One looks at paintings hoping to find some secret. A secret not about art, but about life. And if one finds one, it remains a secret, because, finally, it is untranslatable into words, remarks John Berger at the Peter Fuller Memorial Lecture, delivered at Tate Modern in 2000.
As in every genre, masters were rare. Masters were those who met the public demand yet pushed their art beyond it. Yet whether one is thinking of masters or modest artisans, the genre has its own logic, its own metaphysics, which tends to push its practitioners in a certain direction.
Still lifes - even before they begin to be painted - have been deliberately assembled: objects which the painter finds intriguing or touching have been arranged as compositions on the table or shelf. Still life is a sedentary art, connected with the activity of keeping house. A home may be tidy or informal but there is always a certain welcoming order to it. Which is why Rembrandt’s Slaughtered Ox, or certain canvases of carcasses by Soutine, are not still lifes but dramatic works, whereas Goya’s heartbreaking Dead Pheasant is nevertheless a still life.
John Berger photograph © Rolf Höjer (Credit)