Chardin, Jean-Baptiste Siméon: Glass of Water and Coffee Pot (1760)
Friday 17 February 2006
Bertolt Brecht wrote a poem against brand-newness. It begins (in Michael Hamburger's translation): "Of all works I prefer/ Those used and worn/ Copper vessels with dents and flattened rims/ Knives and forks whose wooden handles/ Many hands have grooved: such shapes/ Seem the noblest to me..."
And the poem goes on to praise breakage, dilapidation, ruin. It is not intact perfection, but the incessant attrition of human usage that dignifies the world. Brecht likes the lived-in look.
When did people start to appreciate the run-down? You might guess that the cult of wear and tear came in after industrialisation. The triumph of machined and standardised production provoked a reaction, in favour of the authentically handmade and hand-worn. It's a modern taste, then, and probably a well-off taste. Brecht's words could sound like some contemporary bourgeois, furnishing his country-cottage kitchen, going for the old-fashioned peasant thing.
But the taste has a longer history. In the middle of the 17th century, the art critic Giovanni Bellori was complaining about the unfortunate influence of Caravaggio upon other painters. "Now began the imitation of base things, seeking out filth and deformity, as some popular artists do assiduously. So, if they have to paint armour, they choose to reproduce the rustiest, if a vase, they would not complete it except to show it broken and without a spout..." A perfectionism of imperfection!
Damaged goods can carry various meanings. They can preach a memento mori moral, the decay of things signifying the decay that will overtake us all. They can be a mark of plain, honest realism: this is how the world is, not a neat place. They can show a relish in the worst, a stress on the seamy side, perverse delight in dirt, wreckage, gross-out. (Bellori's view.) Or they can show a warm compassion for the mortality of objects, and for the way use imbues things with detail and individuality. The school of hard knocks is beautifully character-building.
In the last act of Ben Jonson's The Alchemist, the owner of the house returns to find it hastily vacated, with fire damage and obscene graffiti left behind. "The empty walls worse than I left 'em, smoked, / A few cracked pots, and glasses, and a furnace' / The ceiling filled with poesies of the candle, / And Madam with a dildo writ on the walls." The place is a shambles, but the poetry loves the particulars of mess.
In art, the dispute between the marred and the immaculate goes deeper than subject matter. It is a central choice in the use of painting. Oil painting, as it happens, is good at both the rough and the smooth. It can give the world an exquisite, flawless surface, and, equally, it can create aged, weathered, fractured textures. Both renderings are among its excellences. Masters of the immaculate include Bronzino, De La Tour, Ingres. Masters of the marred are Titian, Rembrandt, Chardin.
Glass of Water and Coffee Pot is one of Chardin's late still lifes. Simplicity rules. On a shelf or tabletop sit the title contents, plus three bulbs of garlic, a sprig of herb, a garlic core. It is obviously an artificial setup. No cookery or meal could account for this gathering of things. The picture has a formal story. It's interested in shapes, colours, textures. It brings these things together for the sake of what they look and feel like.
And you could hardly call it messy. Nothing is cracked or broken. We're presented with a clear contrast between two vessels, the glass and the coffee pot, one transparent, one opaque, each having the form of a truncated cone, one expanding upwards, the other downwards. The scene finds neat geometrical order among household objects. Their sides have the same angle of slope. The right edge of the glass and the left edge of the pot are parallel.
But these geometries play against the central feeling of the objects -that they are well used, well worn, well handled. They are dense with minute, accumulated irregularities. They've become rich through usage. As Brecht says: "Frequently altered, they improve their appearance, growing enjoyable / Because often enjoyed." How easily an artist could have made the mouths of glass and pot into sharp, perfect ellipses. Chardin is careful not to, and without precisely adding a chip or graze, he shows that these vessels have been around, bumping and scraping against other things in the sink or cupboard. The glazed terracotta pot has blackened over the years. Even the water in the glass looks old, left out overnight, long standing with a bloom of dust.
The things feel handled, because of the way they have been handled by the paintbrush in the artist's hand, not smartening them up but roughening them up and wearing them down as it paints them. Painting can make the world new and perfect, it can issue ideal forms that deny the fate of matter. This is one of the miracles of the art. (Computer-generated animation offers the same delightful fantasy, a world with flawless skin.) But painting is also expert in entropy. It speaks on both sides in the great debate.
Last week, I should have mentioned that it was Marco Livingstone who discovered, and pointed out to me, that Kitaj's Study for the World's Body is based on a still from Carl Dreyer's film The Bride ofGlomdal.
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