Stilling the World: things ain’t what they used to be?

Art is about things, about our relationship to things, to the thing that is the art and our nuanced return to things after seeing the art thing.

Perhaps to emphasise the haptic in our relationship with the world, perhaps because I wanted too many things, my parents once set me a task. I would have been about twelve or thirteen, I had to make my own bowl to eat from, make it with what I could find from the woods around our home. I dug the clay from the garden (and yes inevitably it was from the centre of the lawn), built a bell shaped kiln with bricks and more clay (from another part of the lawn), kept it alight for a day and a long night. Broke up the kiln, glazed the bowl with ash from the fire and water from a stream, re-built the kiln (more holes in the lawn), fired it again over an even longer night.

It would be nice to report a beautiful wood ash green, glazed bowl in an elegant Bernard Leach form. My lumpy, burnt coil pot had a certain pre-school aesthetic, there were bits of stick and brick in the glaze where it stuck, and it leaked. So, no epiphany then, but a greater understanding of process and it was great to be out in the woods at night, the opposite of scary; quiet and thoughtful.

Encounters with Art

As part of the National Gallery’s ‘Encounters with Art’ series of talks, Edmund de Waal the potter and writer, spoke, (very well indeed) on writing about art, his difficulties with the complexities of such encounters, in particular his search for art work once owned by a relative: Charles Ephrussi. Not, as he pointed out to his son in the audience, that any of the paintings he identified would form any part of his own inheritance.

Still Life and the Stilling of the World

In his discussion of the importance of still life De Waal described it as an art form that

‘stills the world…giving us time to look…the Still Life takes you back to when an object is put into the world and the world goes into silence… an object taking dominion of being there, about the rendezvous between object and person’

Back Into the Gallery

Zurbaran’s ‘Cup of Water and a Rose’ was a painting he came back to several times.

Francisco de Zurbaran: ‘A Cup of Water and a Rose’, 1630. Oil on Canvas, 21 x 30 cm. National Gallery, London

After the talk, as instructed, I returned to it, a small painting in the corner of Room Thirty  surrounded by larger, bombastic Spanish paintings. This image of a cup, plate and flower draws the eye like nothing else in that large corridor like room of art works queuing and jostling for immortality.

What about this painting makes the world go into silence? Is it in the gentle lowering of ellipses from the back, upper rim of the cup into the water, echoed by the bottom of the cup on the plate?

Francisco de Zurbaran: ‘A Cup of Water and a Rose’, 1630. Oil on Canvas, 21 x 30 cm. National Gallery, London. Detail: Ellipses.

The circle is a perfect and spiritual form celebrated throughout most cultures, but Zurbaran’s circular forms are human, battered slightly, removed from god to man. Not quite as battered as my coil pot though, far more elegant. ‘Cup of Water and a Rose’ doesn’t have the mathematical, compositional perfection of his near contemporary, Cotan, for example.

Juan Sanchez Cotan: ‘Quince, Cabbage, Melon and Cucumber’, 1602. Oil on Canvas, 69 x 85 cm. San Diego Museum of Art.

Nor does Zurbaran, like Dutch Still Life painters, invite us to believe we are looking at real objects; it is always a painting, the close tonal relationship of the colours slowing and calming the eye.

Iconography?

You can make an iconographic analysis of Zurbaran’s painting.

Francisco de Zurbaran: ‘A Cup of Water and a Rose’, 1630. Oil on Canvas, 21 x 30 cm. National Gallery, London

You could say that it refers to the Virgin Mary and the Sevillanos fascination with the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. Water is the Marian symbol for purity, silver is a material associated with the moon and femininity and so on; but I think that would miss the point. This is not, fundamentally, a Vanitas nor is it entirely a Christian meditation. In essence it is, as De Waal showed, a painting about looking, about what it is like to look at things; it is also about what it is like to look at things in order to paint them. In that sense, the representation of the act of creation, one could say that it is a religious study; the creativity of the artist mirrors/ is guided by/ is inspired by that of his creator.

Getting a Handle on it

The clue to all this is in the right cup handle,

Francisco de Zurbaran: ‘A Cup of Water and a Rose’, 1630. Oil on Canvas, 21 x 30 cm. National Gallery, London. Detail: Handle.

the one in shade that just catches the light; we are all in the shadow but we can all be beautiful. The turn of that handle, the edge of the earthenware, the slight upturn where the potter stuck the cheese hard clay with water to the recently turned cylinder (see the pair of lines between handles and rim) brings us to the very processes by which that object and this painting was made; craft. Craft perfected over time, time after time. As the hand that painted that handle, so the hand that squeezed the clay to make the handle; both had performed that act countless times to give it that nonchalant placing. Perhaps if I had spent many, many nights in the woods, I too could have made pots like this, or perhaps not.

An Elemental Art

It is that familiarity with materiality that pervades this painting; it is where the meaning lies. We have here, if you want to look at it that way, basic elements: earth in the clay and in the ore that will provide the silver; fire in the heating of that clay and the turning of ore into metal and of course we have water. We have the juxtaposition of hard and soft: rose and cup, solid and fluid: fluidity in the water and in those liquid materials that have now turned solid, molten metal and the glaze that waterproofs the cup and of course in the reflections that run around rim of the plate. Beauty, the rose and function, the cup, a perfect balance.

Francisco de Zurbaran: ‘A Cup of Water and a Rose’, 1630. Oil on Canvas, 21 x 30 cm. National Gallery, London

Formed of the Dust of the Ground

The representation of the transformation of materials from the earth is presented in the act of looking via materials taken from the earth. The basic palette here is composed from metals: lead white; tin yellows; verdigris , minerals: lapis lazuli for the ultramarine; all the earth colours like umbers and red and green earths, and organic materials: reds from insects and carbon blacks from burning of things like bones. Hard intransigent materials, rocks and bones are (like earth into cups and dug ore into plates) made liquid and like the carefully squeezed handle, transformed into a beautiful record of the beautiful things that have been seen.

What Doest Thou Here Elijah?

“And after the earthquake a fire; but the Lord was not in the fire: and after the fire a still small voice.”

(1 Kings 19:11-13. King James Version )

I’m not sure Elijah got this quite right, if we shift the spirituality a bit and take the Lord to be the process of creativity, then creativity is as much in the fire as it is in the result of that fire, and that is, after all, why this painting stills the world. We see in this still, small image all those processes, but balanced and at rest, a ‘stilling…the ‘capturing of something in flight’ as De Waal put it.

A Happy Haptic World

It is also why a twelve year old boy didn’t mind that his pot looked awful, it was the elemental making of it that mattered, a process that perhaps put him on the route to being a maker of art things in the future; although definitely not a potter.

Oh and if you haven’t already, and why not, you must read ‘The Hare with the Amber Eyes’ and ‘The Pot Book’ both by Edmund De Waal.

Edmund De Waal: ‘The Plain Sense of Things’, 2011

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