Nature Morte – Michael Petry.

I was really looking forward to revisiting this book after discovering it during my research for the symposium. As the book is based on contemporary artists reinvigorating the still-life tradition, I thought it was appropriate with regards to researching contemporary photographic practice. Firstly, it gave me an insight into the history of still life from paintings to photography.

  • Mid-seventeetnth century, ‘Stilleven’, oil paintings of an arrangement of various objects to be appreciated as subject matter.
  • German ‘stilleben’ and English ‘still life’, but the French made still life become ‘nature morte’ highlighting the symbolism of life with the reminder of death.
  • Decoration of food, flowers ect in Greek paintings symbolised wealth, but these also included skulls to show how “death makes all equal.”
  • Around 1300, everyday arrangements appeared in religious paintings of Giotto with deep spiritual meaning. For example, a rose would symbolise Virgin Mary.
  • Leonardo de Vinci was one of the first to move away from the religious symbolism and create studies of the human body.
  • People began having paintings done alongside their belongings to show their wealth and fortune.
  • ‘The Butcher’s Shop’ by Annibale Carracci (1560-1609) painted animal carcasses acting as ‘memento mori’ to remind the viewer of our own mortality.
  • Caravaggio praised for ‘Basket of Fruit’, known for it’s “groundbreaking handling of light.”
  • Nature morte “came into its own by the early sixteenth century” with Dutch and Flemish artists using the medium to convey “allegorical meanings and moralizing messages.”
  • Influenced ‘vanitas’ still life – contrasting symbolism “of the joys of life well lived with symbols of death” to remind the viewer of fate.
  • Objects which would eventually spoil would often be used in still life to keep repeating the idea of the reminder of death.
  • Still life paintings in the 17th century became “more convincing than ever before” with more daring composition and arrangements, experimentation with lighting and texture.
  • By Victorian times “the symbolism of objects became both commonplace and banal” with thorough consideration to the meaning of flowers. Very popular work of flowers by Henri Fantin-Latour were painted in this time.
  • Vincent van Gogh challenged tradition with his “unorthodox compositions and unique style of painting”.
  • Paul Cezanne (1839 – 1906) works moved into the “utterly modern and still remarkably fresh” definition of still life, inspiring the work of Picasso at the beginning of the 20th century.
  • Beginning of cubism, “an accommodating genre for experimentation”.
  • 1964, Andy Warhol ‘Flowers’ brought colour and positivity to a particularly dark time for America but those who knew the artist better understood the “dark, death side of the whole movement”.
  • Ellsworth Kelly stripped down elements of nature to “pencil lines…making only minimal use of flat colours” to reiterate the looming reality of death as “background noise to daily life.”
  • Late 1970s/80s, photographer Robert Mapplethorpe explored the symbolism of flowers as “life, love, sex and death”. His work became “some of the most important works of the decade” acting as a reminder of the destruction from the HIV/AIDS pandemic.
  • “Many artists are producing works in a variety of media that directly connect with those metaphors first explored in traditional still-life painting.”

All information has been sourced from (Petry, 2013: 6-19).

I was aware there was a huge history to the genre of still life but to consider where it began to where it is now, particularly popular in commercial works like advertising is amazing. I found it quite hard to digest so much information about all the different artists and concepts which changed throughout the different centuries but it is clear no matter what different spin the artist would add to the still life genre, there is always the theme of the reminder of death running throughout. Having previously looked at the work of Robert Mapplethorpe, I was inspired to learn how his work became such a significant reminder of the HIV/AIDs pandemic which I had not realised during my research. Interestingly though, I had picked up on researching the mean of the flower in the particular image I looked at and now I am able to make connection between the choice of flower and its connection with the devastation caused by the pandemic. It will be interesting to consider through my own practice how I will be channelling the typical themes of symbolism through nature and the underlining reminder of death. This may work in terms of the leaves changing, with their colour change it shows they are dying but are also symbolic in terms of showing how Seasonal Affective Disorder starts to loom.

One chapter includes the beautiful works of artists who have worked with flowers, including paintings, exhibits and photography. There were quite a few which caught my eye but one which I found most relevant was the work of Sue Arrowsmith – ‘Blowin’ in The Wind’. Arrowsmith projects parts of nature like scrubland and flowers on to blank canvas then sketches their outline and fills them in. This is a really interesting technique and contemporary experimentation with still life which interestingly defines the shape and pattern of different leaves. I really like the strong contrast of light and dark, and with a blank canvas the eye does not get directed to a particular area. It allows the viewer to explore the frame however paying particular attention to the shapes both full leaves and small, broken off parts. With the loss of colour, I personally feel that some sense of the seasons is lost but again with the blank canvas it gives that sense of weightlessness, the leaves falling softly from the trees. Petry explains about the work how “at all times loss is in the air, along with the eternal changing of the seasons.” (Petry, 2013: 66). To me this means the leaves symbolise the loss of ‘life’ with them falling from the tree, highlighting that running theme of death in still life. What I have learnt from analysing this image is how it may be worth experimenting with black and white with my still lives. Although I won’t be using the same technique of projecting them onto a blank canvas, I will still be keeping my back drops plain and by editing the image black and white it will also create these interesting contrasts and may draw more attention to particular areas.

sa1 (Arrowsmith, 2008 cited in Petry, 2013: 66).

Petry, M. (2013) Nature Morte. London: Thames & Hudson.


~ by victoriasimkissphotography on February 8, 2015.

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