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The Rebirth of Still Life

The Michigan Daily:
Donald Sultan's Spring Mimosa — Image courtesy of Galeria Senda
Donald Sultan's Spring Mimosa — Image courtesy of Galeria Senda

Paris on June 28 felt as crisp as those April days where spring is hesitating between being a bypasser or staying for good. I had brought with me a suitcase full of the wrong clothes, unaware of the contrast between Barcelona’s humid heat and Paris’ omnipresent drizzle. As if by magic, the rain only came down while I strolled through halls and not through streets. By halls I mean the endless rooms of the Louvre — golden frames, detailed depictions of myths on door handles and ceilings that made one feel like they were mere specks of dust under godly skies.

Aware that I would need many more visits to see it all, and given that this was my second time at the Louvre, I decided to steer towards the Richelieu wing. On the second floor, I embarked on a journey from the XIV century to the XIXth with the aid of the northern European masters — Rubens, Rembrandt and Vermeer, among others.

I halted the steady tempo of my nonchalant meandering when I arrived at a dim-lit room carrying an ensemble of medium-sized still lifes by Flander and Dutch artists. They were stacked on top of each other, leaving no more than a few inches between their frames. There was an ongoing dialogue between the four walls; one painting took your eye to the next, allowing you to look closely at one piece but not long enough to delve into every detail. They were so vivid they reeked — of rotten fish, stale wine and pickled peaches.

I had never really paid much attention to still lifes before. They are the strangers in the street of paintings: you see them but you really don’t see them. Now I regret every time I neglected these pieces, for I was so blind. I had an awakening when I reached Willem Claesz Heda’s Breakfast Still-Life (1637) — a work so dully monochromatic it was hard to fully grasp the details of the painting. Was it a blueberry tart, a meat pie or an English pudding? I couldn’t quite comprehend the vitality I so oddly found among such nihility and anonymity.

I began guessing why the breakfast was left like this (had a fire made guests flee the room?) or what had happened for that person to drink wine in the morning. Perhaps the reason for it all was the glass knocked over onto the plate, which had made one diner leave to change their stained clothes, and the other gone to find cleaning materials. I was able to find an ironic sense of delight within such a chaotic setup.

That day I left the Louvre having discovered a love for the “dead nature” I had so often ignored. I searched for more exhibitions where I could make up stories in my head, using only what I saw within the frame. Tales of dukes and posh silver goblets, of burlesque women and wooden glasses filled with cheap wine, of bourgeois wannabes and their chinoiserie tablecloths…

You are probably thinking: really? Still life? The frenzy over dead nature and wine glasses left undrunk has long been dead, hasn’t it? The bread crumbs, the pear, the worm-eaten apple … Or those who opt for flowers, in order to come across as romantics, or perhaps because they were on offer and spring isn’t the season for pears. A white canvas, stained with the pigment of earthy colors — green, brown and dijon yellow.

After Paris, I came back to Barcelona and started my internship at a contemporary art gallery where renowned American artist Donald Sultan was currently exhibited. Sultan, who is known for his large-scale still life paintings, made an impression on me from the moment I stepped foot in the room.

On display was a series of six paintings with the mimosa flower as its motif. These flowers had been nourished with enamel instead of water and had grown on a masonite board, not a white canvas. It wasn’t like Cézanne’s assortment of fruit, nor Van Gogh’s sunflowers, but something superior — the desired result achieved through an unusual formula.

To understand how it felt, picture yourself in a concrete plant, where the tar fumes and the heat emerging from the pyramid of pebbles clog your lungs and make your blood boil. In the midst of all that industrial landscape — metal, wood, iron and fire — grows a flower. It isn’t easy to imagine — in fact, it’s almost impossible for a flower to grow among so much hardship. Yet, against all odds, it does. It is an orange flower, round like the sun, like the moon, like a dandelion that hasn’t granted its wish yet.

Donald Sultan’s mimosas play with your senses: you can see minimal circles, surrounded by a bunch of olive leaves and it makes you think: south of France, dry and fruity air… but when you get closer to the piece all such schemes fall down. You no longer think of the French countryside, but of the way there — the voyage. The heat emerging from the asphalt when you step out of the car to spread your legs, and the smell of tar coming from a factory that was built far from human life to avoid shortening these with the impurity of the fumes steaming from high chimneys.

Perhaps the death of conventional still life paintings did occur, and they are only meant to be showcased in museums as old as the works themselves — containing that way a contemporaneity to the works. Freezing them in a time capsule where they are most appreciated in the place and time in which they were created. Heda’s Breakfast Still-Life would look awfully displaced in the Museum of Modern Art, but so would Cézanne’s Basket of Apples in the Louvre Museum. It is a matter of atemporality.

Cézanne took with him the last sigh of the artist-admirer-of-fainted-fruits-over-ceramics, and Van Gogh that of sunflowers, which turned their heads away from the minds of those who self-importantly claim to “know about art.” Maybe only a few of us still find peace in the representation of nature, even if it doesn’t come accompanied by conceptual affairs and ulterior motives. A bouquet of marigold, a clementine, a landscape or something as mundane as a cigarette that dances in the darkness of a flat near 6 W & 24th St.

From Heda to Sultan, I have been able to find a new way of taking in the beauty of nature — dead or alive — and a mode of nurturing my imagination. Still lifes are supercuts of encounters, of things that were left unsaid, of atemporal customs and societal structures … in short, the capturing of life within decaying flesh.