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Monday, April 12, 2010

Spanish Still Life from Valazquez to Goya. William B. Jordan & Peter Cherry. National Gallery Publications Ltd. (1995)


This well written, very informative and lavishly illustrated book was produced to coincide with an exhibition of the same same at the National Gallery, London. While Velazquez did have still life elements in the paintings, it is the jaw dropping work by Juan Sanchez Cotan that are the first really unambiguous still life paintings. The paintings of various fruit and vegetables resting on or hanging in a window with a black background have a startlingly contemporary feel. They are so concentrated and minimalist, the detail of the fruit and vegetables, the careful placing of the items in the window frame so that they are harmoniously balanced creates an extraordinary force and intimacy.
The subject matter for still life paintings that followed followed from Juan Sanchez Cotan in frequently having food or flowers as the principal items. Another trend was to have subjects such as skulls or clocks, subjects that would remind the viewer of the vanity of possessions, the brief span of life and the depth of eternity. One of the most beautiful of these Vanitas themed pictures is by an unknown artist, Still Life with Books and an Hour Glass. The books are old and have had a great deal of wear, they have been handled a lot. The subtle and expressive way that the irresistible passage of time is proposed by the pages of the manuscripts, the pervasive sense of the long gone hands that held them is haunting.
What that picture does abundantly share with other still life paintings of fruit, flowers and game is an acute detail that carefully guides the eye. The lush flowers artfully arranged in beautiful vases have a lushness verging on the overripe, they are vibrantly sensual. The portraits of game, fruit and cheese are done with a heightened realism that gives them power and force.
The Spanish still life paintings explored in this book are extraordinary works of art, they use balance and detail to restrain a surging passion, this gives these paintings a clarity and directness that is shocking and inspiring. The writing is informative and thoughtful, the heat of the book is in the paintings, still life and still passionate.

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