'Spanish Still Life,' Down to a Science
By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 25, 2009
Before you head into "Luis Melndez: Master of the Spanish Still Life," a show now in the East Building of the National Gallery, you should visit the West Building's permanent collection. Look for 17th-century still lifes by the Dutchman Gerrit Willemsz. Heda, the Italian Antonio Maria Vassallo or the Spaniard Juan van der Hamen y Len. They'll give you images of housewares and foodstuffs that glow with life, surfaces that buzz with every kind of brushwork, all sorts of light effects that dazzle the eye -- a sense of the everyday made numinous by art.
You won't get that sense in Melndez, who painted almost the same scenes -- but in the middle of the 18th century, more than 100 years after the Spanish Golden Age and its great still lifes. If you came cold to Melndez, you might dismiss him as technically proficient but mostly spiritless, and move on. But if you take him in right after his great predecessors, you're forced to realize that, to end up with pictures so utterly different from theirs, he had to be up to something very different from them. Understood on their own terms, the dispassionate still lifes of Melndez open a fascinating window onto his time and culture.
"It's like high-definition, isn't it?" one stranger exclaimed, to no one in particular, as he surveyed this show's 31 paintings. "They're so sharp." I believe his intuition was exactly right. These pictures are high-def's primal ancestors: They come to us from the beginning of our modern, technological, scientific times, whereas their predecessors represent the tail end of a world that still has magic floating through it.
Melndez was born in 1715, had training as an academic artist -- his father was the director of painting at Spain's brand-new Academy of Arts -- but failed to find the place he desperately wanted in the high-end world of history paintings and altarpieces. Melndez had to settle for low-prestige still life, a niche that he filled, with little competition, for his last two decades. He died in 1780, possibly destitute.
Melndez's dates matter: They make him a child of the new Enlightenment, where "divine" light has become a physical phenomenon (Newton had shown how it could be broken down) and every living thing is just the thing it is (Linnaeus had found a genus and species for each one). And the job of the still life, at least in this artist's novel vision of it, was to impassively record how light could strike a collection of things.
Being forced to settle for a career in still life had put Melndez in the perfect place, at the right time, to realize Enlightenment ideas, via a plum "scientific" commission. In 1771, the Prince of Asturias -- later King Charles IV -- gave him the job of producing a huge suite of still life paintings for his New Cabinet of Natural History, which had been inspired by a craze for science then sweeping through Spain.
The artist boasted of his project as a coherent "historia" -- a natural history -- organized on taxonomic principles. It would display the products of the nation's lands, ordered according to the four seasons they grew in and the four "elements" of the natural world -- earth, air, fire and water -- that powered all existence. The 44 paintings that Melndez completed for the prince (nine are in this show) give us the context for understanding his entire approach to still life painting.
Melndez wasn't a scientist. And he didn't simply abandon the aesthetics of his predecessors: His still lifes are still clearly works of art, not scientific illustrations, and are composed pretty much as Golden Age still lifes had been. They show much the same assortment of produce, fish and game staged among baskets, ceramics and glassware. The crucial difference, now, is the impartial eye that takes in the old subjects -- that makes them suit a Cabinet of Natural History.
Melndez's brush doesn't fly around his surfaces, aiming to bewitch us with its range, as in a Heda or a van der Hamen; it travels over everything with even-handed, even-tempered order, almost like the passes of a scanner's laser. The Prince of Asturias owned a botanical volume whose illustrations had been based on pressing flora right against the paper. Melndez's still lifes display a similarly systematic, fact-finding, almost mechanical approach to taking in the world. They almost have the uniformity of touch of some modern photorealism. (The exhibition catalogue doesn't mention the possibility that Melndez could have used a camera obscura -- a kind of filmless camera -- to make his pictures, but there do seem to be some telltale marks of the lens. And we do know that camera obscura was used by another artist for a series of landscapes owned by the same scientifically minded prince, this time cataloguing the seaports of Spain rather than its produce.)
Even the tremendous repetition from one Melndez to the next has a proto-scientific aura to it, like the unchanging conditions in a controlled laboratory study: In all but four of the paintings in this show, we're shown precisely the same tabletop with the same light coming from the same position at top left, and then an ever-changing array of objects set out in front of us on that table, under that light. (In one case, Melndez gives us exactly the same two loaves of bread, but with their telltale cracks and folds seen -- "studied" might be a better word -- from a slightly different angle.) This repetition wasn't about churning out pictures for a market where they'd never be seen side by side; most of the Asturias pictures were staged as much alike as all the rest of Melndez's still lifes, and yet were hung together in a single scientific decor. Their repetition was a sign of disciplined looking.
The National Gallery has set up two glass cases of 18th-century artifacts that match the kitchenwares depicted by Melndez. His fidelity to them is impressive, but not as much as something else: Those cases, with their objects spotlighted and on display, seem eerily of a piece with the paintings themselves, whose objects seem similarly lighted and exhibited.
Shown beside its real-life subjects, a Golden Age still life would clearly seem to have transfigured them -- the art of painting had, after all, only recently moved from the church to the home. There's no transfiguration in Melndez: He simply presents things to us.
Which calls to mind the great portraits of Goya, whom Melndez might have known (they once lived on the same street). That painter, sometimes thought of as the first truly modern artist, took the divine rulers of Spain and turned them into all-too-human bosses. Melndez takes bread -- the divine substance of the Eucharist, Flesh of Our Savior -- and turns it back to baked goods.