Still life is one of the most neglected genres, not only in photography but also in the history of art. It is only rarely discussed, despite the still-life picture being as pervasive as it is maligned. Art historians too complain that the still life is neglected and ignored. This is even indicated in the title of Norman Bryson’s book on stilllife paintings: Looking at the Overlooked.1 Yet paradoxically, still-life images are also some of the most highly rated and revered pictures of all time. No one would deny the painterly quality of Chardin’s carefully balanced tabletop scenes of food or the famous apples in Cézanne’s Post-Impressionist paintings or the ever-popular expressionist Sunflower paintings by Vincent van Gogh. Many, if not all, people love still-life pictures, and one might even be forgiven for thinking that still life is a form where visual innovation often occurs first, especially in the history of avant-garde art.
Cubism, for instance, not only used still life (guitars, vases, crockery) repeatedly to develop its thinking, it also completely dismantled its objects by breaking with any illusion of three-dimensional depth in pictorial ‘realism’. Evidence of the importance of the genre is given in philosophy too, where the humble still-life picture pops up in Martin Heidegger’s essay ‘The Origin of the Work of Art’. Heidegger uses a painting by Vincent van Gogh, titled Pair of Shoes (more bleak than the Sunflower pictures he is famed for), to meditate on a philosophy of art.2 A discussion of the same Van Gogh still life reappears in Frederic Jameson’s classic 1980s essay on postmodernism, while Jacques Derrida’s book, Truth in Painting, also engages with it – partly as his response to Heidegger and to deconstruct the claim that it is a pair of shoes.3 Still life offers the opportunity to depict objects in space and also a space for the critique of objects. What seems odd is this quiet persistence and presence of the still-life picture. Still life as a category will not go away. Resolute, stoic and despite being dismissed as trivial, it exists – and more, it innovates. So from these, admittedly brief, examples we might surmise that still life is actually much more important than it has