Giving the Mundane its Beautiful Due

By Imogen Sara Smith
“Nothing humiliates his brushes,” the Goncourt brothers wrote in 1867 of Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin, the eighteenth-century master of still life. Their amazement betrays disdain for such mundane subjects as copper pots, a jar of olives, a brioche, a dead rabbit, a clay pipe, a plate of plums. But while Chardin transformed kitchen scenes into enchantingly harmonious compositions, he never lost the feel of the kitchen. Evoking what Norman Bryson calls “a low-plane reality of quiet duties and small satisfactions,” he created an art not humiliated but nourished by the mundane and the quotidian. The evolution of these words is telling. Mundane means the things of the monde, earthly rather than heavenly; quotidian means daily, as in panum nostrum quotidianum, our daily bread. Both terms have picked up connotations of not merely the commonplace and ordinary, but the banal, unimaginative, pedestrian, dull. Used this way, the words diminish everyday experiences and ordinary surroundings.

The pre-modern art world ranked still life below other genres, equating it with the merely technical challenge of representing inanimate objects, a subject considered insignificant and uninteresting compared with historical scenes, portraits or landscapes. Still life can confront this accusation of triviality in two different ways: by insisting that a great painting can be made of any subject, no matter how unimportant, if it is painted well enough (Cézanne declared, “With an apple I want to astonish Paris!”); or by arguing that value can be found in the ordinary, that no subject is really unimportant. The revolutionary modernists embraced still life as a form of “pure painting,” which downplays the importance of subject matter and draws attention to the painted surface. Cézanne’s apples are celebrated for their brushwork, color and composition, not because they are “good enough to eat.” Modern painters elevated the status of still life while diminishing its earthier role in evoking the sensuous details of things that, in our daily lives, we touch, handle, hold, weigh, put to our lips, smell, taste on our tongues.
John Updike wrote that “my only duty was to describe reality as it had come to me—and to give the mundane its beautiful due.” What we owe to the mundane is first of all to pay attention to it, to notice what is around us; to be conscious of our senses interacting with our surroundings, not simply conveying information to us but creating, through their limitations and their particular gifts, the world we experience. The chief obstacle is familiarity, our ability to perform daily tasks mechanically, with a minimum of attention. Our hands and bodies know their way around our living spaces; how often do we need to do more than scan or glance? One of the purposes of art, of course, is to disrupt this mechanical process, to strip away the blindfold of familiarity and show us things we overlook. (Looking at the Overlooked is the title of Norman Bryson’s superb collection of essays on still life.)
What could be more ordinary or more overlooked than a dishtowel? This truly common object forms the unifying element in the present exhibit: each artist was asked to incorporate a dishtowel into a still life for the show. Many felt at first that the assigned object was an intruder in their studios, alien to their vocabularies. It arrived in the mail as a flat, neatly folded rectangle of cloth, new and cheap (Made in China, as the label announces), traced with a grid of color, straight lines crossing at regular intervals to form a pattern of squares. But the soft fabric can be draped, crumpled or sculpted so that folds syncopate the rhythm of the lines, create irregular curves, contours, shadows and highlights. The geometric pattern lends itself to formal concerns, but the towel also has inescapable associations with everyday tasks: washing dishes, drying hands. As a tool and as a visual element, the dishtowel is versatile and absorbent, a bland ingredient that can be molded to many uses. Some painters left it inconspicuously in the background, others made it their whole subject; some depicted it in realistic detail, others turned it into an abstract form. Wet or dry, smooth or wrinkled, clean or stained, it symbolizes the blank canvas, the eternal challenge to make something out of nothing.
Studying and experimenting with the dishtowel, the artists paired it with favorite objects or placed it in familiar contexts, found ways to play off its colors, contours and pattern. It “began to take on a life of its own,” guest artist Martha Armstrong found, “Ordered, spirited, elusive, changeable.” This is part of the practice and method of the still life painter: to be, in Walter Benjamin’s phrase, “tête-à-tête with things.” Still life is an intimate, interior art that often depicts familiar spaces, objects, and views; the known, the worn, the personal, the habitual. But it is above all the art of looking closely and freshly at things, analyzing their forms, their essential characters, their relationships to other things. The show’s assignment thus became the task described by Kierkegaard: “not to find the lovable object, but to find the object before you lovable.” 
Many painters used the dishtowel as a form of drapery, a traditional background element in still life. Starched, snowy linens cover Manet’s elegant tables, checked or striped tablecloths dominate Bonnard’s dining rooms. Cézanne arranged cloths in elaborate, convoluted folds, using drapery to create a sense of motion, instability and restless energy; his jars and apples are bobbing on a fabric sea, like the survivors of a shipwreck. Zeuxis artist Rita Baragona, who writes that the subject of her painting is “energy and movement in mass and space,” finds in the folds of the dishtowel a movement akin to an ocean wave. Stillness need not be static or inert, inanimate objects don’t have to look dead. While it rarely captures a moment, still life always evokes a duration: the life span of flowers, fish or fruit, the length of time before a cut melon turns brown, before dishes are cleared from the table, before the sun moves and the shadows change.
Carmela Kolman, who was visually impaired from cataracts until the age of twenty-three, started painting objects she could get close to and explore with her hands, and despite the improvement in her sight she still uses her fingers to apply paint and feels a close link between her senses of sight and touch. Both Kolman and Baragona describe painting as a form of meditation. To meditate can mean to empty the mind (“I can paint without thought, which is the most meaningful and intimate way for me to paint,” Kolman writes), or it can mean to pay sustained close attention to a subject, to be “tête-à-tête with things.” Looked at long and hard, the most ordinary things may start to appear strange. Still life often celebrates the quotidian, but it can also disturb everyday comforts by making us see common objects as unfamiliar and new.
John Updike sees this desire to “make things new” as an essential component of American art, the “matter of fact eye” expressing the “pure, dry American soul.” Made from scratch, still life seems suited to our national character, with its democratic impulse to level hierarchies, and its native materialism. But few American painters have followed in the footsteps of Raphaelle Peale, who in the early decades of the nineteenth century produced some hundred exquisite pictures of fruit, cakes and wine (as well as a trompe-l’oeil, Venus Rising from the Sea—A Deception, in which a meticulously rendered linen table-napkin masks a picture of the presumably nude goddess). Peale found little money or recognition in his chosen métier; following the European critics, American connoisseurs looked down on still life as “mere imitation of individual ordinary nature.” Perhaps our Puritan roots make it harder for Americans to relate easily to the pleasures of the senses. But Peale’s quiet yet voluptuous images of peaches under a sheer handkerchief, watermelon split open, a dish of strawberries beside a pitcher of cream, are American classics. They belong with William Carlos Williams’s red wheelbarrow and plums in the icebox, and they suggest that giving the mundane its due is an invaluable advantage in the pursuit of happiness. 
© Imogen Sara Smith
— Catalog essay for The Common Object, presented by Zeuxis