Archive for the '3 – Modern art & still life' Category

UWA-WA1:P3 Review

My tutor has suggested that after finishing the exercises in a Part of the course I take some time to look for connections and comparisons between works.

The most obvious comparisons can be made about the nature of painting. Particularly when doing a course like this which races through centuries, the history of modern painting seems to be a long series of move and countermove as artists react against their predecessors (or their previous selves) as they explore art. I started my study of this Part with Fauvism (see post 8-Dec-2014), noting those artists tended to be reacting against Impressionism, were anti-theoretical, and did not feel constrained to represent an objective world. Cézanne’s techniques (30-Jan-2014) were both additive and subtractive, making clearer the tension of artificial space, three dimensions on a two dimensional surface. Very relevant here is a blog post by my tutor, Gerald Deslandes, in which he commented on a recent exhibition in which the organisers focused on the particular light of the Mediterranean (see, allowing perceptual Impressionism to be followed by conceptual Post-Imnpressionism. “Their argument was that only as a direct result of their exposure to the Mediterranean, did artists come to concern themselves with the flatness of the picture plane and with the expressive power of their emotions. Hence no longer were they concerned with merely copying nature through the conventions of perspective” (Deslandes, 2013).

Braque, previously a Fauvist, learnt from rather than reacted against Cézanne’s discoveries, shattering perspective and somehow creating volume without depth (9-Feb-2014). By the time of the abstract expressionists Clement Greenberg was able to assert that “Realist, illusionist art had dissembled the medium, using art to conceal art. Modernism used art to call attention to art” (27-Dec-2013). Greenberg championed the work of Jackson Pollock, focused on the flat surface of the canvas and the physical presence of the paint, but was less convinced by later works such as Blue Poles, where a hierarchy of sorts was re-introduced (26-Dec-2013). Pop art (7-Feb-2014) reacted against the heroic gestures of abstract expressionism, downplaying the hand of the artist. Space was flattened, but there was a definite foreground and background. I’ve had a post about conceptual art semi-written for some time, hoping for the right moment to finish it. The label covers a wide range of artistic practice but could include a total absence of the artist’s hands, either with assistants following instructions to create the artwork (as with Sol Le Witt) or by regarding the concept itself as sufficient.

Only a slight digression from the above, one comparison I find interesting involves use of space. Cézanne created space, contracted, expanded and distorted it (30-Jan-2014). Braque created space without distance using the relationships of parts (9-Feb-2014). The interesting addition is Henry Moore (15-Dec-2013). The space between the components of Hill Arches both separate and connect the work. It gives the viewer something to work with, to engage with. It also makes the location, the space around, a significant part of the sculpture.

Together with the nature of painting, the role and status of the artist has continued to evolve. It’s not a recent thing. Arachne’s fate was determined by her challenge to the authority of the goddess Minerva. Peter Paul Rubens’ Pallas and Arachne (see post 8-July-2013) shows the proud young Arachne at work at her loom, the artistic triumph of her tapestry, and the vengeful response of the goddess to such presumption. Painted in 1854, Courbet’s Bonjour M. Courbet ( shows the deferential attitude of collector Bruyas and his servant to the artist Courbet – a free man with his feet firmly in nature. During his life Cézanne was famous amongst other painters but by the time of Jackson Pollock the idea of the heroic, tortured and flawed artist was well established (post 26-Dec-2013). Later artists including Andy Warhol have very consciously sought celebrity (7-Feb-2014). When it came to Yoko Ono, I was so conscious of her celebrity status that I found it difficult to see the art (31-Jan-2014).

Contemporary politics, particularly the expansion of Europe, colonialism and post-colonialism has been examined in a number of works. Rembrandt’s Two old men disputing (13-Sep-2013) has a globe in the background which reflects the thirst for knowledge as well as wealth in the society of the time. The vanitas still life paintings around the same period responded to the religious unease of some in Holland when spending the new wealth that exploration and trading provided (11-Jan-2014). The defence of Rorke’s Drift 1879 by Alphonse de Neuville demonstrates an imperial power’s ability to take a country by force and to write a history that makes themselves heros for doing it (24-Oct-2013). Whether that action was for economic or political purposes is not clear. Europe’s colonial and economic might has faded over the years. The American Abstract Expressionist movement was heavily influenced by the Second World War, the related arrival of many Europeans in America, the relocation of the cutting edge of art to New York. The Cold War also played a part (27-Dec-2013). Currently, proppaNOW is a highly political collective, raising the concerns of urban aboriginal Australians (5-Jan-2014). The ongoing discrimination and disadvantage highlighted by this group is the direct result of European politics and colonisation. The politics shown in the other works I have mentioned is indirect, reflective of their times. ProppaNOW is deliberate and focused. As Richard Bell declares, “There is no better platform for politics than art … this way I don’t get arrested”. Finally I’d like to reference my recent Reflection (16-Feb-2014). While talking about art rather than art itself, the remarks that concerned me came I believe from a post-imperial mindset.

I hope to continue to explore some of these themes in later assignment choices.

Deslandes, G. (2013) Aix Marks the Spot: Post-Impressionists, Rodin, Photography, Contemporary Art [online] Available from (Accessed 2-Mar-2014)

UA1-WA:P3 Review
Understanding Art 1 – Western Art.
Part three: Modern art and still life

UWA-WA1:P3 Assignment

I chose to attempt a copy of a painting for this assignment. The other option was an analysis, which seems like the obvious choice for a non-painter. The course material notes “copying isn’t just a technical exercise – it’s also a powerful way to learn”, plus we’re not expected to make a skilled literal copy, so I decided to go for it.

Paul Cezanne Banks of the Marne

Paul Cézanne
Banks of the Marne
circa 1888. Oil on canvas.

As mentioned in my annotation of a still life by Cézanne (30-Jan-2014), I decided to focus in on his work and this landscape of the banks of the Marne. This seemed like a great choice because the work is actually part of the Art Gallery of New South Wales collection, so generally I have plenty of opportunity to see it in person. Unfortunately just as I reached this section the painting disappeared from display. I decided to continue as planned, using the high quality photograph in the google art project as my source –

The assignment asks for brief notes, so I built up this post as I progressed.

* Late January. Painting proportion 5:4 width to height. Seems unusual for an expansive landscape. I’ll use a 10 x 8 grid to keep track of position while copying.

Original is oil on canvas. I’ve decided to use my conte crayons since I have a good range of colours and have some experience with them. Size and weight are issues given postage. Requirement is at least 42 cm in one dimension. College insists nothing rolled. Australia Post has “girth” as well as weight restrictions. After lengthy discussions at art supply store have chosen 290 gsm canson oil sketch paper which I will glue to foamboard to give some rigidity without weight. A border will give some protection. Can go to A2 if total package is no more than 4 cm high. Decide on 45 x 36 cm.

* 1 – 2 Feb
cezanne_landscape_01Initial observations show tight structure of horizontals, verticals and diagonals in village and boats. Bands of repeated brushstrokes form shapes, especially in the foliage of trees and grass on the river bank. The sky is more varied with some scrubbing marks.

cezanne_landscape_02cezanne_landscape_03Desaturating the image shows a full range of values, but focused in the middle range. Highest values are where light reflects from the walls of the village, and slightly lower values in the sky. There are touches of darker values across most of the picture, excluding the sky. The automated histogram confirms this general impression.
cezanne_landscape_04The palette is in greens, ochres, greys and blues. There are a couple of small touches of red on the boats. The little auto-generated palette is quite misleading – after all there are many more than 256 colours in the image and everything gets averaged down.
cezanne_landscape_05This is a comparison of a small section where a roof is in shadow – the colour version and a desaturated version. If you click on it you will see the maximum resolution I have in my image. It’s going to be difficult to get close to this subtlety of colour and the unevenness of cover of the canvas.

After brief test with my sample pieces I definitely prefer the coverage and blending of colour that I get on the smoother side of the canvas. It also showed that at the scale I’m using it won’t be possible to get close to any detail of colour and line. I was already strongly inclined to focus on composition and broad shapes, since forms in space seem such an important aspect of Cézanne’s work and influence.

The canvas is glued down. I had weighted the foam board as the glue dried, but there is still a slight bowing. Today I penciled in the grid and tried to add broad outlines, but the complexity is overwhelming me. I ran a ruler along the image both horizontally and vertically trying to find correspondences across the picture, but nothing seems to quite line up.

jgn_copy_01Abandoning the attempt to sketch in all the major lines, I decided to start top left in the sky and progress across the canvas treating each grid square as well as I could. This photo was taken at an extreme angle to pick up the initial sketch lines.

jgn_copy_02Progress shot. This process is really drawing me in. The complexity of colour is incredible. My earlier notes about the palette were totally inadequate and the computer generated colour analysis had everything averaged into nothingness. I have pretty much every shade of the conte crayons plus a few CarbOthello chalk-pastel pencils and of course none of the colours are right and in any case Cézanne layered colours to get lots of subtle changes on the canvas.

jgn_copy_03I’ve been across the whole picture. The tree in particular is very rough – it was the first non-sky part I attempted and I started losing my bearings so moved on quickly.

I settled into a working method of 30 minute “bursts”, which is about as long as my concentration lasts. I’d look at a section of the image on the computer, looking at shapes and the layers of colour, then select a crayon, maybe make a few dabs then change to something else. There is just so much happening in this painting!

28-Feb (later)
jgn_copy_04This is where I’ve decided to stop. There is so much more that could be done, but I think I’ve achieved the overall objectives of the exercise. If I keep going over areas they just get dark and drab.

More than anything I’ve realised the complexity of the painting. It’s quick to write about planes sliding against each other and a grid of simplified shapes – but this is no simple grid and the number of decisions the artist made is incredible.

Above is my bad photo of the original, and one of my copy. There are clearly places where I got totally lost – glaringly the right side of the tree. The colour is totally different. Still overall I’m pretty pleased. I wanted to concentrate on composition and overall shapes and given everything that’s going on in the original I feel I’ve made a decent attempt.

The experience of attempting the copy has been amazing. I very much want to look at the original again and see all the detail, but sadly it is still absent from the gallery walls. I’m also keen to do more work with the pastels in my sketchbook. The colour mixing, little dabs of this and that, building up layers and interactions, was absorbing and exciting and satisfying. I want more! I’m also full of ideas for translating some of this into textiles – in particular felt, which I think really lends itself to layering and mixing of colours. I’d need to go an extra step towards abstraction…

While working on this assignment I’ve been reading Cézanne’s letters as edited and translated by Alex Danchev. Many of them were keeping in touch with people, making arrangement to travel or meet, or making excuses for not meeting people. There were comments like one about a visitor – “the poor man, I soaked him in theories about painting” (letter 179) – but for many years little if any on the actual theories. He wrote “it’s better to talk face-to-face – one always explains oneself and makes oneself better understood that way” (letter 188), “we can talk more, and perhaps better, about painting when sur le motif rather than devising purely speculative theories, in which we often get lost” (letter 206) and “talking about art is virtually useless” (letter 235). However there were some comments that resonated with the work I have been doing.

“I continue to seek to develop through design and colour the idea of art according to my beliefs” (letter 226). This assignment has brought home to me just how detailed and flexible Cézanne’s use of colour was. My version is over-coloured, but it is based on his.

“Lines parallel to the horizon give breadth … line perpendicular to this horizon give depth. Now, we men experience nature more in terms of depth than surface, whence the need to introduce into our vibrations of light, represented by reds and yellows, a sufficient quantity of blue tones, to give a sense of atmosphere” (letter 233). I remarked early on about the proportions of the subject painting which is closer to a square than many landscapes. Looking at it now I see those repeated horizontals giving breadth – the edge of the grass at the base of the walls, also the river, the boats, the lines of walls and roofs. Then the vertical of that tree right in the centre, creating space before and behind it. I used a lots of purples and violets in my version, to warm up the blues and greys which are used across the picture. Once again, I am very keen to see the original – can there really be so many greys and blues in a picture which at first glance looks yellow, green and orange?

“The sensations colorantes that create light are the cause of abstractions that do not allow me to cover my canvas, nor to pursue the delimitation of objects when their points of contact are subtle, delicate; the result of which is that image image or painting is incomplete. On the other hand, the planes fall on top of one another, from which comes the neo-Impressionism that outlines [everything] in black, a defect that must be resisted with all one’s might” (letter 255). There seems to be a lot of uncovered canvas in this painting and I wonder about the cause. I have seen an anecdote a number of times about Cézanne’s portrait of Vollard, which remained with two blank spots on the hands which Cézanne could not fill unless he could determine just the right tone. I’ve also read suggestions that canvases were “unfinishable”, a concept which I don’t properly understand. My subject painting provides many examples of the subtle delimitation of objects. There were many places where I couldn’t really tell exactly what was happening, how one building or bush became another.

“I can’t achieve the intensity that builds in my senses, I don’t have that magnificent richness of colour that enlivens nature” (letter 267). Unsurprisingly given all I have written about Cézanne’s use of colour, I was startled at the idea that he should be so dissatisfied with it at the end of his life (the letter was written to his son in September 1906, just weeks before his own death). Was this modesty, or that one always want more? Nature can have infinite variety, while a painter on his canvas is limited – but from my close observation I would say that Cézanne pushed his limits.

All quotes of Cézanne’s letters are from
Danchev, A. (editor and translator) (2013) The Letters of Paul Cézanne Los Angeles: The J. Paul Getty Museum

UA1-WA:P3-p4-Exercise: Visit an artist’s studio

For this exercise the course requires a visit to an artist’s studio, looking for two things – information about the technical means of professional practice, and a sense of the artist’s source of inspiration. I visited Peter Griffen and Denise Lithgow in their shared studio / home space. Denise and Peter were very generous with their time and it was very interesting as we sat together to hear them talk about each other’s work as well as their own and to see how they each learn from, support and challenge the other.

Peter Griffen and Denise Lithgow

Peter Griffen and Denise Lithgow
Sitting at the dining table in their studio / home

I’ve visited and written about their space in the past when I did a weekend workshop with Peter (see 2-March-2012). From my post then:

griffen06It’s an amazing, exciting, inspiring, overwhelming place. Formerly a factory, Peter and Denise gutted the building and it’s basically one huge room with a mezzanine and some closed areas at each end (bathrooms, storage, their bedroom). This photo was taken from the back mezzanine. The kitchen area is down to the right, left you can just see a corner of the lounge area, but not the dining table which is closer on the left. Middle right is a display area for Denise’s work and the front mezzanine is her studio – but the main space is Peter’s studio and workshop area.

Peter Griffen
peter_griffen_02Peter’s studio is large and airy and well lit with a series of sky lights supplemented by banks of florescent lights. The large open space and long high walls allow him to keep many works on view at one time and he is constantly moving things around as work progresses. There is also plenty of space for multiple tables for workshop students.

peter_griffen_04Peter has traveled extensively in Australia and he sketches and paints en plein air. This work is one of a series from a 2013 trip to the Flinders Ranges in South Australia (more of the series can be seen on his facebook page Peter Griffen Art – click here). He also takes reference photographs which he may or may not refer to as a source for particular details or ideas, but isn’t interested in working directly from a photo. In fact he likes to continue working on the paintings away from the source, back at his studio. There he can only look at the painting, concentrating on making it better – as a painting, not a copy of something seen.

peter_griffen_06The combination of studio and home supports Peter’s working methods. Works may begin on a location with the source before him or in the studio in a chaos of poured, painted and scrapped paint. Many then undergo a long period of development including extensive editing and blocking out as areas of interest are identified, and the application of multiple layers of glaze. In this example the work was at one stage red and busy, then blocked out to reveal a classic Australian narrative of the bushranger. The many glazes have created a luminous, rather eerie, pearlescent surface.

peter_griffen_03This process of editing, discovery, analysis, development and transformation can take years in some cases. Living constantly surrounded by his work Peter is able to consider the possibilities, to make a change or apply a glaze, then work on other paintings while he ponders his next move. He may find a mark or a rhythm which he hangs on to, develops, which drives the whole composition. However he is also willing to let it go if it becomes a negative, limiting his freedom.

peter_griffen_05Probably the majority of Peter’s work is in acrylic paint on canvas or paper, but he also uses oils, charcoal, gouache… He may collage paper previously painted or incorporate found objects – paintbrushes, chop sticks, gourds, whatever meets his current purpose.

Most often Peter uses a brush with his canvas on the floor or an easel, but he’s always open to other opportunities. An episode of Landline shows Peter pouring paint, dragging it across the canvas with a board, using a palette knife or his hands, even stamping a canvas into a sand dune near Birdsville.

peter_griffen_07Much of Peter’s inspiration comes from the Australian landscape and it can be an underlying source in abstract works. The Australian sun – light and heat – pulses from some paintings, the strong colours vibrating. These aren’t the literal colours of the Australian landscape, but an emotional reaction to it. They are theatrical, exaggerating the truth, but being based in truth are accepted by the viewer as “right”. Peter sometimes works from memory and emotion rather than a specific landscape. When travelling overseas it can take a few days of frustration before Peter gets the colour “right”. Similarly studio work needs to be completed soon after his return, before re-acclimation.

Peter’s is an intuitive approach, where a shape can be a cliff or sounds or a bird, or just a shape. I’ve focused on the landscape and abstract in Peter’s work, but his oeuvre includes figure and still life works.

Peter’s knowledge of art history allows him to reference many other artists in his paintings or in his thinking and writing about his work. Links can be made to Australian artists including Sidney Nolan, Arthur Boyd, Guy Warren and Rosalie Gascoigne as well as artists from elsewhere such as Jean Dubuffet, Anselm Kiefer, Paul Klee and Henri Matisse.

denise_lithgow_04Denise Lithgow

denise_lithgow_01Denise has a dedicated studio in the front mezzanine area of the building. It includes a very large work table, dedicated space for the sewing machine, shelves and plastic storage tubs full of fibres and fabrics, a couch, mannequin form, areas to hang works in progress, and hanging on a wall are textile pieces created by family members. Denise uses the main floor area when working on large felt pieces. Also downstairs is her rocket steamer, critical equipment for her silk painting.

denise_lithgow_02denise_lithgow_03denise_lithgow_06denise_lithgow_05The combination of home and studio allows Denise to maximise her creative time while continuing to work four days a week in a busy busy and demanding role in a hospital. She will often come home from the day job and work until the early hours of the morning in her studio.

Denise uses a variety of textile techniques in her work. The work shown to the right is from her painting gallery, a collage incorporating fabrics, threads and free machine embroidery. To my eyes the colours and shapes clearly reference Australian landscape and flora, but I am less sure of the title “Distant Hills” given on her website.

The second photograph shows a vessel created in felt. Denise is currently working on a series of large vessels to be included in her upcoming solo exhibition at the Muswellbrook Regional Arts Centre. For any reader coming from an art history rather than a textile background I should explain that to create these vessels Denise uses drifts of wool fibres (and possibly other inclusions), laid out in careful order and then manipulated by hand using soap and water to create a thick felted mat shaped in the desired form. Shrinkage during this process can be extreme, hence the need for additional studio space.

A wide range of materials can be found in Denise’s work. The dress on the right includes recycled tyvek packaging taken from surgical equipment. The main technique used here is knitting, which has been combined with other processes to achieve the desired result.

Denise is inspired by the Australian landscape, most evidently in her paintings. She uses a travel sketchbook to capture colours as much as sketches. Denise showed me a commissioned wall piece in its final stages – based on the view towards the sea from the client’s home, but not trying to be a literal representation. It is an emotional response to the inspiration – “how could I translate that…?” She generally works quickly and intensely, with a clear image in her mind of the outcome, always pushing herself further.

When describing her work Denise avoids the well-worn art / craft debate. She wants to be part of the general scene, not in any way limited. For her textiles are part of art mainstream. She creates paintings and vessels. She enters the same shows and prizes as Peter, and is enjoying growing success.

The combination
While each artist maintains a healthy, active, independent artistic practice, as a team they become truly formidable. The combination of a shared studio and home allows them to support, encourage and critique each other.

griffen_lithgowOccasionally they collaborate, as in the work shown here.

They bounce off each other, sharing ideas and techniques but each in a way that suits their individual work. For example both take photographs of work in progress as well as when completed. Denise may use progress photos in an article, while Peter may want to re-install a shape previously blocked out, adding to the layers and embedded richness. In our conversation Denise grabbed that idea to explain her layering of stitch. She has learnt from Peter to keep going, to work through challenges and get a result.

In such an open, shared space it is also important that each respects when the other needs space and quiet to work in their own way. For example Denise becomes absorbed when laying out fibre for felt. She needs to be at peace and can’t talk.

Both artists are committed to creating opportunities for themselves and each other. Peter has written and published a book on his work. They open their studio / home to visitors – there’s an open day coming up on 8th/9th March (see for details). They go to opening nights both to see and to network. It’s easy to get so focused on practice that one forgets the need to market and sell to maintain that practice. Working together Denise and Peter multiply the impact of their efforts. I really appreciate the time and support they have given me for this exercise.

All photographs (other than my snaps of the artists and the lower studio) are copyright of the artists and used with their kind permission.

ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation) (2009) “Desert Dauber” On Landline [online] Available from (Accessed 21-Feb-2014)

Denise’s website:

Griffen, P. (2011) in and out of abstraction Sydney: la Fabrique.

Peter’s website:

Peter on facebook:

UA1-WA:P3-p4-Exercise: Visit an artist’s studio
Understanding Art 1 – Western Art.
Part three: Modern art and still life
Project four: Still life after 1900
Exercise: Visit an artist’s studio


A few weeks ago I received an email from someone I know who reads my blog – let’s call him / her “Sam”. Sam made a connection between Turner’s The Wrecked Female Convict Ship, the Amphitrite: Women and Children Abandoned in a Gale (see 12-Oct-2013) and The defence of Rorke’s Drift 1879 by Alphonse de Neuville (see 24-Oct-2013). Sam suggested one could compare the reactions of the captain on the ship with those of the defenders at Rorke’s drift, each facing an elemental onslaught – one by nature the other by the Zulu – one deserting his post the others standing resolute.

I had an instant reaction of outrage – comparing the Zulu to acts of nature is to dehumanise them, making them a mindless force that the valiant British face with courage, rather than a valiant people fighting for their country against invaders. It is racism, totally unacceptable and abhorrent.

Sam I think had no intention to be racist. Her / his idea was about otherness and the choices made by someone faced by an overwhelming external force. The racism inherent in this may be unconscious, but it is there and insidious and deeply wrong.

However Sam is a person who knows a lot more about some things than I do. So I had to question this automatic response I felt. Was this instinctive reaction misplaced? For example, is it appropriate in scholarly debate to consider ideas which one finds anathema? In the end, no. There are some things that are bedrock and cannot be called into question. Respect for the fundamental humanity of each individual is part of my bedrock. My very vague recollections of Descartes is that he gave precedence to the bedrock of his God before he started building again with “I think therefore I am”. Yes, that may have been politically expedient, but one could get lost forever in loops of cynicism. For me, I am less human if I deny the humanity of others. For me a debate premised on the non-humanity of others is meaningless and dangerous and racist.

Could it be that Sam was considering the attitudes of most people at the time those two paintings were produced? Given our wider discussion, which I haven’t repeated here, I don’t think so. Possibly I am mistaken – in which case part of the fault is mine, but I think if discussing anathema one should be very clear about placing it at a distance. Personally I would prefer to avoid it altogether.

“Personally” is a revealing word. While researching ProppaNow (see 5-Jan-2014) I read the phrase “scratch a white Australian and you’ll find a racist”. I so much don’t want that to be true, and fear that in my case it is. Australia is built on racism. I “own” the land my house is built upon on the basis of terra nullius – on the basis of a lie. Yet this country is my home and I love it. Sam is from a country that has not been conquered in centuries. I can’t speak for Sam and his/her country, but in Australia racism is active and current and toxic and must be called out and challenged where-ever it is found. I will not treat it as an intellectual curiosity.

Is this censorship of myself and others? Of a sort. I don’t like censorship but fighting racism, making sacrifices to address the wrongs done and the ongoing disadvantage of Australian indigenous people is more important. And on a personal level it’s not actually censorship or a sacrifice to try to act like the person I would like to be.

This may make me less of a scholar, this emotional reaction. So be it. I think it really means that I am making my studies relevant to myself and my life. I first noticed this back near the beginning of the course when I mused about the meaning of being Australian (see 26-Apr-2013). I noted difficulties about past ideas and attitudes when researching the Enlightenment (10-Oct-2013). I chose proppaNOW as my focus on art in the last thirty years (see 5-Jan-2014). I was in Canberra again for a few days this week and went to the National Portrait Gallery ( as part of my preparation for Assignment 4. The artworks I have chosen to research will continue the theme.

Related reading: A recent newspaper opinion piece suggests cautious optimism for progress – once impossible, now extremely difficult. See Gordon, M. (2014) “Five reasons to be optimistic” In The Age 15-February-2014 [online] Available from (Accessed 15-Feb-2014)

Edit 3-March-2014: There are many ways of measuring physical, mental and spiritual wellbeing. A very blunt indicator is life expectancy. 2 in 3 Indigenous Australians died before age 65 (2004–2008) compared to 1 in 5 non-Indigenous Australians. Source: Australian Institute of Health and Welfare

UA1-WA:P3-p4-Exercise: Annotation of a still life by Braque

This exercise asks for an annotation of a Cubist still life. I have chosen Glass of absinthe by Georges Braque. It was painted by one of the leaders of Cubism at a critical time in the movement’s evolution – and it is in “my” gallery, the Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW).

Georges Braque Glass of absinth

Georges Braque
Glass of absinthe
1911 Oil on canvas


This is a small work, 37.0 x 28.7 cm. My photograph above is very muddy in colour – see for a much better image. The original is light, fresh and sparkling. The palette is black, white and an ochre yellow, mixed to create grays and green, and with the buff of the canvas visible in large areas. There are no shadows, no single light source, no single point perspective, no foreground and background, no easily recognisable and carefully modeled objects, and the objects that can be detected are distributed across the picture.

braque_02My previous approach to a cubist work has often been to treat it like a “Where’s Wally” puzzle, taking hints from the title and trying to identify objects. Here I found a stemmed glass in the top right quadrant (outlined in mid-blue in the little sketch), the absinth spoon resting on the lip (outlined in pink). Sections of the glass seem to be repeated – in the centre another bowl, then shown in paler blue running from left up to the right perhaps the base and stem. I’ve also highlighted a line which could be seen as a larger version of the bowl, based on the angle and the colouring to its right. Below the glass is a bunch of grapes.

braque_03Unlike most still life paintings there is no sign of a table or other support. There appear to be some steps (shown in yellow), but there is no sense of depth. Instead there is a scaffolding of lines (highlighted green) – verticals, (nearly) horizontals and diagonals. It looks as if the planes formed could slide and shear like rock strata, especially those repeated slopes in the lower part of the image, but they are braced and supported by the verticals.braque_04 Curves (highlighted in red in the thumbnail) create some contrast and life.

braque_05The colour mixing and brushwork is delicate and meticulous. In this detail of the area just left and up of centre shows short square brushstrokes of relatively thick paint in streaky mixes of white, gray and black. This is the lightest area of the picture and it glows and fizzes. The volume of the glass is suggested, but no depth. You can see here that this “liquid” area flows outside the main glass to the longer diagonal, which is why I suggested above a larger repeat of the bowl.

braque_06Colours are more blended in the grapes. In the actual painting there is a subdued green, perhaps a mix of the black and ochre. There is a variety of brushwork, following the shape and suggesting the volume of the grapes, progressing to more scrubby, suggestive marks towards the bottom of the canvas.

Braque said “In the still-life you have a tactile, I might almost say a manual space … This answered to the hankering I have always had to touch things and not merely see them. It was this space that particularly attracted me, for this was the first concern of Cubism, this investigation of space… In tactile space you measure the distance separating you from the object, whereas in visual space you measure the distance separating things from each other” (Braque, [n.d.] a). The objects in the picture – glass, spoon, grapes… – are not the subject. It is the space between the objects, and between them and the painter, which was of interest. It was space without distance, dealing with painting on a two-dimensional surface. Another way of viewing this is given by Terence Maloon: “Space in these works is not a pre-existing, neutral container, indifferent to its contents, but is generated by the work’s formal components, arising from the relationship of parts, created by their rapports” (Maloon, 2010, p. 218).

Many of the familiar signifiers of Cubism derive from this focus on space, including the fragmentation and the palette.

The multiple viewpoints and shattering of the objects allowed Braque to get close to them: “Fragmentation helped me to establish space and movement in space” (Braque, [n.d.] b). Leymarie (1988, p. 11) explains that the decomposition of solid forms did not destroy but rather exposed the internal forms, rearranged into complex overlapping planes in the picture. It may seem to the viewer unnatural, but that is an almost inevitable result of Braque’s and Picasso’s exploration. As Schulz-Hoffman explains, “their point of departure was the recognition of the essential difference between art and nature and the resultant thesis that each constituted a different form of reality” (Schulz-Hoffman, 1988, p. 20).

Colour is not the colour of the original objects, nor is it used describe light as the Impressionists did. It is used to describe the simplified geometrical forms and is almost monochromatic. Braque “felt colour would ‘trouble’ the new spatial sensations” (Golding, 1990, p. 11). This was a dramatic change to his earlier work as a Fauve (see 8-Dec-2013).

Although the canvas of my focus picture is rectangular the composition within it is oval. Another still life by Braque with largely the same objects is actually oval – The Glass of Absinthe, c. 1910-1911, in the collection of the National Gallery of Canada – see Slightly smaller and it seems slightly earlier than the AGNSW picture, it appears to be darker and more densely painted. Based on the small web image it appears to be a simpler composition, with less complex and less clearly defined planes, possibly reflecting slightly different stages of development in a period of intense work. It would be interesting to see the two works side by side.

A sizable portion of Cubist works appears to be oval in composition or actual canvas. Leymarie suggests “the oval formats … counteract the dispersion by the angles of rectangular supports and to create a more compact surface …” (Leymarie, 1988, p. 12). Schulz-Hoffman offers a number of alternative explanations, including “the rectangle and square delimit a pictorial field that is firmly structured in all directions, while the oval leaves the edge comparatively fluid and indefinite; the pictorial field does not correspond to the habitul way of seeing nor to the notion of a picture as a view through a window” (Schulz-Hoffman, 1988, p. 22).

Landscape with houses Georges Braque Winter 1908-1909 oil on canvas 65.5 x 54.0 cm

Georges Braque
Landscape with houses
Winter 1908-1909 oil on canvas 65.5 x 54.0 cm

Still life offered an ideal way of examining space. It is enclosed, easier to define and encompass than in say a landscape. Multiple viewpoints are readily obtained and proximity effectively removes perspective. At AGNSW another painting by Braque provides an interesting contrast.

I previously showed this image 31-Oct-2013 when I considered its relationship to Landscape with stag by Gustave Courbet, focusing on its angularity and repetition of triangular forms, sense of being closed in, and palette. Virtually the same points link to Braque’s still life. The absence of a skyline, closing in the landscape, assists that flattening effect – space without depth. The trees and buildings are simplified to geometric forms, and although not yet fragmented they have begun to shift in space to create a unified pictorial field in the compressed space.

Both works by Braque shown here show the influence of Cézanne (see 30-Jan-2014). There is the even brushstroke unifying elements (much more apparent in the landscape than the still life). There are multiple points of view, distortion of space, the importance of the relationships between objects and the process of discovery, an incremental development while painting. Braque said “The [Renaissance] painters confused composition with staging. It was opera and stage directing. But with Cézanne composition is really painting, it is thought out” (Braque, [n.d.] c)


Glass of absinthe was painted during a critical period of artistic exploration by Braque and Picasso. In this early stage of Cubism, Analytic Cubism, objects were used to explore space. Later, in what is now known as Synthetic Cubism, space was discovered or created using techniques such as strips of paper, which then suggested objects that could be inserted. Cubist works built on the legacy of Cézanne in questioning the hard-won skills of naturalistic representation and in finding new ways of approaching the two dimensional surface of a painting. Such concerns have continued to attract artists, for example I find it interesting to look back at my notes on Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles (see 26-Dec-2013) regarding the focus on the surface of the painting among abstract expressionists and the introduction of forms, a hierarchy, in the Poles.

Both Braque and Picasso drew back from pure abstraction. Cubism broke barriers as a conceptual approach, but did not become a viable long-term style. However the discoveries and advances made in this period were critical in later developments of 20th century art.

A sidenote: While researching for this annotation I came across Picasso’s 1914 The Absinthe Glass – see for example This sculpture is significant in a number of ways, including the inclusion of an actual absinthe spoon making it one of the earliest art works to include an actual object, and in six casts being made – each individually painted by Picasso and so both a multiple and unique.


Braque ([n.d.] a) Cited Mullins, E. (1968) The Art of Georges Braque New York: Harry N. Abrams Inc, p. 41

Braque ([n.d.] b) Cited Mullins, E. (1968) The Art of Georges Braque New York: Harry N. Abrams Inc, p. 55

Braque ([n.d.] c) Cited in Lieberman, A. (1960) The artist in his studio London: Thames & Hudson, p.136

Golding, J. (1990) “Braque and the space of still life” In South Bank Centre (1990) Braque: Still lifes and interiors. London: South Bank Centre Publications, pp. 9 – 26.

Leymarie, J. (1988) Georges Braque New York: Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum.

Maloon, T. (2010) Paths to abstraction 1867 – 1917 Sydney: Art Gallery of New South Wales

Schulz-Hoffman, C. (1988) “The Cubist Phase” In Leymarie, J. (1988) Georges Braque New York: Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, pp. 19-24.

UA1-WA:P3-p4-Exercise: Annotation of a still life by Braque
Understanding Art 1 – Western Art.
Part three: Modern art and still life
Project four: Still life after 1900
Exercise: Annotate a Cubist still life

UA1-WA:P3-p4-Research Point: Pop Art and still life

Still life
“A painting of inanimate objects” (Lucie-Smith, 2003, p. 205).
“A representation of such inanimate objects as flowers, fruit, dead animals or household articles” (Honour and Fleming, 2009, p. 948)

What are the criteria for “still life”? Lucie-Smith gives two – a painting, and inanimate objects. Honour and Fleming is a little more open with “representation” (perhaps allowing in the George Baldessin sculpture I showed recently – see 31-Jan-2014) and the brief list of example objects is suggestive of scale and possibly a certain domestic ordinariness. At least a certain degree of representation is required, not pure abstraction. Neither definition mentions the artist’s purpose.

When researching the iconography of still life (see 11-Jan-2014) I found vanitas paintings, reflecting on the brevity of life, and pronkstilleven paintings, a celebration of plenty and the exotic. Both forms were a display of the technical skill of the artist and of the wealth and possibly piety of the prosperous citizens of a great trading nation.

Cézanne’s still life (see 30-Jan-2014) explored the nature of painting, emphasising the canvas surface and distorting forms and space. I’m currently working on an annotation of a Cubist still life, which goes further as suggested by Braque’s statement “The subject is not the object; it is the new unity, the lyricism which stems completely from the means employed” (Braque, [n.d.]). Here the ‘inanimate object’ is just a pretext for the painting.

Aspects of Pop Art

  • Appropriation. For example Roy Lichtenstein followed “a sophisticated process of image selection, reinterpretation and reissue” (Babington, 2012, p. 17)
  • Slick
  • A reaction against abstract expressionism and the individual gestures/marks of the heroic artist.
  • Reintroduction of the figurative
  • Often mechanically produced in multiples
  • Collision or confrontation of high and low art, the ordinary/popular and avant garde.
  • Often uses collage or screen printing

Another list, from Richard Hamilton in 1957:

  • Popular (designed for a mass audience)
  • Transient (short term solution)
  • Expendable (easily forgotten)
  • Low cost
  • Mass produced
  • Young (aimed at youth)
  • Witty
  • Sexy
  • Gimmicky
  • Glamrous
  • Big business

Pop Art responded to the mass consumerism and popular culture of its time.

Probably the most widely known Pop Art work that could be regarded as still life are Andy Warhol’s images of soup cans (for example see I saw two of these in Canberra last year – images of ordinary household items reproduced using commercial techniques, but at a monumental scale and using repetition to generate impact and force. The rows of soup on supermarket shelves, a quick something for supper, become a Statement, a reflection of and a commentary on modern life. The choice of subject was suggested by a gallery owner, Muriel Latow, and the work gained Warhol the “instant notoriety” he craved (Kinsman, 2003). A very humble inanimate object has been represented on a very large scale (historically not used for still life) using techniques that deliberately downplay the touch of the artist’s hand. It ticks all the boxes to be regarded as a still life, while at the same time challenging the traditional qualities of an artwork.

For this Research Point I have chosen to focus on the work of Roy Lichtenstein, as I had the opportunity to many of his works at the Roy Lichtenstein
Pop Remix
exhibition at the NGA (see

Still life with windmill (1974) ( is from the Six still lifes series (another from the series can be seen at the Tate – This clearly references traditional “old master” paintings. Fruit and jugs are arranged on a table top, a local view can be seen through a door or window – not so different to the work I studied by Laurens Craen (see 13-July-2014). However surface planes are flattened, detail is removed, colours simplified and strong. There are 99 other copies in the edition. It is slightly larger than the Craen work. While clearly a modern work there is no doubt it is a still life.

Kitchen range (1961-62) also shows food items arranged in a domestic setting – in this instance a kitchen stove. It is painted, oil on canvas – traditional. The palette has been reduced to an acid yellow and a violet blue on white. The stove and its contents are placed on the canvas with no further elaboration. Lichtenstein said “In these objects … there is an anti-Cubist composition. You pick an object and put it on a blank ground. I was interested in non-Cubist composition. The idea is contrary to the major direction of art since the early Renaissance which has more and more symbolised the integration of ‘figure’ and ‘ground'” (Lichtenstein, 1967). This work can be seen as a representation of inanimate household articles and the artist’s intentions remain within the canon of western art. I have no difficulty categorising this as a still life.

I am more ambivalent about works in the Mirror series – for example Mirror #6 (1972) It is a representation of an inanimate household object. Babington suggests that in this series Lichtenstein was “exploring in full the conceptual and formal concerns posed by compositions that meld abstraction and representation” (Babington, p. 45). Lichtenstein said of these works “There is no really convincing way to portray a mirror, because a mirror simply reflects what’s in front of it… I try to represent reflections of various things and to make a kind of geometrical painting, one that could possibly be thought of as a mirror, and to continue the idea of a painting as an object” (Lichtenstein, 1995). The subject here is not really the object, just as it wasn’t for Braque. However the concerns of the artist remain within the canon even as his techniques continue to test the boundaries. If there is an element of doubt here, it is answered in Before the Mirror (1975) Here traditional elements of a still life, a lemon and a glass, are reintroduced. I suggest the series is confirmed as comprising still life works.

Crak! (1963-64) shows a female resistance fighter firing her gun. What has this to do with still life? It is an appropriation of an illustration in a comic book, something that would have been a household item in the 1960s. It’s a representation, a lithograph, of a drawing. In that sense the object is not a portrait of a woman firing a gun, it’s a DC Comics illustration. Lichtenstein said “… it’s like a Western version of Oriental writing or scrolls … the Bayeux tapestry or something” (Lichtenstein, [n.d.]). Although one could argue that the image is a representation of an inanimate object I think this would be a distortion of the artist’s intention and not justifiable.

I believe many of Lichtenstein’s works can be regarded as within the still life genre. How helpful or misleading such labels are is beyond the scope of this post.


Babington, J. (2012) Roy Lichtenstein: Pop remix. Canberra: NGA Publishing National Gallery of Australia.

Braque, G. ([n.d.]) Cited in Honour, H. and Fleming, J. (2009) A World History of Art (revised 7th edition). London: Laurence King, p. 785.

Hamilton, R. (1957) ‘Letter to Peter and Alison Smithson’, Cited in Babington, J. (2012) Roy Lichtenstein: Pop remix. Canberra: NGA Publishing National Gallery of Australia, p. 16.

Honour, H. and Fleming, J. (2009) A World History of Art (revised 7th edition). London: Laurence King.

Kinsman, J. (2003) Curator’s essay: afterimage: Screenprints of Andy Warhol. Canberra: National Gallery of Australia. [online] Available from (Accessed 7-Feb-2014)

Lichtenstein, R. ([n.d.]) Cited in Waldman, D. (1971) Roy Lichtenstein. London: Thames and Hudson, p. 28, Cited in Babington, J. (2012) Roy Lichtenstein: Pop remix. Canberra: NGA Publishing National Gallery of Australia, p. 29.

Lichtenstein, R. (1967) in John Coplans, ‘Talking with Roy Lichtenstein’, Artforum, vol. 5, no. 9, May 1967, pp.34-9, p.34, Cited in National Gallery of Australia Catalogue ([n.d.]) Roy LICHTENSTEIN: Kitchen range [Kitchen stove] 1961-62 [online] Available at
(Accessed 7-Feb-2014)

Lichtenstein, R. (1995) ‘A review of my work since 1961 – a slide presentation’ lecture delivered 11 November 1995, Cited in Babington, J. (2012) Roy Lichtenstein: Pop remix. Canberra: NGA Publishing National Gallery of Australia, p. 47.

Lucie-Smith, E. (2003) The Thames & Hudson Dictionary of Art Terms (New edition). London: Thames & Hudson.

UA1-WA:P3-p4-Research Point: Pop Art still life
Understanding Art 1 – Western Art.
Part three: Modern art and still life
Project four: Still life after 1900
Research Point: Pop Art still life

UA1-WA:P3-p4-Exercise: Notes about still life

The course notes ask for comments on anything I found particularly interesting or surprising about this genre.

Generalising (since of course there are always individual exceptions), I love the human scale and interest, the sense of the person. The artist has chosen this particular group of objects to observe carefully, to spend time with. There’s often a meditative feel, giving a moment to stop rushing about and to see what is around us all the time.

Given what I saw in Cézanne (see 30-Jan-2014), still life also gives a lot of scope to bring in theory, to experiment. In a sense it is the most obvious non-abstract form which reduces the importance of the subject of the painting – a key element in the movement towards abstraction. In that light still life was a bridge to many the developments of the twentieth century, but it remains an important area of work in its own right.

I want to show a few still life works I’ve seen in recent months and found particularly interesting.

Matthew Smith Jugs against vermillion background

Matthew Smith
Jugs against vermillion background
1936 – 30. Oil on canvas

This painting is just pure excitement. That incredible strong colour! And to put that little strip of green top centre!! The table top is tilted and unsupported, there are red shadows but not for the blue jug. ‘Most’ still life pictures are their own little world, but the one I looked at by Cézanne showed a little of the studio around him, and here Smith shows just part of a nude woman. Smith plays with the seen and unseen, and with space – is that a mirror frame at the back, suggesting depth and a wall? In person the direction of brush strokes and the paint texture is very important. The most surprising thing in viewing this picture is the balance. There is so much information and action on the right, and on the left… I’m not sure how well it shows in the photograph, but that red on the right is so intense, so solid, while the red on the right hand side is just a bit darker, not quite so saturated – and it works.

Giorgio Morandi Still life

Giorgio Morandi
Still life
1957. Oil on canvas

This work by Morandi is such a contrast, but once again colour is so important. I don’t know if it was the artist’s choice or later framing (I notice it’s not included in the photo on the gallery’s website), but that little surround of orange brings a glow and life to the painting and really emphasizes that patch of orange inside. This work feels deeply contemplative, austere and refined. That division line – the edge of the table? – is quite high, and doesn’t seem to quite line up from side to side, while in the centre lines on the largest jug/bottle almost continue it. There is careful, subtle shading, perhaps only one highlight. Colours are subdued, but still give me a sense of richness. It looks timeless.

John Brack The Breakfast Table

John Brack
The Breakfast Table
1958. Oil on canvas

The colour and patterning of this work draws you across the room. The thin vertical format of the picture combines with the wobbly vertical trail of the knives and the long shadows of the glassware, and is held in place by just a couple of strong horizontals at the top. The table is so colourful – that amazing yellow, even more amazing with the spots of colour from the jam jars. I like the sly little glimpse of the black and white floor, linking to the black and white which I think is reflections in the window. The scene is domestic and lively and energetic – I can imagine the family who just shared a noisy breakfast and are now racing off to their busy days.

John Bokor Kitchen table

John Bokor
Kitchen table
2011. Pencil, gesso wash on thick textured white paper (oil paper)

Another exciting table! This feels much more spontaneous, unlike the careful compositions of most still life. The layers of wash and drawing create movement and life and urgency. Bokor keeps building and constructing layer upon layer. This drawing and others in the series feel fresh and young and invigorating.

The multiple lines and layers made me think of pentimenti (traces of alteration) in older works where the artist may have changed his/her mind, then the multiple lines in Cézanne’s work where he kept seeing slightly different parts of an object, and the tail of the bull in Matisse’s L’Enlevement d’Europe (see that I wanted in my bedroom in the Finding Affinities exercise (see 9-Dec-2013). I haven’t got to the end of this train of thought, but it feels like something I want to explore further.

Emma White Still life with objects

Emma White
Still life with objects
2011. Archival inkjet print

This is a truly dreadful photo, taken in low light with lots of reflections in the glass, so please, Please, PLEASE click on the link below the photo or the photo itself to go to the gallery website. This is another recent and exciting work exploring the world of still life today. The artist’s methods and materials are right up to date and I love the way this still life is right back on the edge of abstraction.

George Baldessin Pear - version number 2

George Baldessin
Pear – version number 2
1973. Sculpture, corten steel: 7 forms

I saw this work by George Baldessin when I visited Canberra late last year. Cézanne played with the artificiality of a three dimensional form on a two dimensional canvas. Here the fruit is once again three dimensional – but at huge scale, rigid and hard, so unlike a juicy, ripe, easily bruised pear. It’s wonderful to walk up to and around what seems like a classic still life composition.

20140120_posterI’m continuing my personal attempts with still life. I like this best of what I’ve done so far. I like some of the textures created by the posterizing of the image. I think perhaps it needs some other little thing with a hard reflection like the ginger beer bottle – maybe a little hard round reflective shape catching the light just in front of the deeply shadowed side of the bowl. You can see more of my struggles in my sketchbook (click here).

UA1-WA:P3-p4-Exercise: Notes about still life
Understanding Art 1 – Western Art.
Part three: Modern art and still life
Project four: Still life after 1900
Exercise: Notes about still life


Fabulous figure sculpting workshop with Kassandra Bossell!

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