'With an apple I want to astonish Paris!' Still life - a worthy genre?
On my recent visit to London I was fortunate to catch the Cezanne exhibition at the Tate Modern just before it closed. It was a fascinating celebration of his life's work, with a mix of portraits, landscapes and still life. His extraordinary short, sharp brush strokes that convey so much movement and the use of colours and line that were so original.
A couple of things struck me as I followed his story through the show. Sometimes I feel constricted in my photography because I am returning to the same local places again and again. Yet Cezanne did this, spending the happiest times of his life in the hills around Aix painting the local landscape. There were several examples of this in the exhibition, especially of a local mountain, Mont Sainte Victoire, which he depicted more than 80 times.
As David duChemin says - put in the work! There is always something new to see, a change in the season, the time of day or the weather changes the way that the light falls on a scene and washes over the colours. I like to think that each time I return to my local coastal places I capture the feeling of that environment in that moment of time - each one unique. And also the choices in what I pay attention to, as in these images:
Cezanne also devoted a lot of his energy and attention to still life art, painting over 270 images of apples. In the hierarchy of genres (or subject types) for art established in the seventeenth century by the French Academy, still life was ranked at the bottom – fifth after history painting, portraiture, genre painting (scenes of everyday life) and landscape. Still life and landscape were considered lowly because they did not involve human subject matter. Cezanne is also reported to have said: 'A work of art which did not begin in emotion is not art'. And yet he painted dozens of still lifes of fruit on his kitchen table - where is the emotional engagement? As Hannah Jane Parkinson writes, although Cezanne is probably the greatest of all apple-depicters 'Nobody has ever been astonished by an apple – sorry Cézanne, but still lifes are dull as hell'.
Still Life with apples and oranges
As I researched Cezanne's work further, I found it reassuring that although Cezanne's work was much admired by his contemporaries, such as Monet and Pissaro, it was frequently rejected by the Salons. My explorations and experimentation with ICM have had mixed responses from fellow photographers and in competitions. Why did Cezanne continue with his fascinations? The response is that perhaps it was partly provocation and partly personal quest as he worked out how to depict a 3-D object in paint and present multiple perspectives of an everyday object. And this inspires me to continue with my journey with photography.
A recent talk by Paul Sanders on mindfulness and photography was also refreshingly reassuring. He argues that the competitive aspects of photography can be a problem, as it makes many of us feel not good enough. If we can break away from the 'rules' of photography, being judged by whether our photos are good or bad, we will no longer be constricted by what other people think about our images. Paul suggests that everything is a worthy subject (even apples!) and advises us to ask: 'Is this the best picture that I can take on this day at this time?' If the answer is Yes, then that is the best picture that is available. It is good enough. What others think, how they judge your work, should not matter. It is a hard mindset to get to and I am still working on it!