Still Life | Pushing the Wave

Still Life

Opinion, 3 February 2023
by L.A. Davenport
Fish by Mersad Berber
Fish, by Mersad Berber
Staying with the theme of art after last week’s reviews of exhibitions in Berlin, I would like to make a declaration: I love still life painting.

Whether it be flowers, plants, fruit in a bowl, food or animals who are no longer with us, the genre tickles a part of my artistic fancy that other forms cannot quite reach. Don’t get me wrong, I am fascinated and drawn by all forms of painting, but it is the still life that always catch my eye in a gallery or in someone’s house.

To me, these paintings occupy a singular place in art history, and they broach a subject that is somewhat taboo; that is, the transition between life and death.

Many such paintings seem to hover between this world and the next. Cut flowers in a vase, picked fruit in a bowl; these objects are already dead in a certain sense, as they cannot grow and develop more. And yet they are not quite departed, as they can still bloom in the case of flowers, while a fruit can nevertheless ripen. They are in a kind of purgatory, waiting for their final decay.

And we do this to them, so that we might appreciate them more. We take a life, something living, then separate part of it from the world. We take from its body. It’s a kind of surgery.

If it is a flower, we watch it bloom and then decay into putrefaction. For fruit, we do the same, although with the intention of eating it before its final degradation.

Are we thinking of our own short sojourn on this earth when we look at these objects, shorn from life and displayed for our entertainment in paintings? I feel a kind of sadness when I look at still lives. For these fruit and flowers are in a moment of luminescence, captured, frozen forever in time, yet a moment that was all-too brief and may have lasted no longer than the time it took to execute the painting.

The fruit are always ready, ripe for plucking from the bowl and placing in our mouths. It can be very sensual to contemplate. Separated by often centuries since they were painted, the sensuality of the brushstrokes is made all the more exquisite by the accompanying sense of loss. We are unable to touch them, to caress them.

Moreover, the succulence of a fruit can be enjoyed only one, unlike that of a person, but it is an experience over which we have total control. We possess the fruit, we consume it, become one with it as it is digested, and throw away that which we do not want.

A flower, cut and placed in a vase, is kept, on the other hand, in suspended animation, encouraged to have a final flourish in its bath of sweetened water, to realise its potential, even though it is already inanimate. We are propping up a beauty we want to own but cannot, so we cut it off from life, and maintain it for as long as its latent biological processes can stand, before it finally gives in to the inevitable.

Still life paintings contain all of this, in a few brush strokes, capturing the inner glow of a plum, the reflective shine of an apple, the rich blush of a rose in bloom, the delicate timidity of a forget-me-not or lobelia, and the dark, sombre shadows that lie beyond. Everything is arranged, but temporary. This is not architectural painting. The scene, as it is captured, exists only for a day or two, maybe not even that long, before it is gone forever.
I waxed a little lyrical there. While I was writing, I was listening to Elgar, his Violin Sonata in E minor, to be precise. It is wonderful, rich, romantic music; so utterly him in its sweeping conception and moments of thoughtful delicacy, and beautifully realised in my recording of it by Simone Lamsa on the violin and Yurie Miura on the piano.

I don’t listen to Elgar very often as he demands a lot from the listener, often in the same grandiloquent vein, and I find I tire of him after a while. But this week I had a sort of Naxos Elgar festival, listening to their versions of his major orchestral works, song cycles and more intimate works.

The Naxos recordings are very good, and Elgar needs someone who really understands the music to bring out the best in him. I was surprised to find when I listened to them recently that Barenboim’s pioneering recordings with Columbia are less successful, for example.

Even now, Elgar is overlooked, dismissed even, largely because he wrote music that is used for national celebrations, and the English both love and hate all of that to an extreme. Why they are so embarrassed by themselves, I will never know. Leaving that aside, however, I have to confess that I prefer later British composers, such as Bantok, Vaughan Williams, Walton, Alwyn and especially Bax, but I appreciate Elgar more and more as time goes on.
Going back to still life painting, you might be wondering about the fish at the top of this page.

In 2011, I went on a journey that had a huge impact on me, in every sense. Like all voyages, I was both trying to find, and run away from, something.

To do so, I cleared four months from my diary (not an easy task when you are a freelancer) to explore central Europe and the Balkans. It was a dream trip for me, as I have been drawn again and again to the art, literature, design and classical music of the region. I suspect that, in spirit if not in body, I am in some ways central European underneath it all. Perhaps Czech, or Slovenian.

Anyway, this peregrination around an oft-misunderstood part of Europe led me down many paths and there are many stories I could tell you, but for now I will discuss just one.

I know the precise date, as it was my birthday. I woke up in the same youth hostel in Sarajevo I had been in for several days, and where I had got to know both the extremely friendly and helpful young lady who ran the place, and who told me many moving stories of the siege of the city during the Bosnian War, and her guests.

Among them was a remarkable Japanese man in his late twenties who was touring around Bosnia to see and understand the country of Ivica Osim, the ex-football player who had become something of a legend after he coached the Japanese national team.

What was striking about my fellow hostel guest was that not only did he not speak one single word of Bosnian but also was barely able to communicate in English. Yet through a natural warmth and expressiveness, and a gift for communicating through signs, he made friends everywhere he went.

That cold and brisk morning, we chatted happily, albeit slowly, over excellent Bosnian coffee and toast, during which I let slip that it was my birthday. My new friend was very happy and excited, and he made it clear that he was going to make my day special. So we went on a tour of his favourite places in the city, before embarking on a kind of pub crawl, beginning in a sky bar in the modern part of the city. Every place we visited, he was greeted as a brother, and the care and tenderness shown towards him by the locals was very touching.

One barman explained his story to me, as much as he understood it, and told me that he initially worried for our Japanese friend, travelling around Bosnia all alone with no ability to talk to anyone. But he realised that he was perhaps more open and connected more easily with people than almost anyone he had ever met. This man seemed to draw out a kindness in people, and I felt privileged that he took me along with him and showed me his version of Sarajevo.

Towards the end of the day, we arrived in a bar called Pink Houdini. As we walked in, the owner and a couple of friends welcomed him in such a fulsome manner that I laughed. I couldn’t believe how popular this man had become. He put me to shame, with my sometimes crippling shyness. Once he had greeted everyone, he announced that it was my birthday. To a loud cheer, we then embarked on a fantastic evening, where everyone became firm friends and very tipsy, very quickly.

At some point, a businessman with excellent English and a brilliant sense of humour tapped me on shoulder. I turned to see him with his arm around a small and extremely dapper man in his late sixties or early seventies, who was smiling inscrutably.

— This, the businessman announced, is Bosnia’s foremost artist.

I said I was very pleased to meet him. The businessman explained that the artist, who’s name he never said but I later found out was Mersad Berber, who sadly passed away a year later, couldn’t speak English. He nevertheless wanted to ask a question. Of course he can, I replied. The businessman smiled broadly before asking:

— Fish or boats?

— What?

— What do you prefer: Fish or boats?

— Um, fish?

The businessman spoke to the artist who nodded and smiled as if I had made the right answer, and disappeared behind the bar. The businessman explained that the artist kept his portfolio of smaller paintings there. I watched, amazed, as he pulled out a large leather folder and selected a small but beautifully painted picture of a fish. He inscribed something on it and handed it to me.

— Happy birthday, he said in English.
If all that of fish has made you hungry, I added a recipe to the site this week: Cauliflower, Fennel and Mushroom Pasta Bake. It came about because I needed to make a meal for my family quickly, but it turned out so well I thought I’d share it with you.
© L.A. Davenport 2017-2024.

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Still Life | Pushing the Wave