VISUAL ARTS : A cabbage, a melon, a genius

It's enough to give an art critic indigestion. What more, asks Tom Lubbock, is there to say about the still-life? Other than this...
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The Independent Culture
This is the sort of exhibition to put art critics out of business. Beyond a warm recommendation and a brief inventory of goods there's not a great deal that needs saying about "Spanish Still Life from Velzquez to Goya" at the National Gallery.

In the 400 years of its history, the painting of food and tableware has moved from being the lowest-rated form of art to one of the most readily appreciated. Spanish still-life as such may be an unfair category as compared with Dutch, say, but the show immediately persuades you of its validity. It is, in the best sense, a transparent exhibition.

Some works are very well-known. There are three of Velzquez's astonishing bodegones (pub scenes) - the egg-fryer, the garlic-crusher and the water- seller - painted when the artist was about 20. There is one of Zurbarn's two major contributions to the genre; not, unfortunately the one with oranges and lemons, but the one with four vessels placed along a shelf in a very carefully spaced row.

The Goyas are all dead animals, including that mournful mutton-head meat- piece from the Louvre. There are grape studies by El Labrador displaying multiple luminosities - high-light, matt bloom, clear skin and translucent flesh. There are Luis Melendez's elaborate table-top constructions, with their high definition but a little too glistening realism. But happily (for the critic) there's one big piece of news.

"From Velzquez to Goya", the show's called. Naturally they put the leading names on the bill. But it begins a little before Velzquez, and the most welcome surprise is the artist whose work fills the first room - perhaps after this showing his name will be big enough for a billing too.

The name is Juan Snchez Cotn. Though not unknown, he has, I think, not been seen in this country before and his very existence is a quite recent find. It's always odd that an absolutely canonical artist like Vermeer only came to light again in 1860 or that Georges de la Tour wasn't identified until 1915. Snchez Cotn was rediscovered in 1945.

Working at the start of the 17th century, he's now recognised as the founder of Spanish still-life and one of the first great practitioners of the genre anywhere. Like Vermeer and De la Tour, it's not obvious where he got his ideas from. But such rediscoveries always seem to meet the taste of their time. I wouldn't call Snchez Cotn a "proto-modern" artist; it doesn't mean much to say that. But his pictures - planar, geometrical, rather weirdly stark - are certainly ones likely to appeal to, and be noticed by, 20th-century eyes raised on abstraction and surrealism.

His formats are always the same: a stone window-frame and, behind it, pitch black. Within this frame, picked out in sharp light, fruit, vegetables and dead birds are arranged, each item isolated against the quite unexplained darkness. Snchez Cotn doesn't stack things up behind each other. The window ledge is too narrow to allow depth. Rather, he composes in a two- dimensional plane and gives himself complete freedom here by virtue of dangling objects on strings.

It's a startling device. Hanging game one expects. Hanging vegetables one doesn't, though it may have been common storage practice in his day. But then, nor is it explained either what these things are dangling from. The strings just hang in there - a Gordian solution to the old pictorial problem of defying gravity, getting things off the ground to fill the picture from top to bottom. Design holds sway. In his masterpiece, Still- Life with Quince, Cabbage, Melon and Cucumber, the elements are placed in something like a perfect descending parabola.

Even in less minimal pieces, he offers no feast for the eye. His foodstuffs don't belong to the realm of appetite. The dangling device gives them an especially untouchable stillness. And that melon isn't cut into mouthwatering chunks; it is dissected or displayed as a sectional sphere.

On the other hand, I don't see these pictures as mere demonstrations of form. Snchez Cotn shows, if not a consuming love, an intense respect for the vegetable world (his painting of birds is less keen). These organisms have not quite a life, but very much an existence of their own.

Still-lifes often seem slightly unreal. The rendering is life-like but the compositions, with their theatrical displays and their interestingly mixed-up menus, are far removed from the life of the kitchen even when, as in Velzquez, an active kitchen scene is portrayed. An almost excessive meaningfulness is conferred upon an egg, a lemon, a cheese, a nut or a pot as they glow sharp and luminous from the severe darkness behind (a recurring Spanish trick). Or there's that bizarre sub-genre, the heroic still-life, where food is massively foregrounded against a landscape, dominating the scene like a lion; Melendez does this with artichokes.

But perhaps still-life seems weird because we assume a false familiarity with its subjects. We talk admiringly about "the transfiguration of the everyday" without really appreciating which foodstuffs were staples and which luxuries, which pots were cheap and which expensive. And then things did have "meanings" they don't now have - an allegorical frame of mind inevitably makes the everyday a richer, stranger place. Still, I think one just has to accept that a world where every carrot told a sermon is a world we have lost beyond recovery. And I don't regret for an instance the fading of the Vanitas theme - vegetables perish and oh, so do we; add skulls ad lib to stress the point - surely one of the most boring ideas in Western art, with several examples here.

Generally these still-lives have much more complicated things to say about life and death. The plucked fruit takes on an individuality. The dead creature comes half-alive as all of Goya's do. Pots stand in for people. You might call this world animistic or anthropomorphic. You might even say that in a Catholic culture, still-life is bound to be inflected by the doctrine of transubstantiation. But this is to beg the question. It assumes you know which things are really alive and which aren't - a question that this art is devoted to holding in transfixed suspension.

Another even more recent rediscovery is hanging elsewhere in the National Gallery; Caravaggio's Capture of Christ. It turned up in Dublin last year and is on brief loan, paired with the Gallery's own Supper at Emmaus, thought to be a companion picture. The Supper is in some ways a more sophisticated work, with its almost dislocated arrangement of frozen gestures and high- focus details and - is this device unique? - the way the innkeeper's head casts its oval shadow on the wall directly behind Christ's, giving him a dark negative halo. The Capture is a more straightforward and integrated action scene; deliberately over-integrated, in fact.

There are six figures pictured in this violent scrum and you might doubt whether there's really room for them all. But so close up and under such tenebrous lighting, Caravaggio can do almost what he likes with the bodies, creating virtual superimpositions. It's an expressive ensemble in which different limbs and heads seem more like extensions of a single body, or different stages of a single movement.

The thrust of the arresting soldier's black-armoured arm is picked up in Judas's grasping hand. Judas's head meets Christ's with a bang and then, under this impact, an apostle's profile is knocked shouting out of the back of Christ's head, giving voice to the reaction Christ suppresses. The swirl of flying robe above, which has little realistic pretext, acts as a cartoon shudder-line or a pictorial sound-effect (like the reverberations in Munch's Scream). Arresting it is.

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