Still Life Before Still Life by David Ekserdjian - review by Susan Owens

Susan Owens

Poetry of the Everyday

Still Life Before Still Life


Yale University Press 256pp £35 order from our bookshop

One of the paintings David Ekserdjian discusses in this engaging book is called Christ in the House of Mary and Martha, but it would be hard to guess its title from the picture itself. The composition is dominated by a mesmerisingly vast haunch of meat that hangs dead centre, beneath which are laid out bread rolls, a pat of butter and a jug. The ostensible subject of the composition, a somewhat insipid figure group, is to be found only in the background. After a quick look at that, one’s eye is drawn back to the commanding presence of food and drink. This work of 1552 by Pieter Aertsen exemplifies Ekserdjian’s theme: the elements of still life that inhabit Renaissance paintings.

If you ask an art historian when still life emerged as an independent genre, they will probably point to the early 17th century. But, as Ekserdjian demonstrates here, the story is more complicated than that: still life, he tells us, is everywhere in paintings of the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries, if we only have an eye to see it. And if, in the end, still life gained such confidence that it began to shoulder the main subject aside, as in Aertsen’s work, even before then flowers, fruit, food, objects on shelves and niches, memento mori, armour and jewellery all played significant roles in compositions. Dividing his material into these thematic groups, Ekserdjian explores a hundred or so paintings, each of which is given a double-page spread beautifully illustrated with details.

Still life, Ekserdjian tells us, seems to have flourished in ancient Greece and Rome, though little survives beyond an enchanting ‘unswept floor’ mosaic found at Pompeii, apparently strewn with discarded fish bones, leaves and shells, and a story told by Pliny in his Natural History about Zeuxis painting

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