Visits to the PMA: Three French Still Lifes

Basket of Fruit

by Andrew Gbur

Flanking the end passageway of Gallery 153 in the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s European late 19th century wing are three small still life paintings completed within 15 years of each other by three French-born painters.  The painting on the left is Manet’s Basket of Fruit (1864), on the right is Still Life with Apples and a Pear (1871) by Courbet, and below it is Still Life with Apples and a Glass of Wine (1877-79) by Cezanne.  This trio is a slight yet telling curatorial signal about the coming end of the century and a newly forming belief system between the artist and the object.

In the end of Gallery 153, the question of what it means to observe objects enters an entirely new phase.  Through their brushwork’s demand, both Manet and Cezanne broaden the zone for accuracy that painting can possess, suggesting a gesture toward location that the artist is positioned to recognize.  Cezanne is right on top of his objects, viewing them from above and at a slight angle.  The pitcher and chair visible beyond the focus of the bowl suggest the daily life of not only the general populous (as opposed to the nobility’s table in Rococo still life), but also point particularly and immediately to the situation of the artist amongst his own belongings.  The wine glass half full is a remarkable moment in the painting, as the proximity suggested is an arms length from lips to table, setting up the overall intimacy of the image.

Manet has pictured his sparse fruit within a basket on a large table.  The white, somewhat clean tablecloth absorbs both the casual effort of setting up the still life, with the act of painting as the reason why Manet has entered the room at all.  The theatrical component of Manet’s work has roots in Caravaggio, as he never ceases to explore the confusion between a scene and its self-awareness as such.  Even in this small still life, Manet has managed to hold his conviction as a director of players that can withstand being observed without knowing their roles themselves.

The Courbet, on the other hand, is focused solely on a group of apples and one pear.  The wall text next to the Courbet tells that when in prison, the artist was denied the request to paint the scene out his window and thus did a series of still lifes (15 in all) comprised of fruit that his sister would bring to him.  The objects fill out the canvas, as if he is kneeling on the floor in the closest proximity to his subject yet retaining the space and ability to paint.  Courbet’s affiliation with the Paris Commune and socialism reminds us of the turmoil within France as the visual ambassadors of the state began to negotiate their place within a newly industrialized nation.  The studio as a place of an individual’s work changes its meaning with the emergence of a new laboring class in French society. Just as late Cubism gives the feeling of an artist locked in a room, unwilling to leave until he has exhausted himself painting every angle of his subject, so widens the concept of being alone to include foreign factory-made objects.

Following this relationship further, it is important to remember Duchamp coming out of his own cubist experiments.  He arrives on the scene to make selections of quite gentlemanly taste, for his readymades acknowledge the time signature of the season of machinery that was taking over every other seasonal atmosphere since the time of the Realists.  The measurement of time and work that arises around the industrialized clock takes into account a new allowance for observing, where one is allowed the mindset to fill out the appearance of objects that populate the city.  Some might call it leisure time, or the work inherent in free time. This temporal zone creates an alignment between what it means to be “making” something and what it means to be “looking” at something in an industrial society. In her book Their Common Sense, the art historian Molly Nesbit describes the pre-cubist period in France as affected by geometry trickling down from the Jules Ferry Laws that secularized and made France’s public education system free for all children.  Nesbit explains that the plan included teaching industrial drawing as a language all its own. The wish was for all people to have the ability to universally “read” objects, thus beginning the shift of objects and people into their new isolated environment of what I would call a seasonless zone.

Stemming from German Romantic painters taking their sketchpads into nature, the sense of art as close examination sets up an anti-social stage that flows into a type of heretical understanding that the painter’s job is the lonesome work of observation.  Equipped with a means of production that by useful standards can only function in appearances, the artist registers his or her gesture with an idea of being the individual that can see reality as it is.  Courbet professed having no affiliations, religious or otherwise, leaving the French bourgeoisie in utter shock.  At the advent of the 20th century we begin to see a genuine wish for a seasonless painting that coincides with this new cycle of labor and industry, ultimately ending with Malevich’sBlack Square (1915). This painting resides in a completely mental space outside the cycle of seasons. But perhaps this trajectory is even better exemplified in the Impressionists’ last gasp: painting strictly the light as if it were leaving the earth’s surface, as if society is seeing its participation in the visual world for one last time. In his book Why Hasn’t Everything Already Disappeared, the French post-modern thinker Jean Baudrillard states, “It is when a thing is beginning to disappear that the concept appears.” In other words, if the thing or phenomenon is truly apparent then we are already in a cultural moment beyond it.

The relatively brief awakening of Impressionism is balanced by the opposite phantasmagoria becoming normalized in the French imagination: coming to terms with seeing in the dark.  Looking at Van Gogh’s The Night Cafe (1888) we see the impact of a single room lit by gas lamps, showing the lonely souls illuminated in utter want for the day to end, yet remaining exuberantly visible to the artist. For three days Van Gogh slept during the daytime and worked on the painting all night.  Similarly, in Picasso’s Guernica (1937), war in its entirety is locked in a room and illuminated by a single “bombilla,” the Spanish word for light bulb.

From gas lamps to the electric arc lamp and the incandescent bulb rendering things visible late into the night, the evolution of artificial light cannot be ignored as an important source for the shifting perception of objects. The French fascination with Shadow Plays at Le Chat Noir and the evolution of the Magic Lantern lead to experiments in projected film, arousing the masses’ wish to see the underside of things.  This underside was always assumed to be present, yet only became distinguishable through a new type of existentialwaiting, the waiting out of the sunlight.  Modern man does his waiting by working through the daytime hours to eventually attempt to reclaim his lost time.  He inserts a violation of unnatural light.  The object’s own ghost-subject emerges, shocked into suspended animation and remarkably similar to its daylight self.  A type of representation occurs when one switches on a light.  For what must have been enjoyably frightening about Eastern Shadow Plays and early films was the combination of the earth’s factual darkness and the witnessing of an eerily isolated projection.

In considering Baudrillard’s idea of appearance following disappearance as it relates to the work of an artist, the moment of responsibility the artist retains in being the very first to see his or her newly created paintingis the acceptance of the work as finished (visible), and is the decision that branches out.  It situates every other eventual viewer in a new world, where the painting is already accepted and the represented object never existed. The artist is alone in his studio seeing things appear in paint as he or she makes the physical objects disappear. When looking at a still life an anxiety arises, the anxiety that one exists in a world where the artist is hidden and is simultaneously creating appearance. The idea of concealing and revealing thus plays a large role in the necessity of appearance.  For I would suggest that viewers in a capitalist society recognize themselves to be excessive in the revealed reality that includes them.  Through observation the artist recovers a required time that was lost, a time that allows people to register this visual surplus of symbolic living. The surplus comes from the flood of appearance as symbols, which arises from the disappearance of reality. Above all, the still life signals that the artist is not aggressively defining, organizing, or naming reality.  The artist unfolds a newlocation for the act of seeing by rendering himself out of nature, first by propping up the canvas to block nature’s view of him, and then almost as an obligation, allowing the image to be filled in.

This could be seen as the new role of the artist in relation to labor in an industrialized society: to be the member of society that functions in a uniquely publicized, recoverable privacy, in opposition to existential waiting, observing his or her own belongings into disappearance. Viewers are placed into a “reality” where the referent (a simple bowl of fruit) remains the assured visual object that never existed to their own eyes, and thus the image requires their belief.   By the time these three paintings were completed, the idea of a “subject” was becoming out of step, “out of season”, so that the still life with all its close proximity to objective reality was the obvious choice to fuel later modernist painting.

As the object becomes increasingly un-interrupted in becoming more and more real outside of metaphor, story and religion, the act of looking at art shifts into believing the artist’s vision above all else. As it no longer matters what story is being told, or the accuracy of the representation (for who knows how the artist arranged the objects on the table), the end of the 19th century brings forth a new trust in the relationship between the artist, the public, and the object, leading all the way to abstraction.

Andrew Gbur is an artist living in Lancaster PA. He holds a BFA from The University of the Arts and an MFA from Yale University School of Art, where he was awarded the Al Held Memorial Prize which included a residency at the American Academy in Rome as an Affiliated Fellow.