Truly wonderful: detail from Lucien Freud’s “Unripe Tangerine”. Image: Wilson Loan / © The Lucian Freud Archive. All Rights Reserved 2024 / Bridgeman Images

Still life, still going

A new exhibition demonstrates that the genre has always had much to offer—in the past and for the future
June 5, 2024

In 1946, Lucian Freud devoted his attentions to a tangerine. Barely nine centimetres square—and now dwarfed by its red velvet and gilt frame—the resulting painting is a testament to the possibilities of still life. The fruit is green, unripe and dimpled with pockmarks. Three leaves are attached, two on the same stem and one unfurling from beneath. It sits on a blue-white surface that slopes to the right and is against a darker grey-blue background. Everything seems to have both a halo—a meniscus of bright white against the dark—and a corresponding shadow: blue-black fingerprints beneath the stretches of the leaves, the dome of the sphere. 

Unripe Tangerine is, truly, wonderful. Its size doesn’t stop it from shining in “The Shape of Things”, a new exhibition of 100 still lives at Pallant House Gallery in Chichester. Freud’s attention to detail—his unflinching ability to record the texture of the fruit’s skin, its unready-roughness—almost constitutes a manifesto for the still-life genre: exploration, vehicle for figurative experimentation, representation that slips away from mimesis. Despite its tangible texture, there’s a sense that the fruit doesn’t quite exist: it’s more colour than form, more abstraction than realism. Though placed on a slope, it wouldn’t roll if pushed but, instead, disintegrate. 

Freud painted his tangerine just after the end of the Second World War. As soon as travel restrictions were lifted, he and his fellow artist John Craxton travelled to Greece in search of bright, Mediterranean light. But the light that Freud found was decidedly more northerly. The quiet blues of his painting pay homage to Dutch still lives: Adriaen Coorte’s study of a handful of asparagus, say, or any of Willem Claesz’s decaying scenes. (Amusingly, Freud reverses the tradition of paintings of rotting fruit as memento mori. The disquiet in his depiction stems from its pallid, anaemic qualities, rather than over-ripeness.) 

Still life as a genre has never seemed particularly British

The exhibition’s subtitle, “Still Life in Britain”, seems, initially, to be an odd grouping. From its Dutch origins in symbolic flower paintings and vanitas arrangements complete with pale skulls to its French apotheosis in works by Cézanne and the other post-impressionists, still life as a genre has never seemed particularly British. Nor is it, historically, a genre that has received much acclaim in this country. From the 16th century onwards, the French Academy’s formal hierarchy of genres—also adopted in Britain—ranked history painting first and still life last. 

The genre’s unassuming status wasn’t helped by the fact that it had distinctly feminine associations. Given that women couldn’t paint history scenes—they were prohibited from studying the nude—they turned to still lives and flower paintings. It is no accident that one of the two founding members of the Royal Academy, Mary Moser, painted highly studied floral arrangements. 

In recent years, however, something has changed. If you visited the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition last year, you might have walked into a room of 200 still lives, curated by the artist Clare Woods. Woods also has a work in the Pallant House show, a study of a 19th-century mochaware jug that was owned—and painted—by both William and Ben Nicholson. Woods joins a number of British contemporary artists who are building their careers on still lives: see, for instance, Poppy Jones’s ghostly quiet scenes painted on suede or Lotta Teale’s jewel-like snapshots of domestic life.

This contemporary profusion raises a deceptively simple question. What exactly is a still life? Is it as straightforward as a collection of fruit, a grouping of pottery, or a domestic scene? The Liverpool-born painter Christopher Wood didn’t think so. In a 1922 letter to his mother that is quoted at the beginning of the Pallant House catalogue, the artist dwelled on the psychology of the genre: the “ruffled, wrinkled” tablecloth “troubled with dark shadows” that suggests the “world that these lemons live in”. Even broader definitions falter. The original Dutch term stillleven, meaning “motionless life”, is troubled by Severed Breast, Lee Miller’s 1929 still-life photograph of her friend’s amputated breasts placed on white crockery, still bleeding after a mastectomy.

The still lives in the Pallant House exhibition—and those of other modern and contemporary artists—show something else that seems to mark the genre. It’s an art that takes unassuming, everyday objects as its subject, but refuses to be confined or limited by expectations of domesticity. As Lotta Teale told me, women were initially “embracing the very restrictions which stopped them from being artists” by painting the domestic. Now, the rise in the status of still life is, she thinks, “very connected with the change of women in society”. 

Lee Miller’s photo provocatively plays with domestic expectations: the two breasts are presented as a pair of steaks, a perverted dinner for a husband and wife. What about elsewhere? The surrealist Eileen Agar used domestic detritus in her The Object Lesson: a doll sits in front of a wicker rack that could have recently been snatched from a kitchen. Winifred Nicholson’s still lives—flowers in vases, orchids in pots—are often placed in front of windows, a mix of still life and landscape, that seems to hint at a world beyond the jug and the coffee pot, outside the cloistered world of a kitchen.

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There’s a knowing artificiality to a still life: it has to be set up and painted before real life requires the kettle to be used, the oranges to be eaten. Eric Ravilious understood this. His Ironbridge Interior (1941)—painted while he was working as a war artist and just a year before his untimely death—is completed by his addition of a painting of the very same scene hanging on the wall. His mise-en-scène is not just clever play: it highlights how false the still life is, how it is only ever an artistic representation, rather than real life.

There’s another realisation in Ravilious’s painting, too. From flower paintings to Freud’s tangerine, the genre is an exploration of paint, of shapes, of materiality and abstraction. But it’s also, in a meaningful sense, a political genre. Its canvases ask: what does it mean for women to be confined to painting domesticity? To continue to paint still lives, even when other genres have opened up? What does it mean to paint interior scenes in a time of war—when houses are being bombed, or soldiers are away from home? 

These questions reverberate around the Pallant House exhibition, from Claude Cahun’s dissections of the female form to Ben Nicholson’s decision to add a Union Flag to a scene of white crockery in his painting 1943-45 (St Ives, Cornwall). They’re also questions I discussed with Teale, who lives and paints in Jerusalem. Earlier this year, it became impossible for her to paint her still lives—asparagus on white dishcloths, oranges against blue pottery—against the threat of missile attacks.

Reflecting on the genre, Teale sees still life as paintings that can connect with their viewers, even those who may not know the circumstances in which they were produced, works that “leave the viewer space to imagine themselves in the painting, in a different world.” A world, in some cases, of pallid tangerines, yet to ripen.