Robert Vas Dias, Poetics of Still Life: A Collage, Permanent Press, 2020.
Reviewed by Simon Collings
According to a recent article in the Guardian (‘A picture of domestic bliss’, 7 Feb 2021) interest in still lifes has surged during the Covid-19 pandemic. This claim is based on evidence from Instagram. Spending so much time at home, it seems we notice the objects that surround us more, are drawn to visual depictions of such objects, and derive comfort from them.
The publication of Robert Vas Dias’ Poetics of Still Life: A Collage might therefore be seen as timely. The book consists of reproductions of still lifes by fifty-three painters, accompanied by quotations from artists, exhibition catalogues, and art history books. Each image is also paired with a commentary by Vas Dias himself, usually in the form of a poem. As the author explains in his preface these poems ‘don’t describe the art […] but bounce off it in some way.’ The collaging of the paintings and texts, Vas Dias says, ‘together make up a picture of what still life means to me.’
Vas Dias’ responses to the pictures are often engagingly quirky, and at times owe more to the other texts he includes than to the artwork itself. For example, the fourth image in the book is part of a wall painting from the Praedia di Guilia Felix at Pompeii (now in the National Archaeological Museum in Naples). The picture shows a large bowl of eggs on a table flanked by an elegant pitcher and a beaker, with a number of game birds hanging on the wall behind.
Vas Dias’ prose poem tells the story of how ‘Julia Felix’ made part of her extensive property available to fellow citizens following a major earthquake in 62 AD. The poem quotes an inscription from the façade of the house: ‘To let, in the estate of Julia Felix, daughter of Spurius: elegant baths for respectable people, shops and independent apartments on the first floor.’ Tradition ascribes her motivation to ‘social conscience’. Vas Dias suggests additional possibilities: ‘Or she simply decided to make money. Or both. Of course she didn’t want plebs in her baths.’
Preceding Vas Dias’ poem about this picture is a quotation from a 2016 Guardian article in which Pankaj Mishra asserts that there’s ‘more to society than a contract between logically calculating and autonomous individuals.’ Mishra enlists ‘modernist art and literature’ in support of his argument. Vas Dias’ poem is primarily a response to this article and to the idea of Julia Felix projected in tourist literature. It is only an oblique comment on the opulence of the scene depicted in the fresco. This is typical of the humour the poet brings to his project.
Vas Dias mentions two particular publications which influenced the form of his book, Basho’s Back Roads to Far Towns (in the Cid Corman translation) and Charles Simic’s Dime-Store Alchemy, about the artist Joseph Cornell. Poetics of Still Life is a journey through time, and like Basho’s work both a travelogue and a series of poetic reflections. The first image in the book is of an ancient Egyptian tomb painting depicting food, and the final one a painting by Anthony Eyton from 2019. Simic’s book contains prose texts which are sometimes obviously poems, sometimes factual commentary, and sometimes something in between. Vas Dias’ texts have a similar shape-shifting quality. He also makes use of quotes from De Chirico and Magritte which appear in Simic’s book.
Vas Dias includes a number of historically important pictures in his sequence of images, and there are plenty of famous names. But the selection is far from predictable, and ultimately driven by the poet’s personal preferences. The book includes a significant number of pictures by women artists, including historical figures long ignored by art historians. One of these is the seventeenth-century Dutch painter Clara Peeters whose Still Life with Cheeses, Almonds, and Pretzels shows a domestic larder, the cheese roughly cut into, rustic loaves, some of the almonds spilled on the table, the disorder evidence of a human presence beyond the frame.
The facing page includes a quotation from Lucien Freud describing how painters working with still life ‘translate life into art almost literally’ by making real to others their feelings about the things they care about. Peeters specialised in still lifes, and her style was imitated by other painters of the period. A quotation from an exhibition catalogue draws attention to the ‘relational richness’ in the paintings, how shapes and lines in the composition echo each other.
Vas Dias’ prose poem ‘Ghost Clara’ turns on the fact that we know almost nothing about Peeter’s life, not even the dates of her birth and death. The evidence we have of her existence is ‘ghostly miniature self-portraits’ appearing as reflections in ‘goblets and gilt cups’, her signature disguised in the engraving on a knife. ‘These are the stratagems,’ the poet says, ‘by which she countered her invisibility as a woman artist in seventeenth-century Flanders’.
The well-known eighteenth-century French painter Jean Baptiste-Siméon Chardin is represented by two images. The first is his famous still life The ray, which depicts a large gutted flatfish hanging above a table where a kitten is gazing hungrily at some opened oysters. Two quotations from the painter echo the Lucien Freud quote mentioned earlier. Chardin says: ‘I must forget everything I have seen, and even forget the way such objects have been treated by others.’ And: ‘One uses paints, but one paints with feeling.’
Other texts included here comment on the contrast between the cat and the dead ray, and on the gory detail with which Chardin paints the fish. Vas Dias’ poem, which here is lineated, picks up on these observations. The final stanza refers to ‘the all-too-human/eviscerated skate,/monstre étrange’ which looks on ‘mouth open in horror’ at the carnage assembled for those who ‘needs must feast/on the dead?’
The second Chardin painting is The copper cistern. Vas Dias’ poem, again lineated, contrasts the masculine-looking cistern on its stand with a much smaller ‘feminine jug’ placed on the ground beside it. The delicate touch of Chardin’s brush, the poet suggests, softens the cistern’s surface and complicates the implied gender difference between cistern and jug. The final phrase ‘his careful, evident power withheld’ might apply to the cistern or to the painter.
Chardin is an important figure in the history of still-life painting. His work deliberately challenged the prevailing cultural preference for historical and allegorical paintings, and was an important influence on early Modernists such as Manet and Cézanne, both of whom are represented in The Poetics of Still Life. Cézanne’s work in turn encouraged the emergence of abstract painting. Vas Dias includes works by Mondrian, Braque and Gris which exemplify these developments, alongside other less well-known abstract artists.
Alexandra Exter’s Constructivist sill life from 1917 is a whirling confusion of shapes and colours. Exter was a Ukrainian painter who has only recently been fully recognised as an important figure in Russian avant garde art. She spent long periods after 1907 in Paris, where she knew Picasso and Braque. Her vibrant work draws on the traditions of Ukrainian decorative art. Vas Dias’ lineated poem describes Exter’s work as a reaction against ‘Soviet realism’.
The point of building anything
is to avoid being spaced in
bad dreams, laboured breathing
waking up in a sweat.
Another advocate of abstract art in Russia, Liubov Popova, features as artist 37. The image here is a colourful Constructivist design for a cup and saucer. This was intended for manufacture, Popova being interested in the application of original design to everyday objects. This aspect of avant-garde activity in Russia, according to one of the texts Vas Dias includes in this section ‘has, until recently, received less art-historical and museum attention’ than more traditional artworks such as paintings and sculptures. Vas Dias’ prose poem is a witty fantasy about a 90-year old receiving Popova’s cup and saucer in recognition for his life-long championing of avant-garde Russian art, an award he cherishes, and which he greatly prefers to the Order of Lenin for which he has also been nominated. The cup and saucer were never made.
Most of the art post-1900 in Vas Dias’ selection is non-representational. One exception to this is an artwork by Tom Wesselmann (artist 47) Still life #33 April 1963. This is a stylised view of a kitchen, an array of packaged and branded foods on the table along with a piece of beef. A large pink fridge, three bottles of 7Up arranged on top, dominates the left of the image. Wesselman’s work is a collage of painted surface, commercial advertising images cut from magazines, an actual fridge door, and other elements. The incorporation of physical objects into the work challenges the viewer’s sense of what is real and what isn’t.
For Vas Dias the image conjures up ‘depressingly familiar memories of 50s and 60s Sears Roebuck rural American kitchens’ and ‘an assemblage of everything one doesn’t want or need for breakfast in the 2020s.’ The calorie count of the food on offer is horrific, leading the poem into reflections about vanitas paintings and ‘the price to pay for gluttony’. Are such thoughts a result of ‘contemporary dietary awareness’ Vas Dias wonders, or ‘a New Yorker’s smug superiority?’
Another ‘representational’ image, one of my favourites in the book, is a mezzotint by Judith Rothchild, Quelques-douzaine, a side-on view of a stack of cardboard trays partly filled with eggs. This simple black and white image has a hauntingly magical quality. An accompanying text (in French) speaks of Rothchild’s skill at bringing her images out of darkness, and creating ‘une intensité particulière’ as though one were witnessing ‘the birth of the world’.
The ordered patterns of the image prompt for Vas Dias associations with architecture, acrobats, cave dwellings, Byzantine cisterns, girls in Breton hats, and a wasp nest. Justifying these flights of poetic fancy he quotes the artist Giorgio Morandi: ‘nothing is more surreal,/nothing more abstract than reality.’ (Morandi’s work is also included in Vas Dias’ book.) The poem concludes: ‘we’re always making strange arrays/of the real, insistent dreamworld.’
Poetics of Still Life includes an Introduction by the art critic Mel Gooding. He quotes Baudelaire’s observation that ‘the best criticism is […]that which is both amusing and poetic. […] Thus the best account of a picture may well be a sonnet or an elegy.’ What better response to art, says Gooding, than ‘another work of art.’ He also quotes Robert Motherwell’s comment about collage being ‘a form of play’. By playfully juxtaposing images and texts, Gooding argues, Vas Dias avoids offering interpretations of the paintings, and instead facilitates or encourages the viewer’s engagement with the picture. Vas Dias’ texts he describes as ‘a voice in the ear’ which ‘shapes the eye’s movement, and the mind’s.’ These are apt descriptions of how the book works.
The journey through the book is like taking a walk around a thoughtfully curated exhibition in the company of the curator. Rather than regale us with lots of facts and critical commentary, Vas Dias entertains and amuses us with his personal reactions to these pictures, including his sometimes irreverent responses to the religious iconography of some paintings. What comes across most strongly is the pleasure the poet experiences when looking at these objects, and the invigorating sense of connection he experiences with the artists.
Many of the Instagram images featured in the Guardian article on still lifes mentioned at the beginning of this review are purely decorative. Vas Dias’ book in contrast prompts us to think about the way we look at the world around us, how a painting can re-energise that seeing and make us look anew at what is before us. But it is also about seeing pictures in their historical context, about questioning the social and cultural assumptions they embody. Vas Dias achieves this with lightness and humour, inviting the reader to join him in the joy of looking.