On Chardin

(Artist statement from Still Life, A-M Gallery, 2015, by Matilda Michell)

Homebrand Still Life
Homebrand Still Life, 50.5 x 61 cm, oil on canvas, 2015

I have long loved the still lives of Chardin for their quiet beauty, their meditative quality and the way they elevate humble everyday objects. With this series of work, I wanted to look at the compositions of Chardin but with a modern eye. Many of the objects that in Chardin’s time were commonplace now have an old world charm and value which completely changes them in a modern context. Perhaps for him a silver jug represented something seen and used everyday; a counterpoint to the riches found in many still lives previously. The same jug placed in a still life now, would be nostalgic and sentimental, and so carries a very different meaning. I wanted to try to find other objects that fill that same role today– plastic bags, milk bottles, keys, coins, a kettle, tin cans – things that people see and use everyday but perhaps don’t usually see any beauty in. Finding a meaningful role for painting today is a difficult task. More than ever before, art is forced to question its purpose and its relevance, especially in light of the modern quest for newness and the awareness that the avenues for grand artistic gestures and radical shifts in paradigm have diminished. In a time that is already oversaturated with images and dominated by faster paced forms of media, painting is preoccupied with how it can relate to its own time. For me, the need to ‘be contemporary’ is something that I have been confronted with since art school and which I resisted for a long time because I felt it pushed for a kind of approach which generated shallow and superficial work, a kind of visual branding which lost sight of the quieter, more subtle and more innately visual communication that is most suited to painting as a medium.

The sheer abundance of art though, does argue for the need to be contemporary in some fashion. There is no particular point in my producing a still life that is as close to a Chardin as I can make it. At best it will be a poor copy, a kind of luxury version of a print. In his ‘Salon of 1846’ Baudelaire discusses the need for both a transitory and an eternal element to art, a concept I have found very helpful in making sense of how and why one should be contemporary. An artwork that contains only the transitory elements of its own time will be fleeting and shallow; a painting that contains only the eternal elements is too static, too removed from the world and from our experience of it. Like poetry, a good painting comes back to you at odd moments and so it is crucial that it exist in the memory as well as in a physical form. A painting created now, if well done, can be a kind of interpreter or mediator between the present and the rich history of past art. It can invoke the paintings of the past but also tie them to our everyday lives so that we might see in our lives, and in the ordinary things around us, something of the eternal beauty of those past masterpieces.