In the 17th century the French Royal Academy categorised all paintings into five different types, and then placed these five types, or genres, into a hierarchy. At the very top of this hierarchy were what was called History paintings. History paintings tended to be quite large, beautifully executed works featuring figures, and they would either be depictions of religious scenes, mythological stories, or perhaps a historical battle or event which had taken place.
Next came Portraiture.
Then came, rather confusingly, ‘Genre’ paintings. These are best understood as scenes of everyday life, so imagine Breugel’s paintings of Dutch peasants at a wedding.
Then came Landscape painting and right at the very bottom were Still Life paintings.
Still Lifes are a collection of inanimate objects arranged in such a way as to make a pleasing composition or design. They can be anything from vases, bowls, plates and glasses arranged on a surface such as a table, perhaps with a cloth or piece of fabric or a chair pushed to the side, to a selection of objects such as flowers, fruit, bread, even fish and shellfish.
Interestingly, today in the twenty-first century there are many more genres of paintings that, of course, do not feature in this hierarchy - wildlife painting and abstract to name just two.
Still Life art has been around for centuries, long before it was categorised as a specific genre in the seventeenth century. As far back as Egyptian times depictions of crops, fish and meat could be found in ancient burial sites, then the Ancient Greeks and Romans represented bowls of fruit and vases in their frescoes and mosaics. However, it was perhaps Seventeenth Century Dutch artists who really developed Still Lifes into a recognisable and memorable genre. I remember being fascinated by beautifully executed paintings of arrangements of fish, fruit, wine and bread in Kelvingrove Art Gallery. The dramatic lighting in these pieces always grabbed my attention and I could imagine reaching in and touching the items on display. The objects were painted so perfectly one could almost forget that they were, in fact, just a painted representation rather than the real thing itself.
Of course, once I went onto study Dutch painting at university I learnt that every Still Life was imbued with symbolic meaning and this brought a whole new level of enjoyment and fascination to the genre. Beautifully elaborate paintings of flowers represented a growing fascination in botany and horticulture, with the establishment of Botanic Gardens, whilst the wonderfully realistic depictions of lavish feasts of food and drink referenced the booming oversees trade with luxuries flooding into the country from all over the world.
Rather more nuanced symbolism could be uncovered in the 'Vanitas' Still Lifes, a commentary and judgement on the perceived battle between vice and pleasure, virtue and abstention, with objects such as musical instruments, books and wine representing the vanity of worldly pleasure.
'Momenti Mori' paintings took this one step further, illustrating the inevitability of death with symbols such as wilting flowers, guttering candles, skulls and hour glasses.
There is huge pleasure to be had in exploring these works with a detective’s eye, searching for symbols and hidden meaning, rather like solving a puzzle.
My fascination with Still Lifes also stems from my enjoyment of strong composition and design. After my initial association of the genre with Dutch painting, I then consider work by modern artists such as Van Gogh, Cezanne, Picasso, Braque, Matisse, and, let us not forge, the Scottish Colourists - Peploe, Ferguson and Cadell.
For these artists, the potential for Still Lifes to allow for an exploration and development of the formal elements of art as well as an opportunity to play with how best to depict multiple viewpoints of an object in paint on a flat canvas, was understandable huge.
I am reminded of my time at school, studying Art& Design. One element of the course was to design and compose a Still Life based on a theme. In many ways this incorporated both the elements of symbolism present in Dutch art and the formal elements of Modern art. I needed to select objects which illustrated the theme, which must have significance, whilst at the same time lending themselves to an aesthetically pleasing, balanced composition.
Perhaps, then, this is where the ongoing fascination with Still Life stems from, both for those who paint them and for those who enjoy them. It is in the skill which is demonstrated in the execution, both in formal terms, but also concept and design.
So, when I look at Mark Ward’s painting ‘4 Pink Pots with Snowballs’ I approach it with layer upon layer of personal associations. Initially, I am struck by the fact that there is no interconnection between the objects, with the exception of one snowball overlapping the block on the right. One might think that this would result in an image with no smooth, flowing composition, the viewer’s eye unable to travel fluidly around the picture plane. However, this is not the case. The shape and positioning of the bowls and vases are designed to allow one’s eye to range across the surface, one side to another. It is incredibly balanced.
Upon further inspection and close looking I come to the sense of a painting which is at once three-dimensional, offering a real impression of form and depth, yet, equally, possessing a two-dimensional and abstract quality. Abstract in that it is essentially built on a background of flat rectangles – the surface upon which the objects sit, the box and the blue backdrop. Then, superimposed onto these are the curved vessels.
“It is very unusual for me to omit characters but all my pictures are still lifes. Originally I made these pots for a scene with birds but I wasn’t happy with it. I’d been working on a whole lot of pictures based on the effect of patterns across surfaces inspired by the nets and spots of Yoyoi Kusama. I’d been asked to take part in an exhibition entitled ‘Elements’ so I produced the Homogeny Fish paintings where the fish and water were one and the same like a Kusama tableau. As paintings they became quite trompl’oeil. Anyway, I quite liked the pots in their own rights.” Mark Ward
Do the snowballs hold symbolic meaning or, rather, do they perform a formal function, the white balancing the overall composition?
“The snowballs were just a compositional decision to liven up the arrangement – they’re pom-poms from my store. They also add a little intrigue.’ Mark Ward