seemingly benign pomegranate nestling so comfortably amongst the apples is telling: the French word for pomegranate is ‘grenade’.

On his release from prison in 1872, Courbet submitted two still life paintings to the Salon. Both were rejected. When Ernest Meissonier — famous for his adoring paintings of Napoleon I and heroic battle scenes — announced Courbet’s exclusion, he gloated that ‘the salon should declare Courbet dead’. The decision was taken to rebuild the Vendôme Column and Courbet, who was broke, was ordered to pay the costs. To avoid bankruptcy he fled to Switzerland, where he died from an alcohol-related illness in 1877, only days after everything in his Paris studio was dispersed in a public sale.


When I was young, I travelled to Barcelona with a friend. We were keen to see the work of Picasso and Miró and Goya and all of the other great Spanish painters, but what I remember most was an exhibition of still lifes by an Italian: Giorgio Morandi. I don’t recall where the show was held but I do have a vivid memory of how much it annoyed me. I couldn’t understand why someone would spend a lifetime painting what seemed to be the same thing over and over again or find such modest, repetitious images interesting. But as my travels progressed, I kept thinking about those paintings. It’s not too much of an exaggeration to say that they eventually became something of an obsession: I fell in love with Morandi’s calm, clear-eyed study of the relationship between simple things — measured, a touch melancholy, oddly beautiful, vaguely exhausted but very much alive. When I later studied painting, my respect for the artist grew: I discovered that creating something simultaneously so complex and yet seemingly effortless is possibly the hardest thing of all. I was intrigued by Morandi’s balancing act — the way he studied the art of the past (especially the painters of the early Renaissance, such as Piero della Francesca) in order to discover new ways of making art. His work led me to the writings of John Cage, who, in his own way, seemed to be exploring something similar. The composer’s famous dictum — ‘If something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, then eight. Then 16. Then 32. Eventually one discovers that it is not boring at all.’ — could have been written for, or about, Morandi.

I never bothered to delve very deeply into Morandi’s life — its details seemed extraneous to the essential fact of the paintings. I knew, of course, that he lived his whole life with his sisters and mother in Bologna, travelled only very rarely and led a monastic existence in his studio, in which he worked for 50 years, creating 1,350 paintings and 133 etchings. I also knew that he refused to allow the thick patina of dust that had settled on his arrangements of objects in his studio to be disturbed — he treasured the way it lent hard surfaces a softness, and diffused colours into the delicate, faded hues of ancient frescos. The paintings he made during the dreadful years of World War ii, seemingly remote from the horrors around him, were, to my mind, like small beacons of sanity in an insane world. He was a man for whom taking things slowly came naturally, declaring in one interview that: ‘It takes me weeks to make up my mind which group of bottles will go well with a particular coloured tablecloth. Then it takes me weeks of thinking about the bottles themselves, and yet often I still go wrong with the spaces. Perhaps I work too fast?’

It was only recently that I discovered that, in the 1920s, Morandi was a member of the far-right Strapaese movement, an off-shoot of mainstream Italian fascism that celebrated a rural, local, anti-Modernist aesthetic. In 1928, he wrote in the party’s journal, L’Assalto (The Assault): ‘I have had much faith in Fascism since its first inklings, faith that has never ebbed, not even in the darkest and most tumultuous moments.’ Mussolini bought several of the etchings Morandi exhibited in the 1928 Venice Biennale; the artist also participated in exhibitions organized by the local fascist artist union and the fascist printmaker’s union, which helped him sell his work. As Janet Abramowicz writes in Giorgio Morandi: The Art of Silence (2005): ‘There was no ambiguity about Morandi’s declaration of his faith in fascism.’ Suddenly, Morandi’s fascination with order, and his interest in Italy’s past, seemed sinister.

After the war, Morandi played down his fascist past; his reputation emerged unscathed, protected by what was perceived as his near-saintly remoteness from worldly preoccupations and by his mastery of a seemingly benign genre, one he distilled into abstracted — and thus, implicitly apolitical — studies of shape and colour in space. Small, muted, hazy still lifes are, apparently, the antithesis of the blood lust and boom of the Futurists, for whom fascism seemed tailor-made.

Knowing what we now know about Morandi complicates looking at his paintings, drawings and etchings. It begs the age-old question: is it possible to be truly moved by an artist whose politics you find repellent? It’s something I’ve never been able to answer adequately. Does disliking Richard Wagner, say, distort the phenomenal music he wrote? I’d have to say no — the correlation between aural complexity and political opinion resists easy classification. In the case of Morandi, nothing — not even the artist himself — can diminish the sheer, subtle beauty of the paintings. His politics may have been thuggish, but his work is anything but. It acts as a reminder of the pitfalls of confusing beauty with goodness, or radical invention with moral worth. As Morandi himself once observed: ‘I believe that nothing can be more abstract, more unreal, than what we actually see.’ He could have been talking about his own myth.


In 1927, the Australian artist and writer Margaret Preston made an exuberant woodcut print, Native Flowers. At the time, she was living at the harbourside suburb of Mosman in Sydney and the pictures she made reflect the lush, semi-tropical abundance in which she found herself. A split, bright orange pawpaw balances on a plate with bananas; a white vase is filled with a riotous bunch of Australian flowers including bottle brush, christmas bells and a waratah. Printed on Japanese paper and hand-coloured, it’s almost achingly bright. Forms are flattened and tonal contrasts ramped up, simplified and sun-baked — it’s like a snapshot of European Modernism on holiday, luxuriating in the hot Antipodean light.

In 1923, in an essay titled ‘Why I Became a Convert to Modern Art’, Preston wrote plaintively: ‘Australia is a fine place in which to think. The galleries are so well fenced in. The theatres and cinemas are so well fenced in […] The universities are so well fenced in […] Tradition thinks for you, but Heavens! How dull!’ At the time, Australian academic art remained in thrall to European traditions; it was common for white Australians to call Britain ‘home’, even if they had never been there, and for Aboriginal art to be of interest only to anthropologists. Between 1904 and 1919, however, Preston had studied in Paris, immersed herself in Japanese prints, looked at Gauguin’s paintings and made prints at Roger Fry’s Omega Workshop, as well as travelling to China, the Pacific Islands and the Middle East. In her pursuit of a homegrown Modernism, she returned time and again to still life, combining images of native flowers with echoes of European Modernism, Aboriginal and Asian art, in order to explore the possibilities of a language specific to the continent. As she wrote in Art and Australia in 1929: ‘Why there are so many tables of still life in modern paintings is because they are really laboratory tables on which aesthetic problems can be isolated.’

Preston had her first major exhibitions in Sydney and Melbourne in 1925, with her friend and fellow artist, Thea Proctor. The shows were a hit. The effect of Preston’s seductive, vivid prints, all of which she framed in Chinese red lacquer, cannot be underestimated: the Australian public was brought around to the possibility that local flowers — in other words, local concerns — were as valid a subject as European imports. Proctor declared that Preston had ‘lifted the native flowers of the country from the rut of disgrace into which they had fallen’.

In later years, Preston became increasingly interested in Aboriginal art, quoting from it and reinterpreting it for her own ends, travelling to remote sites and incorporating indigenous motifs into her work. Her prints became more schematic, larger, less colourful; she began to represent flowers not cut in vases but wild, in their natural state. As with all experiments, she wasn’t always successful, and her quotation of Aboriginal art remains contentious — some critics see it as, however well-meaning, a superficial appropriation of a complex language she had no right to employ, while others believe that it reflects a ground-breaking acknowledgement of indigenous art’s spiritual connection to the country.

In an article titled ‘What Do We Want for the New Year?’, published in Woman magazine in 1953, Preston wrote: ‘It has been said that modern art is international. But as long as human nature remains human every country has its national traits. It is important for a great nation to make a cultural stand […] My wish is to see a combined attempt by our artists to give us an art that no other country in the world can produce.’ When she died in 1963, at the age of 88, Preston had produced more than 400 prints. When I was growing up in Canberra, just about everyone I knew had a reproduction of a Preston print somewhere in the house. In fact, even now, I have a postcard of one of her still lifes stuck to my mirror.


In the summer of 1995, the young German photographer Wolfgang Tillmans took this photograph, summer still life. It’s a casual, familiar scene: a plate of cherries, strawberries, blueberries, grapes, a tomato and a peach; a pile of magazines and a newspaper; a lighter, a bottle with a twig stuck in it, a small pot plant, all balanced on a narrow, slightly grubby shelf by a window. The image is suffused with a soft, clear light and inflected with a faint weariness. I imagine that it was taken on a cool summer morning, perhaps with the kind of hangover that makes the world appear both dreamier and more vivid than usual.

Tillmans moved to London in the late 1980s and worked for fashion magazines, including i-D, Interview and The Face. His earliest photographs — the ones that made him famous — are seemingly casual studies of friends and lovers, often interacting in ways that might initially seem shocking — urinating on a chair, examining each other’s genitals, looking up a skirt, climbing a tree — but which are oddly tender. Tillmans is a great chronicler of desire in its myriad manifestations. He evokes the complexities of modern life with the lightest and most elegant of touches, even when he’s focusing on, say, the detritus of a kitchen, the aftermath of a party or the abstraction inherent in a roll of paper. It could be said that relationships are the lifeblood of his pictures — not just those between humans, but between the objects that humans rely upon, and what these objects say about the humans that use them. In an interview published in frieze in 2008, Tillmans declared: ‘I trust that, if I study something carefully enough, a greater essence or truth might be revealed without having a prescribed meaning.’ What this meaning might be is, of course, intentionally elusive: the simplest of actions — even eating fruit on a summer morning — can allude to things beyond our immediate understanding.

Tillmans has always been interested in mining exhausted genres because — conversely — of their seemingly unlimited capacity to move people. So it is with still life. In this, his work fits neatly into a long lineage of the genre’s sustained meditation on the culture of the table, and on the disarray that lurks at the heart of order. Fruit rots, a knife tumbles to the floor, the person who placed these things on this shelf has gone away or died.

Tillmans’ still lifes are, as all still lifes are, vivid snapshots of a certain moment in time. Take this image. Summer still life reveals a casual internationalism in the choices of reading matter: Interview magazine, the German publication Stern and The New York Times, with its headline ‘Experiment in Green’ just visible. Yet, despite its initial relaxed air, the image is carefully composed: the bright red tomato spins at the centre of a cosmos of pinks, greens and deep purples. Life, the image seems to declare, might be made of real surfaces, but abstraction liberates and illuminates the innate enigma of its components.

Every still life is more than the sum of its parts: who is reading these papers, eating this fruit, staring out of these windows? What Tillmans has done here is not so very different from the unknown painter who picked up his or her brushes, and decided to paint a bowl of peaches on a wall in Herculaneum around 2,000 years ago. The image reiterates: life doesn’t stop at the edge of the picture. It’s where it begins.

Jennifer Higgie is a writer who lives in London. Her book The Mirror and the Palette – Rebellion, Revolution and Resilience: 500 Years of Women’s Self-Portraits is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson, and she is currently working on another – about women, art and the spirit world.