ANDREW FORGE ON STILL LIFE

“What is it for?” Garrison Keillor's mythical house-cleaners the Jettison Brothers ask, “When did you last use it?” If you can't answer either question — Out. It’s an uneasy joke, reminding us of just how complicated is our relation to things. Think of a house sale and of those hundreds and hundreds of possessions laid out for bids, each one imprinted in its own way with use, care, neglect, memory, pride, indifference, carnival or lent. And how these imprints fade — from living attachments, through some sort of melancholy haze to nameless rubbish. One man's treasure another man's junk, and vice versa.

The pathos of objects fascinated Van Gogh. His boots, his pile of yellow-backed French novels carried a heavy freight and their worn heels or dog-eared pages spoke of a view of the world.

In its early days, of course, still life was all about objects as emblems. Everyday connections could be diverted to grand purposes of love and status and death. Since Romanticism put painting on the road to autonomy, still life has offered the example of ‘pure’ painting. Cezanne's instruction to Vollard: "Sit like an apple."

In practical terms, the feature that distinguishes still life from any other genre is that the painter's power over her subject isn't limited to the canvas but can extend in a literal way to the subject itself. She chooses, arranges, commands. She can add or remove, line up or disarray at any point and, as if playing both black and white at chess, she can set up traps or force solutions on both sides of the board: Cezanne tilts his plates on a coin; Morandi paints his bottles white; Soutine arranges his tomatoes in a coronet. Hand and eye command the table no less than the canvas. This is not the same as asking the model to turn his head to the right, nor is it the same as making things up.

First, the painter has to break through that tissue of connections that tie objects to living use and to see them as pure appearance. A napkin, off the dining table and into the studio, is folded into a white patch or a cloud or a mountain. The juicy ripeness of a handful of cherries is set aside so that their scattered pattern can be secured; the horror of a pile of sheep's skulls is neutralized for the sake of geometry. And then a return! Suspended meanings and cut connections are restored in new and more demanding registers. A dead chicken's wing that Soutine had exploded into smears and jets of paint, comes back with as much chicken energy as it ever had in life, only now stronger for being fixed in tension like a set trap. The plums, whose purple Bonnard had stolen for the sake of the orange-gold sunlight streaming in behind them, are miraculously restored in their blooming fullness, reconstructed by the eye that takes in the whole painting.

— Andrew Forge, June 1999