Still Life - Twentieth Century

Twentieth Century

The first four decades of the 20th century formed an exceptional period of artistic ferment and revolution. Avant-garde movements rapidly evolved and overlapped in a march towards nonfigurative, total abstraction. The still life, as well as other representational art, continued to evolve and adjust until mid-century when total abstraction, as exemplified by Jackson Pollock's drip paintings, eliminated all recognizable content.

The century began with several trends taking hold in art. In 1901, Paul Gauguin painted Still Life with Sunflowers, his homage to his friend Van Gogh who had died eleven years earlier. The group known as Les Nabis, including Pierre Bonnard and Edouard Vuillard, took up Gauguin’s harmonic theories and added elements inspired by Japanese woodcuts to their still life paintings. French artist Odilon Redon also painted notable still life during in this period, especially flowers.

Henri Matisse reduced the rendering of still life objects even further to little more than bold, flat outlines filled with bright colors. He also simplifyied perspective and introducing multi-color backgrounds. In some of his still life paintings, such as Still Life with Eggplants, his table of objects is nearly lost amidst the other colorful patterns filling the rest of the room. Other exponents of Fauvism, such as Maurice de Vlaminck and André Derain, further explored pure color and abstraction in their still life.

Paul Cézanne found in still life the perfect vehicle for his revolutionary explorations in geometric spatial organization. For Cézanne, still life was a primary means of taking painting away from an illustrative or mimetic function to one demonstrating independently the elements of color, form, and line, a major step towards Abstract art. Additionally, Cézanne's experiments can be seen as leading directly to the development of Cubist still life in the early 20th century.

Adapting Cézanne’s shifting of planes and axes, the Cubists subdued the color palette of the Fauves and focused instead on deconstructing objects into pure geometrical forms and planes. Between 1910 and 1920, Cubist artists like Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, and Juan Gris painted many still life compositions, often including musical instruments, as well as creating the first Synthetic Cubist collage works, such as Picasso's oval "Still Life with Chair Caning" (1912). In these works, still life objects overlap and intermingle barely maintaining identifiable two-dimensional forms, losing individual surface texture, and merging into the background—achieving goals nearly opposite to those of traditional still life. Fernand Léger’s still life introduced the use of abundant white space and colored, sharply defined, overlapping geometrical shapes to produce a more mechanical effect. Rejecting the flattening of space by Cubists, Marcel Duchamp and other members of the Dada movement, went in a radically different direction, creating 3-D "ready-made" still life sculptures. As part of restoring some symbolic meaning to still life, the Futurists and the Surrealists placed recognizable still life objects in their dreamscapes. In Joan Miró’s still life paintings, objects appear weightless and float in lightly suggested two-dimensional space, and even mountains are drawn as simple lines. In Italy during this time, Giorgio Morandi was the foremost still life painter, exploring a wide variety of approaches to depicting everyday bottles and kitchen implements. Dutch artist M. C. Escher, best known for his detailed yet ambiguous graphics, created Still life and Street (1937), his updated version of the traditional Dutch table still life. In England Eliot Hodgkin was using tempera for his highly detailed still life paintings.

When 20th century American artists became aware of European Modernism, they began to interpret still life subjects with a combination of American realism and Cubist-derived abstraction. Typical of the American still life works of this period are the paintings of Georgia O'Keeffe, Stuart Davis, and Marsden Hartley, and the photographs of Edward Weston. O’Keeffe’s ultra-closeup flower paintings reveal both the physical structure and the emotional subtext of petals and leaves in an unprecedented manner.

In Mexico, starting in the 1930s, Frida Kahlo and other artists created their own brand of Surrealism, featuring native foods and cultural motifs in their still life paintings.

Starting in the 1930s, Abstract Expressionism severely reduced still life to raw depictions of form and color, until by the 1950s, total abstraction dominated the art world. However, Pop Art in the 1960s and 1970s reversed the trend and created a new form of still life. Much Pop Art (such as Andy Warhol's "Campbell's Soup Cans") is based on still life, but its true subject is most often the commodified image of the commercial product represented rather than the physical still life object itself. Roy Lichtenstein’s Still Life with Goldfish Bowl (1972) combines the pure colors of Matisse with the pop iconography of Warhol. Wayne Thiebaud’s Lunch Table (1964) portrays not a single family’s lunch but an assembly line of standardized American foods.

The Neo-dada movement, including Jasper Johns, returned to Duchamp’s three-dimensional representation of everyday household objects to create their own brand of still life work, as in Johns’ Painted Bronze (1960) and Fool’s House (1962). Avigdor Arikha, who began as an abstractionist, integrated the lessons of Piet Mondrian into his still lifes as into his other work; while reconnecting to old master traditions, he achieved a modernist formalism, working in one session and in natural light, through which the subject-matter often emerged in a surprising perspective.

A significant contribution to the development of still life painting in the 20th century was made by Russian artists, among them Sergei Ocipov, Victor Teterin, Evgenia Antipova, Gevork Kotiantz, Sergei Zakharov, Taisia Afonina, Maya Kopitseva, and others.

By contrast, the rise of Photorealism in the 1970s reasserted illusionistic representation, while retaining some of Pop's message of the fusion of object, image, and commercial product. Typical in this regard are the paintings of Don Eddy and Ralph Goings.

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