For the last few days, I’ve been preoccupied by Shaun Tan’s illustrations for the Grimms’ Fairy Tales. Tan created sculptures corresponding to 75 of the fairy tales, each photographed and presented alongside a snippet of the original narrative.
The Cambridge Quarterly has just published my review essay on Elisha Cohn’s very thought-provoking book Still Life: Suspended Development in the Victorian Novel (Oxford, 2016). You can read my review here.
I am not partial to Mr. Grosz’s still lifes. Very often have they been painted by painters before to be hung in galleries… (Over the Frontier, 13)
Unlike Pompey in Over the Frontier, I’ve always been very attracted to still-life paintings.
you know all your life. They are so simple and true
they must be said without elegance, meter and rhyme,
they must be laid on the table beside the salt-shaker,
the glass of water, the absence of light gathering
in the shadows of picture frames, they must be
naked and alone, they must stand for themselves…
(Philip Levine, ‘The Simple Truth’)
For a long time, I’ve been searching for a theory of the still-life which satisfies me. I haven’t found it yet.
The still life is both a deliberate act, and a leap of faith. Objects are precisely placed, implying control over them. But why they are placed – that’s the giving-up of control.
Still-lifes are offerings. To a deity, to the viewer, to a mute sensation which derives from things-in-themselves. When we see a still-life, we witness the offering, but not its acceptance. The still-life is always a hanging question.
What can we do with a still-life? We can’t answer the question it’s asking us. So we can’t close it off with interpretation. Though we can assign symbolic value to the different objects, that doesn’t really get us any nearer to understanding its hold over us. We can’t convert the still-life into narrative. Like the aphorism, we can only pass it by.
The still-life, the collection of aphorisms, the litany. They have something in common: they can’t be used. Or used up.
In all three, each part gets its value from its own physical reality. In the still life: the roundness of a lemon, the shine of the light. We can’t assimilate or translate these. Engaging with a still life entails the real-time experience of its physical presence: we have to return to the painting, again and again.
In an aphorism: the forceful assertion which hides its own truth. We keep coming back to an aphorism because – necessarily – we always feel we’ve missed part of its meaning. We’ve passed it by; allowed ourselves to slip over it. We read an aphorism over and over, but we can never absorb it.
In a litany: the power is in the words. The saying of the words, in the moment. You’re never finished with a litany. Once you’ve completed it, all you can do is to return to the beginning and start again.
Like the collection of aphorisms and the litany, the still-life involves endless return.
Maybe that’s why Pompey dislikes them.