Object Transfigured


W.H. Coetzer, Peter Clarke, Cecil Skotnes, Maud Sumner,
Maurice van Essche, Erik Laubscher, Gregoire Boonzaier

STEFAN HUNDT [ Curator: Sanlam Art Collection ]

The appearance of the still life genre in Western painting can be traced back to the early wall painting in Roman villas excavated at Pompeii and Herculaneum, where almost illusionistic renderings of small household items decorated the walls of particular rooms. Not still life in the modern sense of the term, these renderings of domestic utensils, in isolation or groupings, could be understood as a prototype for the ‘modern’ still life.

Although a lesser genre in the history of Western painting traditions, the still life painting achieved an extraordinary level of sophistication in the late 17th century. The term “Trompe l’oeil” coined at the time, designated a technique of painting an object or space in such a manner that it would ‘fool’ the eye of the beholder spatially. This verism, besides titillating the eye and the mind, also had its moral dimension in the “vanitas” paintings of time. In these paintings a vast agglomeration of objects of wealth and the trappings of success are discretely juxtaposed with rotting fruit, dead animals, a drooping lemon peel and the ultimate reminder of one’s mortality: the polished skull.

By the dawn of the 20th century, the ‘humble’ still life painting would become a significant game changer in the aesthetic life and theory of modern Europe. The ubiquitous subject of rendering dead objects in space became the focus of a re-envisioning of painting of a surface in the form of Cubism. Pablo Picasso’s and Juan Gris’ experiments in reconstructing three dimensional space and time on a two dimensional surface were released onto an unsuspecting Parisian public in 1908. It was the exact opposite of what had characterized the essence of the still life genre to date. Perspective was discarded and different viewpoints presented at once, distorting and reshaping the Cubist still life, which was anything but a simple image of a banal assortment of objects. Cubism wasn’t confined to the inanimate, but soon found its application to the human figure. Despite its relatively short life, Cubism had one of the most profound effects on modern art alongside the revolution of aesthetic thought that began in the 1850s with Courbet and the various stylistic movements that followed quickly after. The still life had moved from the relative obscurity of an exercise in painting to a central subject that would change the perception of Western art forever.

In this small selection of paintings, the legacy of the still life genre is imminently visible.

W.H. COETZER (1900 – 1983) tableaux of painting equipment is an object of skilled exhibitionism. The tools that make his vision concrete are presented as subject, showing off his skill in transforming painting into optical reality. A celebrated painter in his day, Coetzer’s still lifes represented the apogee of the popular demand for ‘naturalist’ aesthetic in South Africa at the time.

The other works on this exhibition present the traditional subject matter of the still life genre, each with its own sense of optical wit and consciousness of the Cubist legacy. Forms flattening out and bending round as the eye travels along the canvas pay homage to Cubist devices while still retaining a characteristic take on the particular and peculiar.

CECIL SKOTNES (1926 – 2009) exploits the ambiguity of the flat painted surface by offering two views simultaneously. He implies space by using simple perspectival devices of line, the interplay of colour, light and shadow across the surface, yet denies it by the severe flatness through which the objects are rendered. There is little in common aesthetically speaking with Coetzer’s painting, as Skotnes has embraced and exploited the diverse possibilities which evolved out of the Cubist heritage, whereas Coetzer holds fast to the re-presentation of the perceptually real.

MAURICE VAN ESSCHE‘s (1906 – 1977) still life with jug and cup pays a type of lip service to the stylistic devices fashioned by cubism. The moderate distortions in form of the objects are passive and the spatial dimensions are credible. The colour is deliberately muted, infusing the image with a restrained atmosphere and implying a certain weight of meaning not carried by the object alone.

The paintings by ERIK LAUBSCHER (1927 – 2013) and MAUD SUMNER (1902 – 1985) pay lesser homage to their Cubist heritage. Their simplification of colours and shapes reflect both artists’ training in Paris. Sumner foregrounds the surface of the painting by flattening the objects to colourful
shapes – similar in style to the intimist paintings by Vuillard whose works she would have become well acquainted with. Laubscher’s painting is more robust in its flattening abstraction and thick paint application reminiscent of his erstwhile teacher, Fernand Léger.

GREGOIRE BOONZAIER’s (1909 – 2005) still life is a light lyrical abstraction of forms with a nod to Cubism, typical of this artist’s rare forays out of his predominantly Post-Impressionist style of painting.

PETER CLARKE’s (1929 – 1914) linocut is a superb exercise in simplicity. A straightforward image of a small table populated with everyday objects becomes freighted with new meaning: a lit candle, book, bottle and small bowl next to a stark bouquet of spiky ‘flowers’. The implied viewer is presented with an altar-like arrangement of objects, not dissimilar to that of Skotnes’ panel.