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