Amsterdam International Electronic Journal for Cultural Narratology (AJCN)

J. Grigorjeva

Amsterdam International Electronic Journal for Cultural Narratology (AJCN)


Jelena Grigorjeva



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.

Still life within the classic set of visual genres seems to be the most provocative 'topic' for an interpretation. This statement can be easily reversed as well: still life seems to be the most meaning-less of the all. Both positions are enrooted within one basic characteristic of this genre. This also belongs to the definition of this kind of painting: still life represents a set of objects in an absence of a man. This convention is not absolute (there is, perhaps, nothing absolute in art) but still is to be considered as the main distinctive feature of the still life genre. Then the question whether a still life bears any "narrative" meaning can be formulated as - whether the world has any meaning in absence of a man. But in the case we should take into consideration that as a rule a still life represents either artifacts or other results of human's activity this question may be transformed to - who is (was) this man who left all this things and where he is gone now? In the last variant the meaning can get some 'narrative' taste.

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 1982: 487).

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 artist.

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 still life compositions by Petrov-Vodkin usually represent quite few objects; the more traditional and symbolic meaning bares each of them. The point is that all his "models" have been collecting contextual and explicit sense through ages. Symbolic history (or iconographical meaning) of each motif can be analytically followed. It does not mean, however, that this meaning is always consciously involved into the process of creating and perceiving a piece of art, but it still plays important role in both procedures although unconsciously. I dare to articulate this statement in further exposition concentrating my analyses only at one of such motifs.

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.
Famous composition by Josef de Bray (? - 1664) "A Praise to Herring" (Ill. 4 - 1664. Dresden Gallery) is organized around the reproduction of Jacob Westerban's poem (1633). So we evidently deal with semantic construct of emblematic type: image accompanied with verbal text forming one unit. Here I give interlinear translation from "Jacobi Westerbani Minne-Dichten". Haarlem. 1633.

A Praise to Herring.
Salted herring clean and fat,
Thick and long, without its head,
Cut with care along the spine,
Skinned and gutted, raw or fried
(Onions not to be forgotten),
Eaten by a hungry man
Ere the sun has gone to bed
In the evening late and sad,
With a mighty loaf of rye bread.
This is great cure, no theriac
Could be ever as praiseworthy.
Then a swig is most appropriate
Of good Breda or Harlem beer,
Or the Delft one, whichever 's nearer,
Which will make your throat again
Suitable and smooth and sleek,
So that you can better drink.
And if you are feeling awful,
Going 'round with your mouth open,
It can make you cheerful and fresh,
Cure from catarrhs coming from the head
That pass on to teeth and chest;
It helps also, if I may,
Timely shit and better pee;
It placates the inner winds
That requires food and drinks.
Can it really be otherwise?
He is healthy, he is wise
Who likes eating salted herring
Not the strange and sumptuous fare. (Translated by M. Sazonov)

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 myths.
Actually the origin of still life from the "complete" sacral composition determine the content of all sub-categories of this genre. Adam's head under the Cross with all things happened there (plants, soil, stones and small animals - each obtaining symbolic meaning) give birth to Vanitas still life type. The laid table of the Last Supper emancipates into the variety of the "meals", thus pointing always at Easter complex and to this degree connected to the theme of transitoriness as well.

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!"

Ill. 5 represents the work by Alexej Solovjev, one of the most prominent Russian WEB artists. He makes use of the language formula ("Fish! The end of the game cycle") and arranges the domino "bones" in the dial circle. The sum of the numbers really gives the dead-end combination called "fish" and this word is also used as a firm logo that can be taken for emblematic motto as well. The motif of time measured and expressed by clock is traditionally closely connected with the graphic representation of Christ and Cross (see Grigorjeva 2000: 93-123). Perhaps the most striking examples of this contamination of a clock, Christ and fish gives Marc Chagall (see ill. 6). Chagall contaminates consciously graphic schemes of a clock and Crucifix and supplies this construction with a fish pendulum in position of phallic erection. The last but not least detail is the subscription of the author's name on the top of the Cross - Chagall - instead of INRI, that already concerns the idea of artist's function and fate in this world. This subscription "authorizes" the Crucifix in the manner that reminds of the famous action by Rembrandt who placed his self-portrait in the very center of his composition "Rising the Cross" (for the formal analyses of this piece see - Grigorjeva 2000: 117-118). I do insist that the graphic model of 'Crucifix' implicitly (and sometimes rather explicitly) underlies nearly each attempt of representing fish-bones or 'fir tree' especially when they are made or used in a close to schematic appearance.

6. Marc Chagall "Crucifix with Clock"

For illustrations 7 and 8 are used just amateur photos made by a group of young men who went for fishing to the Russian Far East. They simply made photos according to their idea of a good composition. But a big fish inscribed in the situation of "successful hunting" is so naturally rooted in archaic rituals and determined by archetypes of offering that ancient graphic schemes are activated inevitably synchronized with behavioral stereotypes. The photo 7 is titled as "Commander's fir-tree", that in Russian actually means "Christmas tree". One can follow here quite demonstrative contamination of totemism and Christianity: a fir-tree here is represented through topography sign placing zero-point of time-space into the reality of a crossroad. (On the motif of Christmas midnight and cross-formed composition see Grigorjeva 2000: 101-104) Decoration of fishes on this "fir-tree" involves the theme of Christ's sacrifice and connects it with pagan tree-offering rites typical for northern primitive cultures (see further Dumezil, G., 1973). The composition on the photo 8 is perceived on the background of "successful hunting" pattern (a hunter represented with his catch). It must be stressed that "hunting" model differ of that of "fishing" one in graphics. Usually a fisherman demonstrates his prey with hands horizontally spread in both directions. On the analyzed photo it is rather used the model of an executioner posing near a gallows. Still the complex of Christ's passions is evidently present as well in such graphic motifs as cross-form of the same topography pointer and the table on the "chest" of the fish.

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".

With these modern examples taken from popular visual culture I want to state that the Christological complex of graphic motifs survived through ages until now although in rather reduced form. Still I must return to the baroque still life to investigate another significant connotation of the iconic motif of a fish.
As a hypothesis it may be suggested that the spirit of Reformation, invoking for concentrating on word and exiling iconic images from sacral domain, provided emancipation and evolution of visual representation in burgher's life. One of the main products of this emancipation became still life. With this came the basic transformations of content and function of each visual element of composition. It is remarkable that Renaissance already developed and evolved thematic paradigm of visual art close to complete freedom of choice but Baroque on it's early steps make use of the most traditional and stable (recognized as belonging to temple with distinctive sacral memory) compositions gradually expanding it's visual set. Extracting image from church and directing it at representing everyday life basically changes the pragmatics of icon. It stops to be a window into the transcendent that provide the contact with the divine, but becomes a mirror reflecting only the surrounding world. (On the function of icons in temple see - Florensky 1993: 3-173, on the problem of border between real and transcendent in art - Grigorjeva 1998). It seems that this natural pragmatic replacement explains the extremely increasing role of a mirror image in baroque art. Mirror belongs to the class of meta-images because it simultaneously works as a sign with its object and as an instrument describing the process of signification. The function of a window sometimes can be quite close to that of a mirror: the both can show something they are not in fact. But still mirror prefers to reflect and window to let our eye through. Pavel Florensky wrote: "To cover the icons in temple is the same as to immure windows to Heaven" - Florensky 1993: 41. Window replaced with mirror - this metaphor explains the essence of Reformation in visual art.

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.

Sometimes the principle of metonymical portrait within a still life is explicated in complete incorporated portrait. David Bailly ("Self-Portrait with Vanitas Symbols"
1651, Stedelijk Museum De Lakenhal, Leiden - ill. 11) gives an excellent example of the kind: self-portrait with the self-portrait of the aged artist accompanied with all attributes of the Vanitas still life set. If in the case with Bailly it can be argued that this piece belong to the still life genre, in Clara Peeters' work ("Still-Life with Flowers and Goblets"1612, Staatliche Kunsthalle, Karlsruhe - ill. 12) we deal with classical composition of objects in absence of an actor. But still the painter places her self-image in multiple convex mirrors of the goblet surface. The multiplication of the image is quite remarkable in this context. It detects the new attitude to one's personality as a sum of multiple points of view and reflections.

11. David Bailly "Self-Portrait with Vanitas Symbols" 1651.

12. Clara Peeters "Still-Life with Flowers and Goblets"1612.

The herring by Bray-Westerban, as well as all Dutch piscine still lives, seem to belong to this category of metonymical objects-attributes reflecting an actor. Herring points at Christ but describes first of the entire human and his life and death. It stands simultaneously for a man as a reflection of God (in low folk comprehension of course) and for a concrete man - the Dutch herring-eater and beer-drinker! It is only natural that iconological features of a piscine image are immediately involved into the system of favorite Baroque mirror motifs. The representation of fish scales turns into the problem of representing reflecting surface. I insist here that the ideology of baroque "reflectiveness" precede and determine the technique of visual representation. This principle of smoothening a fish (by the way at least for one species it is fixed in some, including Dutch, languages - Spiegel Karper) is explicitly used in heroic still life compositions by Snyders (Fishmonger's, Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Antwerp - ill. 13) and his epigones (see for example - Adriaen van Utrecht's "Fishmonger's Stall", Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Ghent - ill. 14). Fish is placed in reflecting brass or silver basins that intensifies the mirror effect. In this way fish is inscribed into the paradigm of reflecting, i.e. meta-objects such as goblets, shells (and shell-goblets of Nautilus type) and other glass and metal smooth vessels. The mirror effect of a wine cup or a beer glass in Vanitas still life indicates another turn of "de-sacralisation" of a cult object: there is wine for a man in a bowl and it's smooth surface faces the surrounding world and not God. This surface (sometimes quite fractional as piscine scales) reflects everyday things, interior and can reflect also an author - the creator of this microcosm. But as a matter of fact all objects of baroque still life can be considered as a "mirror" metonymy of the human.

13. Frans Snyders "Fishmonger's".

14. Adriaen van Utrecht "Fishmonger's Stall".

To return to the 'still-lives' of Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin one can notice that the "mirror effect" and various reflecting and refracting light surfaces happen to be one of his main technical methods and iconological motifs. Illustrations 15, 16, 17, 18 - all this still life examples show up objects with specific optic virtues, i.e. reflecting, translucent and deforming. My concept is that this "mirror effect" intentionally or - in Petrov-Vodkin case more likely - unintentionally evokes to interpretation the whole iconography set of emancipated in the baroque still life attributes. The artist insists that he represents only "color in it's intensity, shape, that determine color, and roll-call of reflections of things, its' density, transparency and weight". But all these formal principles are embodied in things, objects of representation which "remember" of its' iconography, i.e. of its' traditional meaning.
We have demonstrated that this traditional meaning is maintained in some of them until nowadays, that witnesses for the fact that in Petrov-Vodkin's times this meaning could not be completely forgotten in oblivion. Only by destroying iconological shape of a thing it can be forced to forget of it's iconography. Of course the content of this notion "iconography" can be different for different recipients. It is not identical by German professor of Art History and American teenager, but still even those two have something in common, some very basic graphic regularities and sets of stable forms in mind, because one can not avoid seeing visual patterns at least in commercials. Namely optical qualities of an object (and first of all "mirror effect") are quite convenient for a certain compromise between form and content. They work for visual interdependence of things here and now (the effect Petrov-Vodkin and other Avant-garde artists insist upon) and simultaneously they appear as iconographical motifs keeping memory of the previous tradition.

15. Petrov-Vodkin "Still life with blue ashtray" 1920.

16. Petrov-Vodkin "Still life with letters" 1925.

With this premise we can state that Petrov-Vodkin with each still-life gives us some sort of meta-description of the creative process itself and artist as such: he reflects, transports and filters the light and deforms the world with his art. All those things: coffee-can, eggs, glasses, tea-glass, samovar, spoon, paperweight, blue-ash tray concentrate all above-mentioned optical qualities. Thus his still life compositions can be qualified as metonymical self-portraits. Special attention must be given to the herring in the most famous picture. It can be clearly observed that the surface of the fish is represented in a very similar way to that as for example the surface of the coffee-can in "Morning still life". It gives simultaneous effect of reflection, transparency and diffraction. Hence, the Christological complex is contaminated here with self-representative one that correspond the tradition of baroque still life as it was demonstrated above.

17. Petrov-Vodkin "Still life with mirror" 1919.

18. Petrov-Vodkin "Still life with samovar" 1920.

To conclude this presentation I want to stress some additional important moments in my major reasoning. Iconography of a graphic patterns pertains to the strategies and structures of cultural mentality, although usually unconsciously, until today. (At least it is true to the traditionally Christian part of civilization). Some of these patterns even belong to the universal cultural archetypes (such as 'cross') and determine the very basic "pre-meaning" of any image. Traditional 'legend' of each type of such an image is folded in all it's further manifestations and influence as regards its meaning and perception. Separate features and elements of traditional visual complex manifest itself in different concrete images in different contexts and with this are formed 'vocabulary' meaning of graphic forms. Just as an artist can not deliberately avoid activating this implicit meaning, similarly, a recipient can not evade comprehending this iconographical background although dimly and unconsciously. Reading images (as a skillful praxis) is not taught at primary school so this capacity is gained usually rather unconsciously but firmly and inevitably. The power of visual propaganda and any straightforward commercials is based, largely, on this peculiar vagueness and undefined 'unconsciousness' of visual perception.


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