MEANING IN STILL - LIFE. MEDITATIONS ON THE NARRATIVE CONTENT OF VISUAL REPRESENTATION
The matter I am occupied in studying visual objects as regards Panofsky's distinction, must be conceded with the 'studies in iconology', since I am mostly interested in typological similarity of iconic forms. Moreover, I have to insist that there is no iconology without iconography, i.e. without historical or narrative content of visual representation. A sign is formed according to iconic principle, i.e. by means of disjunctive guesses and ripping similarities, then is included into the strict system of conventions. It always means something in two systems simultaneously - in the iconic and in the conventional system. On this crossroad of semiotic strategies I attempt to erect my interpretation of some stable iconic motifs in European still life painting.
1.Roemer Visscher "Nihil est in rebus inane" 1614.
In different historical periods culture preferred different strategies
of looking for meaning in a represented object. But if we turn to the
emancipation of still life as an independent genre (in 16th c.) we must
affirm that it evidently had a program of "reading" of the emblematic
kind. "Nihil est in rebus inane" (There is nothing senseless
in things) was proclaimed by Roemer Visscher in his Book of Emblems (Sinnepoppen.
Amsterdam, Willem Jansz, 1614. 1(A) - ill. 1). I insist that this elaborated
and developed language of the emblematic representation implicitly determine
meaning of represented object and set of objects until nowadays. Already
Impressionism started with certain deconstruction of emblematic determinism
of "reading" image. Impressionism does not prescribe thing "vocabulary"
meaning of traditional convention but discovers this meaning in occasional
shape of object. Avant-garde explicitly denies any narrative or symbolic
meaning within a still life and has a strong tendency to make a still
life of any classical genre. The further development of the denial of
traditional meaning in abstract art already leads to complete destruction
of "recognizable" shape of an object that can be compared with
the so called "zaum'" of futurists (Kruchonych and Khlebnikov)
in literature and verbal art. The latter is very demonstrative: object
as such and it's representation actively resist forgetting it's traditionally
stable meaning, in order to destroy this meaning it should be necessary
to destroy a thing itself. (On the tricky concept of "zaum"
see, for some good reflective and scholarly narrations: Богомолов, Н.А.,1993;
Двинятин Ф., 2003, Эндер, З., 1991; Гречко, В., 2000; Janecek, G., Riggs,
G.,: 1987; Jensen, Kjeld B.,: 1979; Левкиевская, Е.Е.,1999 as well as
some others - ed.).
The power of sense regeneration is still so intense that this deconstruction
never happens to be complete: inertia of iconicity forces us to expect
meaning in wall fissures. The same law of "pan-semioticity"
is true for poetry as well. No nonsense can fatally destroy the memory
of meaning. It still can be followed even in random verbal or letter construction.
The main point of my analyses in this presentation is still life compositions
by Russian Avant-garde artist K. Petrov-Vodkin. His position in the question
of meaning of object is rather clear and explicit. It consists in constant
stressing of the significance of the shape of a represented object and
refusing of the "narrative" or symbolic meaning.
"To come to the essence of an object one must denude it, switch
off its decorativeness and functionality, and only then universal laws
and conditions of it's life will be unveiled. Thus are clarified color
in it's intensity, shape, that determine color, and roll-call of reflections
of things, its' density, transparency and weight. In our everyday life
we come into touch with objects only slightly and do not see how they
interrelate. We do not see forces that form an object form inside, that
constitute it's facets, build it's axes and second forth - atmosphere
pressure, that restricts the creation of an object, that is usually called
the background, but it has it's shape and mass, that do not allow an object
to expand infinitely. Each detail on the surface of an object characterizes
the struggle of these two forces - creating and bounding. (Petrov-Vodkin
It is a paradox, but together with explicit denial of symbolic meaning
of a still life this aspect of reconstruction of an object in its borders
leads to reconstruction of emblematic "vocabulary" traditional
sense in Petrov-Vodkin's still life compositions. The parallel with West-European
emblematic pieces is so evident that simply can not be neglected and excluded
of interpretative process even after such persistent statement of the
The most famous and perfect examples of still life by Petrov-Vodkin directly refer to Dutch still-lives of 17th century. I mean first of all "The Herring" (Ill. 2 - 1918. Russian State Museum. St.-Petersburg) and "Morning still life" (Ill. 3 - Russian State Museum. St.-Petersburg). Already the choice of subject and title points at the stable tradition of Dutch compositions "with herring" and so called "breakfasts". "Morning still life" explicitly contains symbolic motifs of Easter - eggs in Russian tradition are quite closely attached to Easter complex. This religious connotation is inevitable part of early genre- and still life painting. Besides this in "Morning still life" is placed one quite remarkable creature, that is a dog staring at the laid table. Petrov-Vodkin here unconsciously but literally reproduces the content of one of the emblems from the German volume of 1624 by Mannich (Mannich 1624: N II). At the second emblem of this Emblemata is represented a laid table and a dog nearby. The subscription sounds: "Paucis contenta quiscit" (Who is satisfied with few live in peace). Already these mentioned references must ensure an interpreter to use more deep historical background for understanding the artist's works than he proclaimed.
2.Petrov-Vodkin "Herring" 1918.
3.Petrov-Vodkin "Morning Still Life" 1918
The object of my investigation is herring. It is already common place
in art critics to point at the sacral implication of the "Still life
with herring". This composition is interpreted as "revolutionary
Eucharist": fish and bread, baring Christological allusions, specific
coloration transforming colors of Christ and Virgin are constantly mentioned
as arguments. I do not attempt to discredit this fundamental interpretation
but still I want to stress one very important nuance that consist in historical
specifics of the motif of a fish (and herring in particular) in visual
art tradition. There is no doubt that fish in Christian iconography represents
the emblem of Christ. I use this word - the emblem - as a strict term,
because this sign (fish for Christ) includes two semantically different
components: iconic and verbal - visual object or sign and literal anagram
- IX0YS (on the structure of the emblem see - Grigorjeva 1987, 2000a,
2000b). But at the same time this high sacral complex is essentially transformed
in the tradition of baroque art. Let us study how the motif of a fish
(herring especially) is treated in the hey-days of the new emancipated
genre in Western Europe and first of all in Holland.
The herring occupies special position in economics of Holland of 17th
century. Namely due to the invention of salting herring Amsterdam gains
the leading place within European trade turnover. "Amsterdam is build
on herrings' bones" states old Holland proverb. If Reformation carried
out the liberation of spiritual life so the herring liberated economics.
A Praise to Herring.
Salted herring clean and fat,
4. Josef de Bray "A Praise to Herring" 1664
As a matter of fact, this text represent the description of herring's
martyrdom and communion with its flesh, that means overplaying the main
Christian mystery in folk-carnival manner. Evident phallic connotations
support this complex. It is interesting (everything new is only well forgotten
old!) that already in antique art the representation of a fish was often
contaminated with representation of phallus. On the one hand this carnivalization
of the 'mystery' restitute to Christian ritual (for some general 'mythogenic'
and theological accounts see Odenthal, Andreas, 2004; Pecklers, Keith
F., 2003; Walter, Ch. 1982; Watts, A., 1968; James, E. O. 1973(1937),
along with thousands of other similarly structured studies - ed.) its
pagan function of cyclic myth (compare mentioning of a sunset), on the
other hand the recognizable complex of high mystery sends back to sacral
compositions of the kind that was forced out of temples by Reformation.
Thus the frame still life composition may be considered as an inheritor
of holy icons, of course, to certain degree. Besides this, such comprehension
places the still life image of herring into the category of Vanitas
composition. The vital power of this text does not contradict the connotation
of Vanitas, but directly lead to archaic mental paradigm of cyclic
The theme of transitoriness within fish representation and namely, within herring image, survived until nowadays but already in purified to the scheme form. That is caricature image of a herring skeleton with head and tail. It must be mentioned that this schematically simple, even infantile method of representing herring is very close to the same of representing a fir-tree that pertains to the Christmas complex and thus reminds of Christ again but form another iconographical side. It is quite remarkable that the connotation of transitoriness bared by the image of fish bones was detected by the common conscious and reflected in some spheres of language, at least in Russian language. In lexicon of the domino game in Russian the dead-end combination of the "bones" (domino plates) is defined as "fish". This word could be heard loudly exclaimed and accompanied with specific clatter of the plates in the course of the yard game (that was nearly exclusively masculine) in Russian towns until the very recent days. It must be reminded here that all games of chance origin from magic offering rites and one of the other terms defying domino game in Russia is "to slaughter the goat". Visual representation fixes this mythological knot of herring, fish, bones and sacrifice until nowadays. The motif of sacrifice can be followed even in variant that is very close to Eucharist connotation. I have some examples of web art to illustrate this statement.
5. Aleksei Solovjev "Fish!"
6. Marc Chagall "Crucifix with Clock"
7. "Commander's firtree".
8. "My favourite halibut".
Illustration 9 shows the caricature-style work by the web-artist Samarych ("Fish 2000") and represents the previously mentioned combination of domino plates-bricks. The meaning here can be described somehow like "Sabbath! The end of work". Fish bones with vodka bottle on the periphery of the composition restore the atmosphere of folk carnival celebration so typical for early Dutch still life examples. But the T-cross of the "fish" still connotes with the theme of the Cross- - zero point in time and dissection of space. Fish skeleton, that repeats graphic algorithm of cross, with a bottle is a standard set reminding in caricature sketch form of the death-resurrection cycle, memento mori and gaudeamus igitur in one unit, but in a very low mode.
9. Samarych "Fish 2000".
From the other point still life represent emancipated attribute of the "complete" sacral composition. To return to the problem of interpretative provocativeness stated in the first lines of this presentation it must be mentioned that namely attributes usually serve as the main bearers of conventional (that is the most distinctive) meaning within complex image. (A female figure with a torch means Freedom, a female figure with a sphere means muse Urania and so on - the main distinctive function is realized through attributes). In the absence of actor attributes change their grammatical meaning from indirect to direct - not personification of love, but - love, not personification of death, but - death. Nevertheless, still life does not gain fully independent meaning with this. As it was already mentioned an object there occurs as a metonymical replacement of an actor, i.e. of a person that is away. The absence usually is understood as death. Attributes in a still life often stand for concrete person characterizing his (rarely - her) status and other particularities. As an example of early forms of representing personality through attributes it may be delivered Duerer's signature crowned with a parrot in his "Adam and Eve" (1504, engraving, Staatliche Kunsthalle, Karlsruheengraving - ill 10). The attribute - a parrot - clearly characterizes the artist (and an artist to some regard), it can be interpreted in words: "It's me, master Albrecht, a parrot in God". The similar function of self-presentation is bared by an owl in Bosch' works.
10. Albrecht Duerer. "Adam and Eve" 1504.
11. David Bailly "Self-Portrait with Vanitas Symbols" 1651.
12. Clara Peeters "Still-Life with Flowers and Goblets"1612.
13. Frans Snyders "Fishmonger's".
14. Adriaen van Utrecht "Fishmonger's Stall".
15. Petrov-Vodkin "Still life with blue ashtray" 1920.
16. Petrov-Vodkin "Still life with letters" 1925.
17. Petrov-Vodkin "Still life with mirror" 1919.
18. Petrov-Vodkin "Still life with samovar" 1920.
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