Still life is the most philosophical genre of traditional figurative painting. It saw some of its most famous manifestations in the Flemish tradition of the XVII century, but it evolved and survived as a meaningful presence through much of XX century art, adopted by avantarde movements such as cubism and dadaism.
The purpose of this essay is to dig into the philosophical meaning behind the still life painting and show how this genre can be regarded as a sophisticated method to present in a pictorial and immediately accessible visual way, reflections upon the evolving notions of space and time, which played a fundamental role in the parallel cultural developments of Western European mathematical and scientic thought, from the XVII century, up to the
A challenge for the artists of today becomes then how to continue this tradition. Is the theme of still life, as it matured and evolved throughout the dramatic developments of XX century art, still a valuable method to represent and reflect upon the notions of spacetime that our current scientic thinking is producing, from the extra dimensions of string theory to the spin foams and spin networks of loop quantum gravity, to noncommutative spaces, or information based emergent gravity? Some may feel that the notions of spacetime contemporary physics and mathematics are dealing with nowadays are too remote from the familiar everyday objects that form the basic jargon of still life paintings. However, much the same could be said about the notions of relativistic spacetime and the bizarre world of quantum mechanics that were trickling down to the collective imagination
in the early XX century, and yet the artists of the avant-garde movements of the time were ready to jump onto concepts such as non-euclidean geometry, higher dimensions, and the like, and bring them into contact with a drastic revision of what it means to “represent” the everyday objects that surround us, and that come to occupy a profoundly altered concept of space and time. So, I believe, the challenge is a valid one, even in the light of the ever more complex landscape of today’s thinking about the concepts of space and time, and I take the occasion to make an open call here to the practicing artists, to take up the challenge and paint a new chapter of the “still life” genre, suitable for the minds of the current century.