This post is prompted in part by a story I was listening to recently on NPR. They were announcing a still life show and began to discuss the humble status of the still life. For non-artists, a still life is a painting of gathered objects which the artist arranges and lights before capturing on canvas. I was unaware that in the art world this is the "lowliest of categories." What I did remember, and the story went on to elaborate, was that the still life often contains a secret code of the artists' choosing. The use of symbols got me to thinking about the symbols I find in other painters work as well as the ones I find myself using. But I get ahead of myself!
In this piece several symbols are used and, if you know the code, you would see a strong message in it. Generally accepted notes remind us that certain foods and flowers represented the seasons as well as the five senses, the use of a skull was mortality, while an hour glass, a pocket watch, a burning candle or a book with pages turning was to remind viewers of the ephemerality of sensory pleasures. Brevity of life was a huge concern in centuries past. At certain times religious symbols were not popular in art so other items took their place and lilies stood in for purity, the rose was the Virgin Mary, the apple related to Christianity and ivy symbolized eternal life.
The use of symbols in still life painting did not end in the 18th century and anyone who makes a study of this area will point out the iconography of more modern work. Picasso's masterpiece "Guernica" is incredibly complex when time is taken to decipher the many symbols of international conflict he incorporated into it.
This is all prelude to suggest that those of us who find current still life paintings rather "hum drum" (oh, yawn...another seashell next to a dead fish...) give some extra time and thought to whether or not there is a message from the artist. And yes, some are too obtuse to decode, but others just take a bit of time and creativity. Often objects (pipes, slippers, eyeglasses) stand in for a particular person while toys may represent time gone by.
Here are two random pastels I did in the past...see any similar trait? I seem to like to paint "paths." I look for areas that have a path or a road or a zig zag going through them. I'll let you come up with an interpretation of that!
Right now I am working on a series that intentionally uses symbols to represent certain lives I am alluding to. It has been fun trying to create a recognizable code to stand in for the words I cannot paint. I am hopeful that some of them will strike a note as clearly to others as the burning candle did for viewers in centuries past. We will see.
Meanwhile, all of this (blame NPR) was to alert you to the fact that while you are enjoying a piece for its color, form or fashion, there may also be a message hidden in it that the artist has planted for those intrigued enough to figure it out. Try. Give it a go and see what the symbols are telling you...even if you are not spot on to the artists' intent it will take still life viewing to a new level!
I believe that art enriches and informs our lives everyday in many positive ways. Sharing those experiences, whether as an artist or as an appreciator, is part of the pleasure. I welcome your comments and hope you find something of value: a laugh, an insight, a new idea or just a happy moment. Enjoy art!