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Still Life Painters Need to Think about Symbolism

by Brian Sherwin

This article is by Brian Sherwin. Brian Sherwin is an art critic, blogger, curator, artist and writer based near Chicago, Illinois. Sherwin is the Editor of The Art Edge.  He has been published in Hi Fructose Magazine, Illinois Times, FineArtViews, Myartspace and other publications, and linked to by publications such as The Huffington Post, The Boston Globe, The Consumerist, Juxtapoz Magazine, Deutsche Bank ArtMag, ARTLURKER, Blabbermouth, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Conservative Punk, Modern Art Obsession, Citizen LA, Shark Forum, Two Coats of Paint, Vandalog, COMPANY, artnet, WorldNetDaily (WND) and Art Fag City. Sherwin graduated from Illinois College (Jacksonville, Illinois) in 2003 -- he studied art and psychology extensively. Click here to sign up for his newsletter.  The author’s views are entirely his own and may not reflect the views of FASO.


Artist Jan Stommes recently explored how color, contrast, and object placement can help a still life painting tell a story. In her article, titled What is the Story That You Tell With Your Art, she also noted that many still life paintings seem to be --as she described it, "haphazard". Needless to say, Jan's article spurred me to think about the current state of still life painting. Additionally, she forced me to think about how an artist can establish a visual narrative within the context of still life painting.


Jan made it clear that she feels that it is common to see objects in still life paintings that appear to have been arbitrarily chosen by the artist. I agree with Jan's position concerning this plague of randomness concerning the state of still life painting today. As I suggested to Jan, I think part of the problem is that many still life painters have forgotten to utilize symbolism in order to strengthen the visual narrative of the image.


I often discuss art with people online while working on my articles. This is what I've learned about still life paintings based on the opinions people have shared over the years -- frankly, a lot of people think that still life paintings are boring no matter how technically sound the painting is from a technique point of view. They have been conditioned to think that a still life painting will likely be just another 'pretty vase with some flowers' OR just another 'group of pears'... because it so common to find examples like that online and on gallery walls. I don't mean to sound harsh -- but it is what it is.


The factors that Jan mentioned in her article are crucial. However, I feel that symbolism is vital as well. I firmly believe that many viewers have a hard time getting excited about still life painting because so much of it is suffering from a severe lack of symbolism. The symbolism I'm referring to should be a staple of still life painting in my opinion. Unfortunately, it appears that the vast number of still life painters don't care to establish a visual narrative beyond the object itself.


I'm not sure why this problem is so widespread. With my previous statement in mind, I DO think it is time for many still life painters to think of items / objects in in terms of symbolism. It is time to think about what an object may represent (symbolically) beyond function and practical use. After all, the symbolism of specific objects can have an almost universal meaning. Point-blank, a still life painter can build from that symbolic meaning in order to establish a solid visual narrative OR provide an open-narrative that beckons viewers to discover meaning based on their own experiences.


A still life painting can clearly be something more than just another 'pretty vase' or 'yummy group of pears'. I will discuss a few examples of symbolism based on specific objects below:


A flower in a vase is just that... a flower in a vase. That is how it will likely be interpreted... but what if you placed a skull next to the vase? We all know that a skull traditionally represents death. A flower next to a skull may represent life and death -- it may also represent rebirth. The combination certainly explores the cycle of life. In fact, this combination can be found throughout history -- it is represented by many cultures.


A smoldering ashtray is often used to represent how quickly our time on Earth can pass. It may also represent a relationship that has come to an abrupt end. The symbolism of a smoldering ashtray has been used in art, literature, and music. It has also been used in film. For example, I believe it has been used in the Mad Men series. People often make the connection.


A wedding ring tossed carelessly on a table may represent instability. For example, one could argue that a still life painting is about the fragility of most marriages today if the image involves a carelessly discarded wedding ring next to a smoldering ashtray. The visual impact would be further increased by adding a family photo that shows signs of age or damage (a cracked frame, dusty glass, someone cut out of the photo, etc.).


A cross or other religious symbol placed near sports trophies, military awards, or other accomplishments will most likely be interpreted as revealing the faith of the recipient.


In closing, I hope my thoughts on symbolism -- in addition to Jan's article -- reveals how complex a still life painting can be. A still life painting can push a viewer beyond the placement of objects... it can push a viewer toward exploring meaning. Symbolism must be considered -- by the artists AND viewer -- in order to start that visual journey. I, for one, think that still life painters should strive to establish those visual bridges, if you will. What do YOU think? Share your thoughts about still life painting. 


Take care, Stay true,

Brian Sherwin -- Editor of The Art Edge




Editor's Note:  You can view Brian's original post here.

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