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The revival of still life

Explore the nuances of this humble art form

A mixed media artwork with mangoes, white rabbit lollies, pink cloth and flowers Art by Donnalyn Xu

Above the clutter of books and wilting flowers on my desk, there is a reproduction of Cezanne’s Still Life with Apples (1893–1894) hanging haphazardly on the wall, still dressed in the black frame it came in when I bought it from Vinnie’s. In my little gallery of blue-tacked postcards and newspaper cutouts, this particular painting stands out from the rest. Its soft contours and mellow colours remind me of what I love most about still life – how I feel instantly comforted by the intimacy of domestic spaces, the sensuality of a vase, the sensory delight in picturing bruised fruit. The pure joy of finding a painting you recognise in a second-hand store is very much like bumping into an old friend when you least expect it. That pleasant swell in my chest lingers for the rest of the day. 

On a surface level, still life appears to be a genre of painting that is as apolitical as it is static. The Tate Museum Glossary describes its subject matter as “anything that does not move or is dead.” In French, it is called nature morte — translated literally as “dead nature.” Its implicit connection to death can be traced back to its origins, as the earliest known still lifes come from Egypt in the 15th century BC. Murals of everyday objects adorned the interiors of Egyptian tombs as prayers and offerings for a blessed afterlife. These funerary paintings of fish, crops, and other stacked goods reveal something profound about personhood that extends beyond the body. That hopeful desire for what we leave behind, for even the smallest traces of this earth to follow us into the next life.

Our understanding of still life has changed over time, particularly through its rise as a distinct genre in Western tradition. In the art world (and in the external world), cultural values and prestige have always been defined by old white men. The hierarchy of genres, established in the seventeenth century by the French Academy, placed still life paintings on the lowest rung. In parts of Europe, women painters were often restricted to still life because it was easily accessible and undervalued. Supposedly devoid of any human quality or personal identity, it was considered to be one of the lowest forms of painting compared to the highly-esteemed portrait. After all, what could be as harmless as a bouquet of flowers, with their softened petals so easy to envision? What else is there to think of except time passing and fruits rotting, the inevitable decay we are not privy to? Lacking a human subject, it was accused of being too neutral, too simple, and without any intellectual stimulation. This view also insinuates that aspects of the physical world are exempt from human concerns, that a rotting carcass, or a golden vase are as impenetrable as they are untouchable. 

A single moment that evades movement is perhaps the antithesis of a revolution, but there is an undeniable power in constructed objecthood. The values of the establishment may have shifted since the seventeenth century, but they continue to be defined by dominating power structures. In “Delusions of Whiteness in the Avant-Garde”, Cathy Park Hong critiques the notion of post-identity that is often hailed as a pure state of artistry beyond “the taint of subjectivity and history.” Still life is by no means considered avant-garde, but the sentiment remains: there is a certain beauty, if not prestige, attached to art that removes the self from the story. And this is rooted in the delusion that identity is merely a cloak one can simply slip on and off. 

It is difficult to unlearn the colonial discourse that continues to permeate the field of Art History. When studying Western art, I am confronted by the strangest desire to step out of myself, as if I am staring at something that is not intended for me. This, of course, is followed by a wave of guilt — am I allowed to enjoy this? Do I betray myself when I am not actively thinking, hurting, rebelling? There is an unexplored, yet distinct relationship between the painful marginalised experience and the comfort of still life. The calmness that I once considered to be mind-numbing is not the removal of the self – a privilege that has never been granted to people of colour — it is a marker of its very significance. To rest your eyes on the corner of a room, a desk, an unoccupied seat, and realise how deeply life moves you. To allow yourself an identity that is not defined by grief is a slow act of forgiveness.

In her still life paintings, contemporary artist Crys Yin speaks to the nuances of her Asian-American identity. Remarkably alienating in its simplicity, her depictions of countertop objects are odd, humorous, and somewhat detached. In Vessels, Everything Is Exactly the Same (2018), a wooden table appears before an emerald green backdrop. An array of household containers are spread out on its surface: a porcelain teacup, a bread bowl, a scallop-trimmed hot pink saucer. The unusual shadows of these objects are pitch black and skewed. They are flat, but given the comical illusion of depth. Appropriately titled Vessels, Yin’s artwork explores emptiness and physical space in relation to cultural history. The items are both deeply personal and unfamiliar, like realising the strangeness of your own body. Placed next to each other, these objects revel in the absurd, splendid nature of materiality, and how this is traced in the mundane details of our everyday lives. The simple pleasure of colour still surprises me. The brief flicker of recognition that eases my heart also sings my name, loud with its awareness of the self. 

When I recently visited a friend’s home for the first time, I noticed a bowl of White Rabbit candy on his coffee table. Its crinkled blue and red label was a familiar sight. And the glass cup, passed from his hands to mine, resting innocently beside it. And the light from the window, always the light, leaving the room sun-laced and warm. How I almost wanted to get up and leave, just to imagine this space without a single body in it. I thought, I should’ve brought flowers. It was mid-afternoon, and there was a candle lit. There was nothing significant about it, except that I wanted to remember it so vividly. A white candle sinking into itself. A white candle in a bright room on a quiet Sunday in October. 

What is it about this image that I find so compelling? Still life as a reflection of lived spaces — not necessarily the echo of a person, but a reminder that their perpetual absence, our permanent impermanence, is still a call to memory. That even the deepest parts of our identity will recognise and resolve that full-bodied shape of a feeling so impossibly, unremarkably human.