Sunday, April 17, 2011

Spotlight on Gastropods: "Van Huysum's Snails"

Van Huysum's Snail I - acrylic - 2007 - 16" x 20"
Van Huysum's Snail II - acrylic - 2007 - 16" x 20"

I have always been a fan of still life painting, and some of my favourite artists are practitioners of the genre--Cezanne's apples, Morandi's dusty old bottles, Jim Dine's tools, and Wayne Thiebaud's cakes come immediately to mind. But I had never been very excited by the big floral arrangements painted by some of the famous Dutch painters until I learned to look for the creepy-crawlies that lurk in the corners and chomp their way through the leaves.

Dutch realism was a Calvinist reaction against the religious iconography of pre-Reformation art and its continuation in the Catholic countries during the Counter-Reformation. The Dutch painters depicted the real people, places and objects of their world, not saints, angels and cherubs swirling around the heavens. Nevertheless, theology is still implicit in their 17th century art, even in a painting of a vase of flowers. At first glance the viewer sees something beautiful--a floral arrangement at the peak of perfection--but needs to be reminded that in this material world everything passes, fades and dies, and only the spiritual world endures. Apparent perfection is mere vanity, unreliable and transitory, subject to being destroyed or consumed. Some painters included elements such as clocks and skulls to jolt the viewer back to reality. Others were more subtle: they implied the passing of time and the vanity of this world by slipping flies and beetles into their compositions, along with bits of dead leaf and fallen petals.

Detail of Hollyhocks etc. painting by Jan van Huysum

Jan van Huysum lived from1682 to1749, so by the time he painted his floral compositions he probably included his animal elements more for decorative than moral purposes, but he still followed the convention of his predecessors. Leafing through one of my art books one day I paused to have a closer look at a painting by van Huysum called "Hollyhocks and Other Flowers in a Vase." Towards the bottom of the composition, as a sort of visual footnote, there are two snails, a small one crawling up a hollyhock leaf, and a larger, very perky one, advancing purposefully along the shelf. The idea came to me of blowing up two small sections of van Huysum's painting and placing each snail centre-stage.

When an original painting has been photographed and reproduced in print there's no way of telling how accurate the colour is. I may have seen the Hollyhocks painting in the National Gallery at some time, but if so I don't really remember it. Judging by an Internet image I found recently:  the colours are more vibrant than the ones in my book. For my purposes it didn't matter; I just stayed as close as I could to the book illustration. (Dutch Painting by Christopher Brown, Phaidon, 1993, p. 125.)

Singling out the snails to star in the show is another way of honouring the humble and easily overlooked, a theme that recurs in my work. To a gardener slugs and snails are the animal equivalent of nasty weeds--things that need to be eliminated because they threaten the more desirable plants. But any true depiction of nature acknowledges that everything has its season and eventually dies, and that every living thing has to eat at the expense of something else. Flowers, especially cut ones, may be seen as a metaphor for human youth and beauty, and the snails as a symbol of time, which relentlessly gnaws away at our lifespan. Snails are also often seen as the epitome of ugliness, as expressed in the disparaging nursery rhyme:

Slugs and snails and puppy dogs' tails,
That's what little boys are made of.

Yet a snail's shell is a beautiful object, no less so than the mollusc shells that children of all ages like to pick up on the beach. It seems to me that van Huysum loved his snails. His treatment of the larger one in "Hollyhocks," with its eyes and antennae tips highlighted, shows a marked degree of respect for the despised creature. So perhaps he would understand why someone painting 400 years later might want to present a close-up view of the hungry little crawlers.

Next time (around April 24): Serious Humour: "Designated Driver"

Designated Driver - acrylic - 2010 - 22" x 22"

1 comment:

Ada D. said...

Hey Judith!
Love this blog about Dutch Realism and capturing the everyday little things of life that make life beautiful! =)xo