Still Life

“…As Coorte has placed it, the butterfly is wafting gently toward the fruit, enhancing, not disturbing, the tranquility of the scene.

But if the faultless balance of the composition can be suggested, the actual painting is so refined that describing it inevitably involves something as ethereal as the quiet air that holds the butterfly. Taste, the practiced and elegant eye, is the essence of still-life painting; and the subtle transformation of everyday objects into vehicles for emotional reflection is this art’s glory, as well as its most maddeningly difficulty.

Coorte painted his Still Life with Three Medlars and a Butterfly between 1693 and 1695, as the haiku poet Basho was dying in Osaka. For Basho, as for any Oriental poet or painter, depictions of nature occupied the same lofty place as scenes from religion and history did in the West.

The artists of medieval Europe placed their holy figures against a gold background that eliminated any hint of the mortal, earthly plane; but in Japan, and in particular in those Japanese arts inspired by Zen Buddhism, the sacred world is within—and never above or without—the earthly world. When approached in the correct spirit, the placement of a rock in a garden, or the serving of a cup of tea, transcends aesthetics and touches upon the divine.

It is hard to imagine that Basho’s poetry could have been recognized as such in seventeenth-century Europe. Even today, without extensive study, a Western mind, taught to admire the intricate and difficult, has trouble fathoming it. His most famous masterpiece, described as a “revolutionary alarm” (“So many people in the past have commented upon this poem,” writes one critic, “that it seems to me that its poetic resources have been well-nigh exhausted”), is nothing more than this:

The old pond, ah!
A frog jumps in:
The water’s sound!

Concreteness and simplicity, rather than intricacy and elaboration, were the highest values of this culture; and watching Adriaen Coorte’s struggle with his butterflies and asparagus, seeing his thinking evolve through his career, is like reading the works of Basho in the order that they were composed. It is as difficult to achieve a simplicity of this kind as it is to build a great cathedral, a simplicity all the more elegant for its apparent denial of its own difficulty. Viewed all at once, Coorte’s paintings reflect the painstaking process of their creation, showing his long movement toward the achievement of a few perfect paintings and bringing to mind a saying of Clarice Inspector’s: “Art is not purity: it is purification. Art is not liberty: it is liberation.”

Coorte’s object of contemplation is infinitely subtler. Capturing the slightest flicker of passing time in the butterfly’s suspended flight, his painting achieves the quality of symbolism without the least pretension to being symbolic. Like wordless music, it stimulates feeling without directing it, shutting off the intellect and appealing directly to the senses.

It is one thing to show mortality upon the face of a twisted and crucified Savior; “art is” showing it on a gooseberry, a bunch of asparagus, a frog. Basho’s translator said that the poet sought “a vision of eternity in the things that are, by their own very nature, destined to perish.” Passing time, and therefore death, is the still life painter’s real subject. “

adriaen coorte cover[from: “ART IS The Audacity of Still Life” by Benjamin Moser, Harpers Magazine, February, 2009…(an excerpt of a review on THE STILL LIFES OF ADRIAEN COORTE: 1683-1707, by Quentin Buvelot. Waanders Publishers. 144 pages. $60] The paintings of Adriaen Coorte form a striking group of works in still-life art of around 1700. At this time there were a few specialised still-life painters active in the Northern Netherlands and whereas his fellow still-life artists displayed a keen interest for profusion and luxuriance, Coorte found his strength in very simple depictions. Today, his work is much sought after among art lovers. In fact, the lack of pretension in his paintings appears to be the deciding factor in his ever-increasing popularity.