Life, Death, and the Old Masters

In the hierarchy of genres in art established by the French Academy in the seventeenth century, still life, or nature morte as it was named, was considered the lowliest of genres – below history, portrait, and landscape painting. Despite its dismissal by the academy, still life gained incredible popularity in the Netherlands, Spain and France in the seventeenth century. It gave artists the opportunity to showcase their skill without being confined by the expectations of the ‘higher’ genres of painting. A corresponding system of symbolism arose as a form of intellectual justification for the genre.

Referencing the seventeenth century Old Masters that brought the genre to prominence, Paulette Tavormina’s photography is a continuation, rather than a recreation, of the still life tradition. On first glance, Tavormina’s photographs look like paintings. But the profusion of detail in the lush vegetation, fruits, flowers and insects that emerges after a longer look shows them to be scenes only producible by a camera. Shooting on large format, Tavormina sometimes spends an entire week arranging and rearranging a composition until all the elements work in perfect balance. Her tableaux are wrought into tightly bound scenes of natural harmony in which organic forms play off each other’s symbolic significance.

This potential for the still life photograph to communicate symbolic resonance forms the basis of Tavormina’s work. Her symbolism is intensely personal and the success of her work is dependent on its rich, allegorical content. Interweaving iconography gleaned from the Old Masters with her own personal symbolism, the images allude to life cycles of birth, growth, age and death. The butterfly represents fragility and metamorphosis, the lemon is fidelity in love and the fig is fruitfulness of knowledge. On a wider level, the scenes of plentiful food and flowers relate to the enjoyment, delight and satisfaction of passion and sensuality. Her symbolism relates to universal moments in life in which love, desire, passion and loss overpower everything else.

Yet, the beauty and joy embodied in the still lifes is always fleeting as ripeness threatens to turn to decay. In the early seventeenth century, vanitas painting became a popular sub-genre of still life in the Netherlands. From the Latin word for ‘vanity’, in its pre-fourteenth-century sense, meaning ‘futility’, the vanitas tradition sought to remind about the inevitability of death. Objects appear in a state of disarray – glasses are knocked over and petals fall from flowers – to symbolise the overthrow of worldly achievements by death and warn against the danger of indulging in earthly pleasure. Despite the profusion of organic forms, still life has become irrevocably associated with decay and death.

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