Still, life

Van Gogh, 1887 Netherlands

When I taught Art Appreciation at Saint Leo University on the Naval Base in Norfolk, over the course of almost thirty years the most common comment among my mostly retiring active-duty military or already retired vets, when I showed still life paintings, was, “Who Cares? Who would want that on their walls? I’d rather have a real bowl of fruit!”

Rarely did anyone catch on that it was a set-up; I knew they’d say that.

“Why do you think?” I’d retort like any good psychologist might.

At first the responses were always the same, semester after semester: the dude liked fruit (or flowers); some family member painted it and they felt obligated to hang the thing; it was on sale; it came with the castle. Then, someone would offer a constructive perspective: the artist couldn’t afford a model; it represented wealth—having paintings of fruit or flowers or livestock meant you could afford those things (as well as a painting of anything at all, actually); the colors matched the throne.

“All true, but anything else?”

Silence.

I’d put on the screen some of the more famous and celebrated still-life paintings. Caravaggio’s fruit, Cezanne’s apples and curtains, or his famous skull painting, Braque’s violin and candlestick, and perhaps most famously, my favorite, Van Gogh’s Sunflowers.

“So that’s it? They liked the colors? They liked a good Mcintosh apple? I’d ask.

“Maybe they had paintings of those things because they couldn’t see them. Back then people might not have even known what an apple or a sunflower was, or at least never had seen them,” some thoughtful student might inevitably contribute.

“Except the skull.” We’d laugh.

“Excellent, and, sorry, but why else?”

Eventually someone would see it. “That’s a damn good sunflower.”

There it is. The texture, the perspective and color. The very notion of sitting and looking intently at a flower or an apple or even a skull is met with a laugh—we walk by them, of course, and they’re pretty. But to “Whitman ourselves” into some deep study of a leaf of grass or the pedal of a tulip is met mostly by ridicule. But when it is a painting, no one questions it. We are not wigging out on nature; we are appreciating the intense talent it took to capture the life itself and make it permanent. “Here we are,” I’d say, “One hundred—no, two, three hundred years later, and we’re still looking at the same flowers that Caravaggio had on his table. He keeps showing them to us.”

“Now I want an apple,” someone usually quipped. We’d laugh and I’d move on to the abstractionists, which was an entirely different head game.

But the still-life paintings were the ones I used on quizzes. They couldn’t get the answer wrong since it was a personal response, but after they studied endless names and paintings and periods and movements, the actual questions surprised them.

  1. Part A. Look at van Gogh’s “Sunflowers” for at least three minutes—study the strokes, the perspective, the context, and any narrative you find, and write about it in 500 words.

Part B. Why don’t you do that in nature? Why is it you can appreciate a painting and look at it a long time, but you don’t stop in nature and study the flowers, the texture of a tree? Respond in 500 words.

And other questions bent in a similar fashion.

I have a passion for art and some of my closest friends, several of whom have passed on, have been visual artists. I deeply appreciate art because, in part, I can’t do it myself. I have paintings by friends like Mikel Wintermantel, James Cole Young, George Tussing, and more. I have shelves of books with work by Pissarro, Cezanne, Monet, and Van Gogh, of course. The quality of his drawings exceeds his paintings in my opinion. As a writer and therefore an artist in the more general understanding of the term, I connect completely to the notion of trying to repeat in art what we experience in nature, and while my list of writers who have succeeded in that talent is impressive, my list of visual artists is far more extensive.  

That which captures nature and holds it up for us to see in the small rooms of tall skyscrapers, or paintings of Provence hung in living rooms in Arizona, is an example of human creative potential that is so revered that the names I’ve mentioned are household names, and the artists died centuries ago—that’s their staying power.

Still, life is not two-dimensional. It cannot be hung on walls or captured with acrylics and oils. It is an experience. It is kinetic. Life is the aroma of sunflowers in a field outside Pamplona, Spain, or the honeysuckle along a sidewalk in South Philly. Life is the soft sounds of rain on a pond in a park, where Monet’s lily pads cover the green surface, and you can hear a bullfrog, and you can feel the moistness on your skin. It is the sound of dry leaves on van Gogh’s path in the Netherland woods, or the slight chill in late fall where birch trees break the horizon like an Elliot Porter photograph.

If we can go for a walk and keep still, life is the original model, the inspiration and original cause, not art. Art is there for us, and it is beautiful and eternal and, personally, brings me peace.

But it is always imitating life. It did when Plato called it a false reality of life, and it did when van Gogh said, “Still, life is what matters most and the true artist in this world does not work on canvas but with flesh, heart, and soul.”

Home, 2019 Virginia

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