The stuff of life

Visual art - Richard Cork slows down at the National Gallery's still-life show

Still life: those two words may seem harmless enough. They suggest, in all their deceptive tranquillity, that we can feel reassured by gazing at images of everyday objects painted with meticulous skill. As a powerful exhibition at the National Gallery in London shows, however, even the most innocuous of these paintings turns out to harbour unexpected and often ominous meanings.

By far the largest exhibit, from the energetic brush of Antwerp-based Joachim Beuckelaer, bombards us with a cornucopia of food. The women offering their wares at a fruit and vegetable market seem unable to stop the colossal cabbages, melons and heaped grapes from spilling off their stall. The profusion is astounding. And it seems bizarre when we realise just how much the southern Netherlands suffered, in the mid-16th century, from acute impoverishment.

Nobody could accuse Velazquez of getting carried away by lavishness in his kitchen scene. The only food visible on the plain wooden table are fish, garlic, pepper and eggs, presided over by a simple jug of oil. The beefy young maid wielding a pestle and mortar seems overcome by sulkiness; a faraway sense of yearning lurks in her eyes. Yet the older woman appears to be reproving her, while, through an opening beyond the kitchen, we see Christ sitting with Martha and Mary. The religious group is far more visible than the holy family in Beuckelaer's ostentatious canvas. And Velazquez may have wanted to link the maid's indolence to Mary, spellbound at Christ's feet while Martha indignantly did the housework.

The mood darkens as we move through this elegiac show. Violence becomes overt, first in a playful way when Willem van Mieris depicts a cat directing a voracious gaze up at a dead bird dangling upside down from a stone ledge. Soon, though, we realise that most still life is vulnerable above all to inherent processes of decay.

Courbet, imprisoned in 1871 for his involvement with the short-lived Commune's left-wing revolt in Paris, felt aggrieved by his sentence. Suffering from intestinal pain, he produced a small yet monumental painting of a plate heaped with apples. Probably given to Courbet by visitors while he was in prison, the fruit is depicted in all its sensuous, palpable solidity. But then we become conscious of the apples' swollen dimensions. Both they, and the yellow quince at the front of the dish, seem strangely outsize.

Transience is by no means conveyed solely through rotting fruit. It can be expressed even in objects that appear sturdy and dependable. The crude yellow chair painted by Vincent Van Gogh in 1888 has a peasant strength. He must have acquired it in Arles, and the thick wooden legs seem as tough as the large, slab-like floor tiles on which they rest.

Van Gogh intended the painting as a kind of self-portrait: his pipe and tobacco pouch rest on the rush seat. Around the same time, he painted a red-and-green companion picture called Gauguin's Chair. It is a more refined and ornamental affair, with a lit candle glowing in the nocturnal gloom. Van Gogh saw himself as a simpler, more earthly character than his friend, who wanted to remove art from observed reality and explore a more abstract alternative.

Other artists are prepared to jettison ambiguity and plump for the doom-laden theme of vanitas alone. The memento mori was especially prevalent in the 17th century, when Valentin de Boulogne painted The Four Ages of Man with a despondent boy, a lovesick youth, a wearily dozing middle-aged soldier and a wealthy yet sad old man seeking oblivion in a flagon of wine. The melancholy is oppressive, but at least Valentin refrains from including the skull dominating Harmen van Steenwyck's bleak canvas, which bears the remorseless subtitle An Allegory of the Vanities of Human Life.

A century later, Chardin adopts a subtler approach in his delicate painting of a well-dressed boy patiently assembling a house of cards. The evident fragility of the child's construction is offset by Chardin's alert fascination with textures, light and minimally stated form. Even so, the human awareness of mortality has never disappeared from art. Only three years ago, in a chilling DVD called A Little Death, Sam Taylor-Wood placed the corpse of a hare alongside a peach on a table top. The composition pays overt homage to the vanitas tradition, yet Taylor-Wood pushes decay to an extreme by filming the process over a nine-week period. The result, fastened up to a projection speed of only four and a half minutes, is shockingly repellent. Within seconds the hare, hanging from a nail, succumbs to rampaging rot. Maggots swarm across its body, glittering in the sunlight as they consume all the flesh. They thrive as the flesh is reduced to a pitiful state of decomposition, while a disgusting, mottled stain appears on the wall behind the body. The fur falls on the table and assumes the form of a wild, festering landscape.

Yet the peach, to our astonishment, remains whole and unaffected. Although Taylor-Wood did not intend it to withstand the putrefaction so rampant elsewhere, it persists in glowing at the end, like a defiant and unexpected affirmation.

"The Stuff of Life" continues at the National Gallery, London WC2, until 2 October. More info: 020 7747 2885

This article first appeared in the 05 September 2005 issue of the New Statesman, Ground zilch: how Al-Qaeda defeated New York

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Bohemian rhapsody: Jeanette Winterson’s “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale

 Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time is full of metaphorical riches.

Shakespeare – that magpie plunderer of other people’s plots and characters – would undoubtedly have approved. The Hogarth Shakespeare project invites prominent contemporary writers to rework his plays in novelistic form and this is Jeanette Winterson’s reimagining of The Winter’s Tale. Like the original, it shuttles disturbingly between worlds, cultures and emotional registers. It has never been an easy play, for all its apparent focus on reconciliation, and Winterson handles the gear-changes with skill, moving between the offices of Sicilia, a London-based asset-stripping company, and New Bohemia, a New Orleans-like American urban landscape (with interludes in both a virtual and a real Paris).

Her Leontes is a hedge-fund speculator, Polixenes a visionary designer of screen games (the presence of this world echoes the unsettling semi-magic of Shakespeare’s plot). They have a brief and uncomfortable history as teenage lovers at school and Polixenes – Xeno – has also slept with MiMi (Hermione), the French-American singer who eventually marries Leo.

The story unfolds very much as in the play (though Winterson cannot quite reproduce the effect of Shakespeare’s best-known deadpan stage direction), with Leo using advanced surveillance technology to spy on Xeno and MiMi, and Perdita being spirited away across the Atlantic to the US, where her guardian, Tony, is mugged and killed and she is left in the “baby hatch” of a local hospital – to be found by Shep and his son and brought up in their affectionate, chaotic African-American household. Perdita falls in love with Zel, the estranged son of Xeno, discovers her parentage, returns to London and meets Leo; Leo’s PA, Pauline, has kept in contact across the years with MiMi, a recluse in Paris, and persuades her to return secretly to give a surprise performance at the Roundhouse, when Leo is in the audience, and – well, as in the play, the ending is both definitive and enormously unsettling. “So we leave them now, in the theatre, with the music. I was sitting at the back, waiting to see what would happen.”

That last touch, bringing the author into the narrative in the same apparently arbitrary way we find in a text such as Dostoevsky’s Demons – as a “real” but imperfect witness – gently underlines the personal importance of the play to this particular author. Winterson is explicit about the resonance of this drama for an adopted child and one of the finest passages in the book is a two-page meditation on losing and finding: a process she speculates began with the primordial moment of the moon’s separation from the earth, a lost partner, “pale, lonely, watchful, present, unsocial, inspired. Earth’s autistic twin.”

It is the deep foundation of all the stories of lost paradises and voyages away from home. As the moon controls the tides, balances the earth’s motion by its gravitational pull, so the sense of what is lost pervades every serious, every heart-involving moment of our lives. It is a beautifully worked conceit, a fertile metaphor. The story of a child lost and found is a way of sounding the depths of human imagination, as if all our longing and emotional pain were a consequence of some buried sense of being separated from a home that we can’t ever ­remember. If tragedy is the attempt to tell the story of loss without collapse, all story­telling has some dimension of the tragic, reaching for what is for ever separated by the “gap of time”.

Winterson’s text is full of metaphorical riches. She writes with acute visual sensibility (from the first pages, with their description of a hailstorm in a city street) and this is one of the book’s best things. There are also plenty of incidental felicities: Xeno is designing a game in which time can be arrested, put on hold, accelerated, and so on, and the narrative exhibits something of this shuttling and mixing – most effectively in the 130-page pause between the moment when Milo (Shakespeare’s Mamilius, Leo’s and MiMi’s son) slips away from his father at an airport and the fatal accident that follows. In the play, Mamilius’s death is a disturbing silence behind the rest of the drama, never alluded to, never healed or reconciled; here, Milo’s absence in this long “gap of time” sustains a pedal of unease that has rather the same effect and the revelation of his death, picking up the narrative exactly where it had broken off, is both unsurprising and shocking.

Recurrent motifs are handled with subtlety, especially the theme of “falling”; a song of MiMi’s alludes to Gérard de Nerval’s image of an angel falling into the gap between houses in Paris, not being able to fly away without destroying the street and withering into death. The convergence and crucial difference between falling and failing, falling in love and the “fall” of the human race – all these are woven together hauntingly, reflecting, perhaps, Shakespeare’s exploration in the play of Leontes’s terror of the physical, of the final fall into time and flesh that unreserved love represents.

A book of considerable beauty, then, if not without its problems. MiMi somehow lacks the full angry dignity of Hermione and Leo is a bit too much of a caricature of the heartless, hyper-masculine City trader. His psychoanalyst is a cartoon figure and Pauline’s Yiddish folksiness – although flagged in the text as consciously exaggerated – is a bit overdone.

How a contemporary version can fully handle the pitch of the uncanny in Shakespeare’s final scene, with the “reanimation” of Hermione, is anyone’s guess (the Bible is not wrong to associate the earliest story of the resurrection with terror as much as joy). Winterson does a valiant job and passes seamlessly into a moving and intensely suggestive ending but I was not quite convinced on first reading that her reanimation had done justice to the original.

However, weigh against this the real success of the New Bohemia scenes as a thoroughly convincing modern “pastoral” and the equally successful use of Xeno’s creation of virtual worlds in his games as a way of underlining Shakespeare’s strong hints in the play that art, with its aura of transgression, excess, forbidden magic, and so on, may be our only route to nature. Dream, surprise and new creation are what tell us what is actually there, if only we could see. Winterson’s fiction is a fine invitation into this deeply Shakespearean vision of imagination as the best kind of truth-telling.

Rowan Williams is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is “The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language” (Bloomsbury). The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson is published by Vintage (320pp, £16.99)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide