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During the seventeenth century, still-life
painting flourished and became an independent genre particularly in the Netherlands. The newly formed Dutch Republic had become the most prosperous place in Europe, and emerged as a leader in trade, commerce, art, and science. Still-life paintings portrayed tables with elegant products that showcased the magnitude of the Dutch trade achievements, and the dazzling iconography included wine, bread, cheese, butter, exotic fruit, fish, spices, Asian porcelain vessels, and silver cutlery. Dutch artists broke old traditions that were centered on religious iconography and created a new democratic artistic description of everyday life and consumption. Along with paintings of lavish elegance, artists also showed the poor, the imported slaves, and decay.
British film director Peter Greenaway (b.1942) has been greatly influenced by seventeenth century Dutch still-life paintings, and his films resonate with representational objects and metaphors that evoke the Dutch Golden Age. Greenaway films, similar to the Dutch paintings, are visually overwhelming and allegorically rich. Viewing still-life masterpieces reveals to us much about the seventeenth century Dutch society and its capitalist culture, while seeing a Greenaway film confronts us with issues of our contemporary material world.
In his 1989 film titled “The Cook, the Thief, his Wife and her Lover,” Greenaway focused on the subject of food and its consumption, appropriating numerous Dutch still-life references. The film’s color and composition intertwined grand surfaces with allegorical notes. The site of events was a French restaurant that was named “Le Hollandais,” where a large reproduction of Frans Hals’ “The Banquet of the Officers of the St. George Militia Company” hung in the center of the dining room. Similar to still-life paintings, the film’s frames were dominated by the food arrangements in the foreground while the story and dialogue took place at a distance. The effect of Greenaway’s style made the film unforgettable. Film critic Caryn James wrote “… a work so intelligent and powerful that it evokes our best emotions and least civil impulses, so esthetically brilliant that it expands the boundaries of film itself.” (New York Times, April 6, 1990)
Canadian born (1962) Chicago artist and University of Chicago Professor Laura Letinsky began to photograph still-life scenes that she arranged in her studio in 1997. Letinsky did not just shoot pictures, but like a painter she made pictures. Her objects included paper plates, plastic cups, tin cans, and bottle tops appearing on white surfaces in white rooms. Letinsky’s photographs presented us with luminous interiors and leftovers.
In her artist statement Letisky wrote: “…For many years I had been intrigued with Dutch-Flemish and Italian still-life paintings whose exacting beauty documented shifting social attitudes resulting from exploration, colonization, economics, and ideas about seeing as a kind of truth. I began this work in East Berlin where the unfamiliar context made me intensely aware of my own cultural and material relationship to food. I continued this project at my homes in New Haven, Rome, Berlin, and Chicago.
“The still-life genre is unavoidably a commentary on society’s material-mindedness and the way images promote a kind of promise of attainability. I am not interested though in the allure of the meal that awaits an unseen viewer’s consumption. Instead, I photograph the remains of meals and its refuse so as to investigate the relationships between ripeness and decay, delicacy and awkwardness, control and haphazardness, waste and plenitude, pleasure and sustenance. Throughout my long-term photographic practice I wish to engage the photograph’s transformative qualities, changing what is typically overlooked into something splendid in its resilience. I want to look at what is ‘after the fact,’ at what (ma)lingers, at what persists, and by inference, at what is gone. These projects are part of my ongoing photographic exploration of intimacy as the homely and the beautiful.” (quoted from Women In Photography website, http://www.wipnyc.org/blog/ laura-letinsky)
This month Letinsky’s newest body of work, a photographic series titled Ill Form and Void Full (2010–11) is showing at the Museum of Contemporary Art. Her new work incorporates reproductions of images that drastically complicate the perception of space within the field of her compositions. Objects, such as papaya, cherry pits, silverware, and ripped paper, along with flat images taken from art reproductions (hers and others) as well as decor and cooking magazines, are carefully arranged, resulting in a disorienting collage within the photograph. The exhibit runs through April 17. Roland Barthes wrote: “Ultimately, photography is subversive, not when it frightens, repels, or even stigmatizes, but when it is pensive, when it thinks.” (Camera Lucida, 1980).

Published: February 12, 2012
Issue: February 2012 Issue