Magazine article The Spectator

The Reality of Things

Magazine article The Spectator

The Reality of Things

Article excerpt

The Stuff of Life National Gallery, until 2 October The Westminster Retable National Gallery, until 4 September

The fourth in the National Gallery's series of touring exhibitions (remember Paradise in 2003 and Making Faces last year? ) comes to London after showing in Bristol and Newcastle. Entitled this time The Stuff of Life, it is a welcome excuse - should excuse be needed - to look at a group of first-rate still-life paintings, and ponder on their meaning. The merest glance at this exhibition returns us promptly to the world of things, if we ever managed to escape it. Unenlightened materialism is poor sustenance for anybody, but it is important to live in the moment with the reality of things (what Sickert called 'gross material facts'), with cabbages as well as kings, provided we keep in mind the possibility of deeper truths.

Plenty of cabbages in the four vast paintings of the seasons (or the elements) by the little-known Joachim Beuckelaer (c.1535-75). These stiff and stilted compositions, overwhelming and without subtlety, present an extreme of pictorial fact - a literal avalanche of it - without the spiritual leavening necessary to make it anything more than a clumsy catalogue of things. Compare the poignant delicacy of Zurbaran's 'Cup of Water and a Rose' (c.1630), the shimmer of reflected light on the silver plate contrasting with the duller surface of the Seville ceramic, made into a visual poem by the placing of the pink and white rose on the left. This is mastery: the knowledge of what to leave out.

If many visitors will hie themselves to this display because it includes van Gogh's ultra-famous 'Chair', there are better and less obvious reasons to seek it out. The Zurbaran is one, the glorious Melendez another. He is unsurpassed in the exact sensual depiction of ordinary textures:

oranges, walnuts and sweetmeat boxes.

Not just the surface of these things is persuasively caught, but their volume also is successfully suggested. This painting is a quiet masterpiece.

The Spanish are pre-eminent masters of still-life. (Juan Sanchez Cotan, 1560-1627, is one of the finest, conspicuous here by his absence. ) Look at the portion of Velazquez's magisterial 'Kitchen Scene with Christ in the House of Martha and Mary' that is devoted to objects: it sings.

Eggs, fish, pestle and mortar, garlic (its papery outer skin flaking separately), pepper and oil jug are disposed across the table top with all the satisfying accuracy of an equation. How much more real they seem than the cold, jewelled reaches of the Dutchman Willem Kalf's ostentatious 'Still-Life with Drinking Horn' (c.1653).

Even the deep reds of Courbet's 'Still-Life with Apples and a Pomegranate', as irritable as an infection, don't carry the same weight of conviction.

The range of exhibits is striking. To complement the 16th- and 17th-century works are a couple of contemporary pieces: a video by Sam Taylor-Wood from 2001, and Peter Blake's collection of miniature drink bottles in homage to Damien Hirst (2003). The video is of a decomposing hare, filmed over nine weeks and reduced to four-and-a-half speeded-up minutes of frenzied maggot-munching. It is titled 'A Little Death', which is supposed to be sexy and funny, I suppose; given the activities of the maggots, it could more aptly be called 'A Whole Lotta Life'.

Far deader is the rather flat nautical still-life by Edward Wadsworth (1936), though it's a good inclusion for comparison and variety. …

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