Table Top

TABLETOP : Turning the Table Around
By Cid Reyes

Not on tables, but on floors and walls, did first emerge the assembly of fruits, fish, and vegetables on the mosaics and tombs of ancient Egypt, Rome and Greece. In Egypt, the enduring belief was that the dead continued to live on, for which purpose libations and offerings were depicted on their tombs. Though ancient Greece left us no paintings, abundant were their potteries which portrayed bread and other foodstuffs. From ancient Rome did survive a mosaic by Heraklitos, designed after the work of Sosos of Pergamum. Its title, “The Unswept Floor” suggests the subject: the leftovers of a meal.

In seventeenth century Spain, again, not on tabletop, but on the cold concrete window ledge were presented quince, cabbage, melon, cucumber, cardoons and carrots. These were the still lifes of a Carthusian monk, Fray Juan Sanchez Cotan. The Spanish word for still life was “bodegon,” meaning kitchen larder or cabinet.

In the same century, still life flourished in the Netherlands, giving rise to the Dutch word “stileven” from which the English still life originated. The French term for still life was “nature morte,” translated literally as “dead nature”, which amounts to a contradiction in terms.

The French Impressionists in the nineteenth century brought the art of the still life to incomparable heights. Monet, Cezanne, Renoir, Van Gogh, Gauguin and Manet instilled a more solid structure to traditional tabletop images like bouquets of flowers and banquets of feasts.

More significantly, it is the still life that became the critical stimulus to the discovery of the principles of Cubism. Picasso and Braque confronted musical instruments and drinking vessels from a multiperspective point of view.

Where once still life was at the bottom of the hierarchy of art, it is now in the ascendant. The concept engages the minds of avant-garde artists, each questioning the very concept itself. Does still life have to be on a tabletop? Are there objects considered anathema to still life? Andy Warhol silkscreened the iconic hammer and sickle, glittering high-heeled shoes, and a pool of unraveled string. Is a painting just resting on a tabletop a still life? Are the Impressionists turning in their graves?

Filipino artists, too, of this generation – with their bristling, irreverent intelligence and a no-holds-barred curiosity – have subjected the still life to a wilting irony, deadpan wit, and yes, tender affection, albeit tinged with a cagey attitude. What may look like a fractiousness of approaches is actually a rich tapestry of scintillating insights and idiosyncratic ideas. Still life has now crossed a threshold of artmaking where, unimaginable as it may seem, nothing remains at a standstill.

TABLETOP turns the still life on its head.