I’ve never appreciated still life paintings. I can applaud a good likeness of a bowl of fruit, appreciate the depiction of light falling on a group of objects or marvel at the way an artist has captured the transparency of glass or the lustre of metal. But they rarely move me in the way that a landscape or a portrait can. I’m not alone in this, it seems, for still life has often been considered the lowest form of painting.
Recently, I heard still life described in a way that caused me to re-think this prejudice. Art historian Professor Norman Bryson called still life ‘a re-enchantment of the overlooked.’ These paintings take a point in time and try to wring meaning from it, bringing vitality and attention to things that are so familiar we don’t see them anymore. Still life painting may, in fact, be the most profound kind of art of all, as it poses the big questions of life and death in a portrayal of the most ordinary objects.
I choose to surround myself with cherished things that, in reality, are poorly cherished. I’ve stopped paying attention to them. The ‘sleeping woman’ figurine from Malta, the mermaid goddess from Lesvos and the desert rose crystal from the Sahara are displayed on my mantelpiece, but I no longer really ‘see’ them. My mother’s Murano decanter and glasses stand untouched on the sideboard and my grandmother’s tea set is never taken out of the china cabinet. Wherever I go, I collect pebbles, feathers and shells, which then grow dusty in neglected containers. These aren’t just objects, they are history, family, memory. They are moments of life and death captured in stone, wood and pottery.
For a few weeks in December I see things differently. My home is transformed with objects that emerge for only a brief period each year. The Christmas baubles are unpacked, many with their own cherished memories. They’re placed carefully and festooned with the sparkle of tinsel and lights. The mood of the house is different: light, festive, enchanted. It vibrates with the energy of tradition and memory. There isn’t room for anything else but the yuletide, not even ordinary life. The house and the objects in it are no longer just a backdrop, but a focus.
So usually when the decorations are packed away, the house challenges me. For a while, it can seem drab and bare. The old familiar things are back again and, for a while, they don’t seem enough. They have the inertia of a still life painting without any of the insight. But this year I don’t feel the usual grief that the festivities have passed. Instead, I delight in the space and make an effort to re-acquaint myself with what has been overlooked.
I light a candle in the hearth – Vesta’s place – and sit with the house awhile in silence and flickering light. Letting in the space of the stripped down rooms. Listening as the tick of the clock fills the silence. Feeling myself expand into spider-filled crannies and the very earth beneath. How often do we really appreciate this place that shelters us? How often do we see it as it is? The house sighs in relief at having its regular rhythms back. The things that belong here settle back into their places. Normal life gives space for new growth and no opportunity for disguise. We get to know each other again as we really are.
Out in the world, I appreciate the still life of winter: the serenity of a snowfall in the park before dawn, the lazy gliding of swans among frozen reeds, the huddling of ducks on frigid ponds. Out here, I look for magic every day. I then bring the magic back and fashion it into a piece of writing that tries to capture its meaning. Each one of these posts could be seen as a still life, enchanting the ordinary things that I see every day. My fiction is different. It captures movement, a journey, a transformation. But in these posts, I gather together a group of experiences, display them in a pleasing composition and hope that they will shed light on what that moment in time meant to me. There is enchantment inside and out, not only among the things that grow and fly, but among the things that stay as they are.