Monday, November 23, 2015

Memento CIWT --- Day 4/297

Walk: JCCSF, T. Joe's
Distance: 3 miles and yoga class

Still Life
Abraham van Beyeren (Dutch, 1620-90), Still Life, 1666, 55 x 45 7/8", oil on canvas (Palace of the Legion of Honor, San Francisco)

It's the time of year when Ciwt comes home from the market with bags bursting with comfort food. Which today puts her in mind of those burgeoning banquet feast tables painted often by Dutch baroque artists.  Seemingly straight forward and exquisitely executed, the Banquet Pieces were also complex morality tales.  This duality - celebration of enormous prosperity combined with reminders that riches are vain and fleeting - suited the pious Calvinistic Dutch need to reconcile their new, celebratory acquisitiveness with their religious disdain for ostentation.

Another name given to these still lifes is 'vanitas' paintings.  In the painting above the table is covered with delicacies from all of the world and is evidence of the truly incredible wealth the Dutch were experiencing after their freedom from Spain.  (In their Golden Era, the Dutch were the richest economy in the history of the world, before of after). Yet the painting contains multiple 'vanitas' s- or memento mori,(translation: Remember that you can die) symbols including: the pocket watch representing the passing of time, the empty glass, the plate sitting precariously at the table's which could fall at any time.

 For a larger clearer look at van Beyeren's painting, this link will take you to the Legion's collection.  For those with a bit more interest in the art of the Dutch Golden Era and the painting above, Ciwt once wrote a paper as follows. N.B. before leaving:  Like all things, Ciwt's comfort food bonanza usually vanishes with the end of the darker, colder, holiday season.  

During the later 17th Century when this painting was executed the Dutch had freed themselves from Spanish rule and also become a preeminent banking and naval power with trade routes and colonies extending into Asia and the New World.  Art flourished in this wealthy, self-confident environment free from the constraints of Catholic Church patronage and was highly prized by a rising and justifiably acquisitive middle class.  But this new mercantile, banking and seafaring bourgeoisie was also largely Calvinist Protestant and rigidly tempered by religious and moralistic disdain for ostentation.  Perhaps to reconcile the two conflicting mindsets – materialistic exuberance and religious piety - Dutch collectors came to favor low-key works – portraits, landscapes, seascapes and still lifes such as this work. Artists began increasingly to specialize in certain types of work, as van Beyeren did, first in fish portraits and later in sumptuous banquet paintings or pronks.

Among Dutch still lifes a subgenre flourished in the early to late 17th century (the time of this painting) again tempered by Calvinisn.  Known as vanitas paintings, these still lives included collections of objects symbolizing the inevitability of death and the transience of earthly achievements and pleasures.  Known as momento mori (reminders of death) the objects are often placed amidst the sumptuousness and splendor of exquisite material and natural objects as they are in this masterful van Beyeren Still Life.  

Van Beyeren was extensively trained in guilds of The Hague, his native city, and Amsterdam among other Dutch venues. His painterly skills are fully honed by the time of this later vanitas.  Witness the beautifully rendered Delft bowl, the glass decanter and pedestal plate, the exquisite silver fish platters, the succulent peaches, the rich, flounced satin tablecloth, gold trimmed and shimmering in the artful light.

But the materialistic swoon is jarred by a disproportionately large, vividly orange lobster which makes multiple references.  The lobster is a complex sea creature, hard, crusty, dangerously clawed on the outside with insides that are sweet, succulent and easily perishable.  As such the lobster begins to shift the viewer’s mind toward the more complicated momento mori objects and to toward essences rather than surfaces.  There is a half-eaten peach, a peeled lemon, a used napkin, a rather dilapidated ribbon, and, most especially and directly in front of the lobster’s fixated eye and pincer, an open and presumably ticking timepiece.  Somebody has been here and is now gone, the fruit will rot, the bread will go stale, that which is momentarily brilliant in the intensely highlighted foreground is weighted toward the edge of the table with the suggestion that it is destined to fall again into the dark from which it emerged.

Indeed the overall composition of the still life speaks of time passing.  Beginning from the dark left corner of the table to the highlighted cantaloupe just above the right midline  there is a upward and right moving diagonal which captures the momentary exuberance of the rapid Dutch economic ascent .  But virtually the entire rest of the painting opposes this upward thrust from the massive, murky upper section and to the smaller but similarly dark passage that comprises the lower part of the painting.  The objects on the table are unstable: they are tipped sideways like the Delft bowl or spilling forward like the grapes, the dilapidated ribbon, the used napkin, and most poignantly the lobster’s largest claw.  These over hang to the extent we are no longer sure just where the front edge of the table is. The soft, billowy grey tablecloth will not support weight and begins to transmute into a sort of shroud toward which all the objects are moving. In fact, the entire weight of the painting is moving forward toward the viewer and he or she is included in this inexorable passage from the dark into the light and then back into the dark.  Momento mori: Ashes to ashes; dust to dust.


Many of van Beyeren’s techniques foreshadow modernism: the washy, impressionist brushstrokes of the background, the bravura, mildly tenebrist lighting and especially the cubist-like perspective.  Although not always to the liking of the conservative, realistically minded bourgeoisie of his era and therefore less famous than some of his artistic contemporaries, we begin to see why van Beyeren is now considered one of the most talented Dutch still life painters of the second half of the 17th Century.

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