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Great Works: Still Life with Peaches (c AD50) Anon
Classical art is often given a classic status. The works of the ancient Greeks and Romans have been taken up by many later artists as supreme examples. At least that's true of their statues and buildings. But when it comes to paintings, there's a problem. Very little remains, and what remains is puzzling.
For instance, we have no idea who painted this Still Life with Peaches. We have no idea what other works its maker did, and only a very limited idea about the works of contemporaries. The Roman still lives that have survived mostly come, like this one, from Pompeii and Herculaneum.
They were mural paintings, preserved (ironically) by the lava of Vesuvius, while the paintings in other cities, such as Rome itself, were destroyed or faded away. Was the art of these two provincial towns inferior to the art of the capital? If we saw real Roman painting, would that make the work that's survived look very average? Or is this as good as it got?
The Still Life with Peaches comes from a room in Herculaneum. It wasn't a free-standing image. Like other still lives, it was set on a wall among landscapes, narratives, decoration. But it occupied a contained square-ish section. And it uses the standard Roman still-life convention, the double (sometimes triple) level: the objects are arranged on a step or a sill.
Its subject is normal still-life stuff, pieces of the ordinary: a group of green peaches, with a curving twig and curling leaves, and a glass flask. There's a bit of damage and fading, but nothing ruinous. We can see the evidence. It looks familiar. We ought to be able to judge. But actually it's hard to tell whether this work is good or not. We can't quite speak its language or catch its tone.
Still Life with Peaches believes in a bold and simple design. It has a "modern art" look. There's a dominant colour contrast, lime-green and reddy-brown, strong and sweet. There's a composition of rounds and bars – an "overall" composition, where the top half of the picture has as much weight as the bottom (a benefit of the step device). The twig curves from top to bottom. The leaves furl in an elegant pattern.
In other words, there is a sophisticated eye at work. And at the same time, there is a barely competent hand. The depiction of the fruits is a mess. They are neither flat nor solid, and their contours are very uncertain. The shadows cast by everything are blobby. They completely fail – the main point of cast shadows – to attach the object to the surface beneath it.
This mixture of skill and bungling makes you wonder: what kind of artist did it? An amateur who's had a few lucky strokes? Or a hack at the fag-end of a tradition, who's half forgotten how to do it? Take the two peaches that have been cut open. They have some neat volumetric effect in mind: a concave scooped out of a convex. The visual idea is smart. Someone could do it superbly. This artist can't make it work.
The most beautiful and puzzling item is the glass flask of water. It sets itself another picturing problem: to depict transparency, one transparent element inside another. It solves it very economically, with an image made purely from highlights, streaks of white. Some are bolder, some fainter, some sharper, some softer, as they bring out the surfaces, the inside and outside. Each stroke is abrupt, a show-off point. It's as if the artist didn't simply know the pictorial tricks needed for doing a glass of water, but was consciously enjoying the performance of a code.
But then look at other aspects of the flask and the way it's painted. Look at the "perspective" of its forms. This is a round object, presumably, and seen at an angle. The rim of the neck, the circumference of the water surface, the flask's base – they should all be ovals of some kind. But the artist can't do proper ovals. They're all irregular. (The general shaping of the flask's outline is wonky too.) Or again, see how the mouth of the flask is quite a wide "oval", as if it was seen from above, whereas the base of it is shown directly side-on, as if it were viewed with the eye on a level with it.
The puzzle returns. In some ways this object is depicted with skill, with sophistication. You might think it was done with a kind of play or irony, as if each stroke of highlight had inverted commas around it. Yet, in other ways, it's rendered crudely and clumsily, as if the artist were a naïf. Or again, in view of the sophistication elsewhere, perhaps this is actually faux-naivety.
Who knows? Is this the work of a plodding, jobbing pub-sign painter? Or a playful first-century Hockney? Unless more Roman paintings turn up, to allow comparison, we'll never be able to tell. All we can say for now is that Still Life with Peaches is an awkward work and an awkward case. Like other surviving classical paintings, it has nothing of the serene, authoritative perfection of classical sculpture. It may have the charisma of the classical: since it's all we've got to go on, we make the most of it. But classical it is not.
Pliny the Elder and classical painting
Pliny the Elder (23-79) was a Roman of many accomplishments. He has remained famous for two reasons, both in a way accidents. The first is the almost complete loss of the painting of the classical period. We can't see much of it. We must read about it in Pliny's 'Natural History'. This universal encyclopaedia has a section devoted to painting. Pliny lists hundreds of painters with their achievements.
He mentions Piraeicus, patron of all artists who transfigure the everyday: "His subjects were barbers' shops, cobblers' stalls, donkeys, eatables, and the like. His paintings, however, are exquisitely pleasing, and have sold at higher prices than the very largest works of many masters." Pliny's other claim to fame is his death. He was killed in the eruption of Vesuvius, which destroyed Pompeii, but preserved a good deal of its art, such as this still life.
File:Fresco depicting a Cupid hunting, from the cryptoporticus of the House of the Deer in Herculaneum, Empire of colour. From Pompeii to Southern Gaul, Musée Saint-Raymond Toulouse (16278133531).jpg
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The History of Herculaneum
Herculaneum was smaller than its near neighbour, Pompeii — but its history is still significant. A small coastal town, a quarter of the size of its busy, commercial neighbour, Herculaneum was also ancient. The Oscans, Samnites and Greeks all left their mark on Herculaneum’s layout —even its name. But, it was as a Roman municipum that Herculaneum reached its peak when it became a popular seaside resort. In fact, Herculaneum became a popular summer retreat for the Roman elite — before, like Pompeii — the eruption of Vesuvius destroyed it in 79 AD.Detail of a painting called Hercules and Telephos. Roman fresco in the Augusteum (so called Basilica) at Herculaneum. Picture Credit: Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain
According to Andrew Wallace-Hadrill, Director of the Herculaneum Conservation Project, no archaeological remains of Herculaneum date beyond the fourth century BC. However, ancient sources suggest the tiny town had an ancient — even mythical foundation. Dionysius of Halicarnassus claims the Greek hero Herakles founded Herculaneum —coincidentally, a similar foundation myth to that of nearby Pompeii.
However, it is likely Hercualneum predates the Greeks by some centuries. Its location, on a promontory overlooking the sea on the slopes of Vesuvius, made it the perfect spot for an easily defended settlement that could take advantage of the sea for fishing and the fertile soil of the land around it for agriculture. No wonder the geographer Strabo referred to the area as “fruitfulness of the country”. It is unlikely that early settlers would have waited for a Greek hero to sanction the land as a settlement.
Strabo claimed the Oscans first settled Herculaneum. They were followed by the Etruscans who dominated much of Campania in the sixth century BC. It was they who made the most of Herculaneum’s coastal location, increasing passing trade through the town. It was only in the fifth century BC that Herculaneum became subject to Greek influences. By 474BC, Greek settlers firmly controlled Campania, marking the area as their own with the foundation of new towns. Very near to Herculaneum, they founded their “new town” later known as Naples. These Greek settlers made their mark on Herculaneum too. The small settlements grid-like street plan echoes that of its larger neighbour.
Street View of the Samnite House, Herculaneum. Picture Credit: Dutch National Archives, Wikimedia Commons. Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication.
By the fourth century, Herculaneum had fallen under Samnite influence and the town became part of the Nucerine League. Along with the rest of the League, Herculaneum became a Socii or an ally of Rome in 307BC.
The second century BC was something of a boom time for Samnite Herculaneum. The archaeology shows a developing architectural style as Herculaneum’s houses began to evolve from dark, compact Oscan houses with small windows and doorways, to more expansive collonaded houses with gardens and upper floors. Remnants of this era still survive in Herculaneum, such as the Samnite House and the House of the Wooden Partition.
In 91BC, the outbreak of The Social War shattered Herculaneum’s peace as Rome’s Italic allies rebelled against her. However, it was a futile gesture. Rome was victorious and in 89BC, Titus Didius, a legate of the dictator Sulla, led the conquest of Herculaneum. However, rather than marking an ignominious decline, conquest was the making of Herculaneum.Roman mosaic floor from the women’s baths, Herculaneum. Picture Credit: Natasha Sheldon (2007) All rights reserved.
Herculaneum was now part of the Roman state, taking on the status of a municipum or provincial town. The town now entered the most prosperous phase of its history. The Romans provided Herculaneum with paved streets, sewers, a new theatre and basilica — all the trappings of a Roman town.
Why did Roman’s lavish so much attention — and money — on Herculaneum? After all, the town was little more than a village when compared to the prosperous commercial city of Pompeii. According to Andrew Wallace Hadrill, Herculaneum was no more than 15-20 hectares making it just a quarter of the size of its near neighbour with only a few thousand inhabitants. The little town was no major port and apart from agriculture and viticulture had little commercial significance. Yet after the earthquake of 62AD which ravaged the towns around Vesuvius, Herculaneum’s civic repairs were financed by subsidies from the Roman government.Garden of the House of the Stags, Herculaneum. Picture Credit Natasha Sheldon (2007) All Rights Reserved.
A Roman Holiday Resort
Herculaneum’s significance to the Romans was one of pleasure rather than business. By the first century BC, the Bay of Naples became a holiday hot spot because of its volcanic springs at places like Baiae and Solfatara near Naples. Rich Romans bent on a health cure began to flock to the bay in the summer and the region’s coastline slowly became dominated by the villas of the wealthy and aristocratic. Herculaneum was small, exclusive and blessed with warm summer breezes and spectacular coastal views. According to Strabo, it was the perfect “healthful place to stay” and escape the unbearable summer heat of Rome.
Herculaneum quickly became the retreat of the Roman elite. The consul, Appius Claudius Pulcher had a country retreat at Herculaneum and one of the town’s most famous residences, the Villa of the Papyri, has been identified as the former home of the politician, Epicurean philosopher — and father in law of Julius Caesar, L Calpurnius Piso.John Martin’s Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum (c 1821) Public Domain
The Eruption of Vesuvius
One of these villas of the Roman elite is central to Pliny the Younger’s account of the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD which abruptly ended Herculaneum’s existence. On the morning of the eruption, the writer and Admiral of the Roman fleet, Pliny the Elder, received a message from Rectina, the wife of Tascius. The letter asked Piny to sail across the bay to rescue Rectina and her household from her house at the base of the mountain. (The Letters of Pliny the Younger, Bk VI.16).
The elder Pliny set out, but he never made it. Unable to navigate the waters of the bay which quickly became chocked with pumice, he died at Stabiae where he had taken refuge.
However, despite the urgency of Rectina’s message, Herculaneum itself was not much affected by the eruption initially, suffering only a light sprinkling of ash. This all changed at midnight when the first of six pyroclastic surges of hot gases and flows left the volcano and headed to Herculaneum.
The pyroclastic blast hit the city within four minutes. The velocity of the cloud of hot gases was so great, it lifted statues from their pedestals, leaving their shattered remains some distance away. It also toppled the portico of the palestra and lifted tiles off roofs. The surge was so hot it carbonised wood in the city and caused the sea to boil when it reached the waterfront. The intense heat also killed any remaining inhabitants instantaneously.
Eventually, Herculaneum became buried under 20 metres of ash that mixed with water to form mudslides. The mudslides hardened to form a tufa rock which encased and preserved Herculaneum. They also slide into the harbour, extending the coastline away from the town.
No other settlement appeared on the site of Herculaneum until the tenth century when the medieval town of Resina was founded. Resina had none of its ancient predecessor’s elite prestige — and it had lost its’ sea view. However, underneath it, ancient Herculaneum lay, waiting to be rediscovered.
Capasso, Gaetano, (2005) Journey to Pompeii. Capware Cultural Technologies
Hadrill, Andrew Wallace, (2011) Herculaneum Past and Future. Frances Lincoln Limited: London
Hornblower, S and Spawforth, A (eds) (1999) The Oxford Classical Dictionary (Third Edition) Oxford University Press.
Pirozzi, Maria Emma Antonietta, Herculaneum: The Excavations, Local History and Surroundings. Pirozzi. Electra Naples.
Radice, B (trans) (1969) The Letters of Pliny the Younger. Penguin Books
Roberts, Paul (2013) Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum, The British Museum
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About 2,000 years ago, someone painted a picture of a glass jug and four green peaches on the wall of a home in Herculaneum, a town on the shores of what is now the Italian Riviera. Two of the peaches are split open, their nutty kernels nestled in the fruit’s flesh like haloed comets. At the time of the painting, peaches would have been considered exotic people were more familiar with grapes, apples, pears, plums, apricots, figs or pomegranates. Much of the food we now take for granted was unknown two millennia ago: carrots were not the same colour they are today oranges weren’t introduced to Italy until the late 15th century. Though Alexander the Great first brought peaches to Europe after he conquered the Persians in the third century bce, the fruit only became popular in the Roman Empire around the time that this fresco was made. It is the earliest-known representation of peaches in existence.
We don’t know who painted this image or why. We do know that wall paintings known as xenia — a Greek word meaning ‘hospitality’, which was adopted by the Romans as a category of painting linked to the giving of gifts to visitors — were the early incarnations of what we now call still lifes, and would typically have been found in reception rooms. Popular subjects included dead animals, hanging from hooks, ready for the pot, as well as baskets of fruit, eggs and vegetables. However, Norman Bryson, in his book Looking at the Overlooked (1990), warns that: ‘Exactly because they seem so close in content to later still life painting, they [xenia] are easily elided with images produced in quite different cultural conditions […] the xenia essentially come to us as a ruin.’
Still Life with Peaches and Water Jar is both utterly familiar and absolutely alien. Yet, despite our cultural and temporal distance from the inhabitants of Herculaneum, we have some things in common with them: a peach, a jug of water, sunlight — this could be my table, today. It is also safe to assume that in its day this modest fresco would, in a sense, have been a touch boastful: it declares that the owners of the house weren’t simply open to new, fashionable sensations, such as the taste of peaches, but that they had the means to represent them too.
Light bounces off the glass. Herculaneum was a sun-kissed jewel of a town, popular with Roman holiday makers. Writing this on a grey day in London, the painting — touched with golden light — is seductive. Yet despite its charm, it’s clumsy: compare the skewed perspective of the jug and the curious, eye-shaped peach that floats awkwardly above it with the dazzling classical sculptures that were being created at the time. And why are the peaches green? Are they unripe? Has the colour (of the painting, of peaches) changed over the years or did the painter get it wrong — and what does the idea of ‘wrong’ mean here? Perhaps the owner of the house commissioned a struggling artist friend to paint it? Perhaps the household couldn’t quite afford the best painter in town? Perhaps they were ancient Surrealists who delighted in amateur translations of everyday scenes? Who knows?
In 79 ce, Mount Vesuvius erupted, spewing a deadly tidal wave of superheated rock and gas over the towns nestled at its base. Herculaneum, and everyone in it, was wiped out in an instant. The ferocity of the disaster can hardly be imagined: the mountain released 100,000 times the thermal energy of the bombing of Hiroshima. It buried Herculaneum beneath 24 metres of ash — almost 20 more metres than the town’s neighbour, Pompeii — which formed an airtight seal over the site for almost two millennia, preserving buildings, beds, cradles, doors, paintings, even a carbonized loaf of bread and bowl of figs (both of these were included in the recent exhibition ‘Life and Death: Pompeii and Herculaneum’ at the British Museum in London) — and, of course, this fresco. Excavations only began in the early 18th century and even today, two-thirds of Herculaneum remain buried. What a paradox that such devastation should have preserved such a delicate thing. Very few Ancient Greek frescos survive Roman ones do because of a disaster.
In 1871, the 52-year-old Gustave Courbet was imprisoned for six months for his involvement with the Paris Commune — the revolutionary party that ruled France for two months of that year. He was charged with his role in the destruction of the Vendôme Column, which was erected in 1806 in Paris by Napoleon I to commemorate the Battle of Austerlitz. The column represented everything Courbet loathed: lack of originality, celebration of conquest, nostalgia for a brutal imperial dynasty. Best known for his enormous paintings such as The Stone Breakers, A Burial at Ornans (both 1849 – 50) and The Artist’s Studio, a real allegory summing up seven years of my artistic and moral life (1854 – 5), Courbet railed throughout his life against hypocrisy, religion and unearned privilege, while demanding that art reflect the realities of ordinary people. In 1861, he famously declared in a letter to a group of students: ‘Art in painting should consist only of the representation of things that are visible and tangible […] An age that has not been able to express itself through its own artists, does not have the right to be expressed by outside artists.’
Whilst he was in prison, Courbet’s sister Zoe visited him regularly, bringing fruit and flowers. At first denied materials, Courbet was finally allowed paints and canvas. He painted Still Life with Apples and a Pomegranate (1871 – 2) while behind bars. Compared to the enormous paintings for which he had become famous, it’s a modest picture of gently illuminated fruit in a chipped, terracotta bowl beside a metal tankard. Some have been baffled by the still lifes Courbet made in prison, questioning why he wasn’t responding more directly to the mayhem taking place on the streets of Paris. I have no way of knowing what was going through Courbet’s mind at this point, but I suspect that the fact that 30,000 of his fellow communards were executed, 38,000 imprisoned and 7,000 deported to New Caledonia might have momentarily tempered his revolutionary zeal — he was in no position to risk antagonizing the authorities.
This is not, however, to detract from the achievement of this painting. Although still life was traditionally considered the lowest of the genres (after portraiture, landscape and history painting) it was having a resurgence in mid-19th-century France. In the early 1860s, Louis Martinet’s Paris gallery had displayed 40 paintings by Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin — a master of still life — that had proven enormously popular in 1870, Édouard Manet even painted a homage to Chardin’s painting of a brioche. Although Courbet had, in the early 1860s, made a small group of flowers paintings during a stay with a horticulturalist friend (pictures which are as joyful as these apples are gloomy), until his imprisonment he had never painted fruit. Art historians including Michael Fried have read Courbet’s fruit as substitutes for people — that is, the apples are crowded together in conditions as cramped as the one the painter found himself in. While possible, to my mind, it’s too literal a reading. I don’t doubt that Courbet was traumatized by his experience in jail: the knowledge that he had — in the bloody days preceding his imprisonment — evaded execution must have surely haunted his dreams. I imagine how therapeutic it must have been for him to concentrate on rendering, as realistically as possible, something as straightforward as a piece of fruit. And yet, despite the humble subject matter, there is something heroic about this painting. The 15 apples are gnarly, imperfect, unevenly coloured, yet there is nothing weak or self-pitying about the atmosphere Courbet so skillfully evokes. It is a compelling picture, painted with muscle and concentration despite its shadows, the work emanates a profound sense of immediacy, of life. It is also possible that Courbet’s revolutionary tendencies weren’t entirely quashed — various writers have suggested that the seemingly benign pomegranate nestling so comfortably amongst the apples is telling: the French word for pomegranate is ‘grenade’.
On his release from prison in 1872, Courbet submitted two still life paintings to the Salon. Both were rejected. When Ernest Meissonier — famous for his adoring paintings of Napoleon I and heroic battle scenes — announced Courbet’s exclusion, he gloated that ‘the salon should declare Courbet dead’. The decision was taken to rebuild the Vendôme Column and Courbet, who was broke, was ordered to pay the costs. To avoid bankruptcy he fled to Switzerland, where he died from an alcohol-related illness in 1877, only days after everything in his Paris studio was dispersed in a public sale.
When I was young, I travelled to Barcelona with a friend. We were keen to see the work of Picasso and Miró and Goya and all of the other great Spanish painters, but what I remember most was an exhibition of still lifes by an Italian: Giorgio Morandi. I don’t recall where the show was held but I do have a vivid memory of how much it annoyed me. I couldn’t understand why someone would spend a lifetime painting what seemed to be the same thing over and over again or find such modest, repetitious images interesting. But as my travels progressed, I kept thinking about those paintings. It’s not too much of an exaggeration to say that they eventually became something of an obsession: I fell in love with Morandi’s calm, clear-eyed study of the relationship between simple things — measured, a touch melancholy, oddly beautiful, vaguely exhausted but very much alive. When I later studied painting, my respect for the artist grew: I discovered that creating something simultaneously so complex and yet seemingly effortless is possibly the hardest thing of all. I was intrigued by Morandi’s balancing act — the way he studied the art of the past (especially the painters of the early Renaissance, such as Piero della Francesca) in order to discover new ways of making art. His work led me to the writings of John Cage, who, in his own way, seemed to be exploring something similar. The composer’s famous dictum — ‘If something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, then eight. Then 16. Then 32. Eventually one discovers that it is not boring at all.’ — could have been written for, or about, Morandi.
I never bothered to delve very deeply into Morandi’s life — its details seemed extraneous to the essential fact of the paintings. I knew, of course, that he lived his whole life with his sisters and mother in Bologna, travelled only very rarely and led a monastic existence in his studio, in which he worked for 50 years, creating 1,350 paintings and 133 etchings. I also knew that he refused to allow the thick patina of dust that had settled on his arrangements of objects in his studio to be disturbed — he treasured the way it lent hard surfaces a softness, and diffused colours into the delicate, faded hues of ancient frescos. The paintings he made during the dreadful years of World War ii, seemingly remote from the horrors around him, were, to my mind, like small beacons of sanity in an insane world. He was a man for whom taking things slowly came naturally, declaring in one interview that: ‘It takes me weeks to make up my mind which group of bottles will go well with a particular coloured tablecloth. Then it takes me weeks of thinking about the bottles themselves, and yet often I still go wrong with the spaces. Perhaps I work too fast?’
It was only recently that I discovered that, in the 1920s, Morandi was a member of the far-right Strapaese movement, an off-shoot of mainstream Italian fascism that celebrated a rural, local, anti-Modernist aesthetic. In 1928, he wrote in the party’s journal, L’Assalto (The Assault): ‘I have had much faith in Fascism since its first inklings, faith that has never ebbed, not even in the darkest and most tumultuous moments.’ Mussolini bought several of the etchings Morandi exhibited in the 1928 Venice Biennale the artist also participated in exhibitions organized by the local fascist artist union and the fascist printmaker’s union, which helped him sell his work. As Janet Abramowicz writes in Giorgio Morandi: The Art of Silence (2005): ‘There was no ambiguity about Morandi’s declaration of his faith in fascism.’ Suddenly, Morandi’s fascination with order, and his interest in Italy’s past, seemed sinister.
After the war, Morandi played down his fascist past his reputation emerged unscathed, protected by what was perceived as his near-saintly remoteness from worldly preoccupations and by his mastery of a seemingly benign genre, one he distilled into abstracted — and thus, implicitly apolitical — studies of shape and colour in space. Small, muted, hazy still lifes are, apparently, the antithesis of the blood lust and boom of the Futurists, for whom fascism seemed tailor-made.
Knowing what we now know about Morandi complicates looking at his paintings, drawings and etchings. It begs the age-old question: is it possible to be truly moved by an artist whose politics you find repellent? It’s something I’ve never been able to answer adequately. Does disliking Richard Wagner, say, distort the phenomenal music he wrote? I’d have to say no — the correlation between aural complexity and political opinion resists easy classification. In the case of Morandi, nothing — not even the artist himself — can diminish the sheer, subtle beauty of the paintings. His politics may have been thuggish, but his work is anything but. It acts as a reminder of the pitfalls of confusing beauty with goodness, or radical invention with moral worth. As Morandi himself once observed: ‘I believe that nothing can be more abstract, more unreal, than what we actually see.’ He could have been talking about his own myth.
In 1927, the Australian artist and writer Margaret Preston made an exuberant woodcut print, Native Flowers. At the time, she was living at the harbourside suburb of Mosman in Sydney and the pictures she made reflect the lush, semi-tropical abundance in which she found herself. A split, bright orange pawpaw balances on a plate with bananas a white vase is filled with a riotous bunch of Australian flowers including bottle brush, christmas bells and a waratah. Printed on Japanese paper and hand-coloured, it’s almost achingly bright. Forms are flattened and tonal contrasts ramped up, simplified and sun-baked — it’s like a snapshot of European Modernism on holiday, luxuriating in the hot Antipodean light.
In 1923, in an essay titled ‘Why I Became a Convert to Modern Art’, Preston wrote plaintively: ‘Australia is a fine place in which to think. The galleries are so well fenced in. The theatres and cinemas are so well fenced in […] The universities are so well fenced in […] Tradition thinks for you, but Heavens! How dull!’ At the time, Australian academic art remained in thrall to European traditions it was common for white Australians to call Britain ‘home’, even if they had never been there, and for Aboriginal art to be of interest only to anthropologists. Between 1904 and 1919, however, Preston had studied in Paris, immersed herself in Japanese prints, looked at Gauguin’s paintings and made prints at Roger Fry’s Omega Workshop, as well as travelling to China, the Pacific Islands and the Middle East. In her pursuit of a homegrown Modernism, she returned time and again to still life, combining images of native flowers with echoes of European Modernism, Aboriginal and Asian art, in order to explore the possibilities of a language specific to the continent. As she wrote in Art and Australia in 1929: ‘Why there are so many tables of still life in modern paintings is because they are really laboratory tables on which aesthetic problems can be isolated.’
Preston had her first major exhibitions in Sydney and Melbourne in 1925, with her friend and fellow artist, Thea Proctor. The shows were a hit. The effect of Preston’s seductive, vivid prints, all of which she framed in Chinese red lacquer, cannot be underestimated: the Australian public was brought around to the possibility that local flowers — in other words, local concerns — were as valid a subject as European imports. Proctor declared that Preston had ‘lifted the native flowers of the country from the rut of disgrace into which they had fallen’.
In later years, Preston became increasingly interested in Aboriginal art, quoting from it and reinterpreting it for her own ends, travelling to remote sites and incorporating indigenous motifs into her work. Her prints became more schematic, larger, less colourful she began to represent flowers not cut in vases but wild, in their natural state. As with all experiments, she wasn’t always successful, and her quotation of Aboriginal art remains contentious — some critics see it as, however well-meaning, a superficial appropriation of a complex language she had no right to employ, while others believe that it reflects a ground-breaking acknowledgement of indigenous art’s spiritual connection to the country.
In an article titled ‘What Do We Want for the New Year?’, published in Woman magazine in 1953, Preston wrote: ‘It has been said that modern art is international. But as long as human nature remains human every country has its national traits. It is important for a great nation to make a cultural stand […] My wish is to see a combined attempt by our artists to give us an art that no other country in the world can produce.’ When she died in 1963, at the age of 88, Preston had produced more than 400 prints. When I was growing up in Canberra, just about everyone I knew had a reproduction of a Preston print somewhere in the house. In fact, even now, I have a postcard of one of her still lifes stuck to my mirror.
In the summer of 1995, the young German photographer Wolfgang Tillmans took this photograph, summer still life. It’s a casual, familiar scene: a plate of cherries, strawberries, blueberries, grapes, a tomato and a peach a pile of magazines and a newspaper a lighter, a bottle with a twig stuck in it, a small pot plant, all balanced on a narrow, slightly grubby shelf by a window. The image is suffused with a soft, clear light and inflected with a faint weariness. I imagine that it was taken on a cool summer morning, perhaps with the kind of hangover that makes the world appear both dreamier and more vivid than usual.
Tillmans moved to London in the late 1980s and worked for fashion magazines, including i-D, Interview and The Face. His earliest photographs — the ones that made him famous — are seemingly casual studies of friends and lovers, often interacting in ways that might initially seem shocking — urinating on a chair, examining each other’s genitals, looking up a skirt, climbing a tree — but which are oddly tender. Tillmans is a great chronicler of desire in its myriad manifestations. He evokes the complexities of modern life with the lightest and most elegant of touches, even when he’s focusing on, say, the detritus of a kitchen, the aftermath of a party or the abstraction inherent in a roll of paper. It could be said that relationships are the lifeblood of his pictures — not just those between humans, but between the objects that humans rely upon, and what these objects say about the humans that use them. In an interview published in frieze in 2008, Tillmans declared: ‘I trust that, if I study something carefully enough, a greater essence or truth might be revealed without having a prescribed meaning.’ What this meaning might be is, of course, intentionally elusive: the simplest of actions — even eating fruit on a summer morning — can allude to things beyond our immediate understanding.
Tillmans has always been interested in mining exhausted genres because — conversely — of their seemingly unlimited capacity to move people. So it is with still life. In this, his work fits neatly into a long lineage of the genre’s sustained meditation on the culture of the table, and on the disarray that lurks at the heart of order. Fruit rots, a knife tumbles to the floor, the person who placed these things on this shelf has gone away or died.
Tillmans’ still lifes are, as all still lifes are, vivid snapshots of a certain moment in time. Take this image. Summer still life reveals a casual internationalism in the choices of reading matter: Interview magazine, the German publication Stern and The New York Times, with its headline ‘Experiment in Green’ just visible. Yet, despite its initial relaxed air, the image is carefully composed: the bright red tomato spins at the centre of a cosmos of pinks, greens and deep purples. Life, the image seems to declare, might be made of real surfaces, but abstraction liberates and illuminates the innate enigma of its components.
Every still life is more than the sum of its parts: who is reading these papers, eating this fruit, staring out of these windows? What Tillmans has done here is not so very different from the unknown painter who picked up his or her brushes, and decided to paint a bowl of peaches on a wall in Herculaneum around 2,000 years ago. The image reiterates: life doesn’t stop at the edge of the picture. It’s where it begins.
British Museum explores domestic life in Pompeii
When Mount Vesuvius erupted in AD79, showering hot volcanic ash on to Pompeii and Herculaneum, it created a time capsule that lay undiscovered for almost 1,700 years.
Among the treasures that have emerged from the buried streets and houses is a fresco of the bakery owner Terentius Neo and his wife (see picture).
He grips a papyrus scroll with a wax seal. She holds a stylus to her chin and carries a writing tablet. Both gaze out from the painting with large, almond-shaped eyes.
The double portrait - the only one of its kind to have been found in the area - is one of the highlights of the British Museum's Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum which opens this week.
Paul Roberts, the exhibition's curator, says the painting offers a unique insight into the life of Pompeii's citizens in the 1st century AD.
"The baker and his wife are shown as good Romans, the scroll and the stylus shows they are literate and cultured. But the most important thing is that they seem to be treated as equal partners.
"She is standing slightly forward of him: this is not a subservient image of a woman. In this business, she's the one holding the reckoning tablet."
After five years of preparation, Roberts has brought together 400 objects that focus on the lives - and deaths - of the citizens of Pompeii and Herculaneum. It is the first time the British Museum has dedicated a show to the two ill-fated cities.
Most of the works have come to London as a result of close collaboration with the Archaeological Superintendency of Naples and Pompeii. Many have never travelled outside Italy before.
With the focus on domestic - rather than city - life, the exhibition's more unusual items include kitchen perishables such as figs, dates, walnuts and onions. There is even a loaf of bread that had been baking in the oven as the city was engulfed by ash.
"I think visitors will be interested in the similarities between Roman domestic life and today," says Roberts.
"I want people to come away feeling that they got closer to the Romans here than they do by watching films that have gladiators."
Objects are displayed within rooms that recreate the lay-out of a typical house in Pompeii or Herculaneum. Items of furniture on view include a linen chest, a garden bench and a baby's crib that still rocks on its curved feet.
The exhibition includes casts from Pompeii of some of the victims of the eruption. About 1050 bodies have so far been discovered in Pompeii. The ash hardened around their corpses, which rotted away to leave body-shaped voids from which casts have been made.
One of the first objects in the exhibition is the plaster cast of a struggling dog. The final section includes a family of two adults and their two children huddled together in their last moments under the stairs of their villa.
The British Museum has put an age warning on some exhibits - such as a statue of the god Pan having sexual intercourse with a goat - to reflect the explicit imagery that was an accepted feature of ancient Roman culture.
What of the smallest room in the house? The exhibition features two bedroom potties but Roberts notes that the toilet was usually situated in the kitchen - a convenient disposal point for both food and human waste.
"They threw everything down the toilet. When we were photographing the houses for the catalogue I was amazed at how many times youɽ find the big cooking platforms right next to a depression which is all that remains of the hole that goes down to the septic tank."
In 2007 archaeologists in Herculaneum found a huge cesspit containing toilet and household waste that had been deposited in the decade before it was sealed by the eruption.
"There were 750 sacks of human waste, as you might expect," explains Roberts, "but what they didn't expect was the massive quantity of pots and pans and jewellery and terracotta statuettes.
"What I like about this exhibition is that as a museum of art and archaeology we have beautiful mosaics and the painting of the baker and his wife - but we also have the contents of a drain!"
Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum opens at the British Museum on 28 March and runs until 29 September. Cinema broadcast Pompeii Live takes place on 18 and 19 June.
Pompeii's most amazing fresco returns to its former glory! Scientists use lasers to remove stains on stunning 2,000-year-old painting of a hunting scene in the garden of the House of the Ceii
- he fresco depicts ornate hunting scenes with lions, leopards and a wild boar
- It looked over a garden belonging to the magistrate Lucius Ceius Secundus
- Like the rest of Pompeii, it was buried by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD
- Poor maintenance since the house was uncovered in 1913 saw the fresco fade
- However, it has been painstakingly restored and protected against rainwater A stunning fresco in the garden of Pompeii's Casa dei Ceii (House of the Ceii) has been painstakingly laser-cleaned and touched up with new paint by expert restorers.
The artwork — of hunting scenes — was painted in the so-called 'Third' or 'Ornate' Pompeii style, which was popular around 20 BC and featured vibrant colours.
In 79 AD, however, the house and the rest of the Pompeii was submerged beneath pyroclastic flows of searing gas and volcanic matter from the eruption of Vesuvius. Poor maintenance since the house was dug up in 1913 saw the hunting fresco and others deteriorate, particularly at the bottom, which is more vulnerable to humidity.
The main section of the fresco depicts a lion pursuing a bull, a leopard pouncing on sheep and a wild boar charging towards some deer.
A stunning fresco in the garden of Pompeii's Casa dei Ceii (House of the Ceii) has been painstakingly laser-cleaned and touched up with fresh paint by expert restorers
The main section of the fresco depicts a lion pursuing a bull, a leopard pouncing on sheep and a wild boar charging towards some deer. Pictured, the art is touched up near the bull's hooves
In 79 AD, the House of the Ceii and the rest of the Pompeii was submerged beneath pyroclastic flows of searing gas and volcanic matter from the eruption of Vesuvius — as depicted in the English painter John Martin's 1821 work 'Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum', pictured
Frescos commonly adorned the perimeter walls of Pompeiian gardens and were intended to evoke an atmosphere — often one of tranquillity — while also creating the illusion that the area was larger than in reality, much as we use mirrors today.
'What makes this fresco so special is that it is complete — something which is rare for such a large fresco at Pompeii,' site director Massimo Osanna told The Times.
Alongside the hunting imagery of the now restored fresco, with its wild animals, the side walls of the garden featured Egyptian-themed landscapes, with beasts of the Nile delta like crocodiles and hippopotamuses hunted by with African pygmies and a ship shown transporting amphorae.
Experts believe the owner of the town house, or 'domus', had a connection or fascination with Egypt and potentially also the cult of Isis, that of the wife of the Egyptian god of the afterlife, which was popular in Pompeii in its final years. In fact, the residence has been associated with one Lucius Ceius Secundus, a magistrate — based on an electoral inscription found on the building's exterior — and it is after him that it takes its name, 'Casa dei Ceii'.
The property, which stood for some two centuries before the eruption, is one of the rare examples of a domus in the somewhat severe style of the late Samnite period of the second century BC.
The house's front façade sports an imitation 'opus quadratum' (cut stone block) design in white stucco and a high entranceway set between two rectangular pilasters capped with cube-shaped capitals.
Casa dei Ceii's footprint covered some 3,100 square feet (288 sq. m) and contained an unusual tetrastyle (four-pillared) atrium and a rainwater-collecting impluvium basin in a Grecian style, one rare for Pompeii, lined with cut amphora fragments.
The artwork — of hunting scenes — was painted in the so-called 'Third' or 'Ornate' Pompeii style, which was popular around 20 BC and featured vibrant colours, as pictured
The property, which stood for some two centuries before the eruption, is one of the rare examples of a domus in the somewhat severe style of the late Samnite period of the second century BC. The house's front façade sports an imitation 'opus quadratum' (cut stone block) design in white stucco and a high entranceway set between two rectangular pilasters capped with cube-shaped capitals, as pictured
Other rooms found inside the property included a triclinium, where lunch would have been taken, two storage rooms, a tablinum which the master of the house would have used as an office and reception room and a kitchen with latrine.
An upper floor, which partially collapsed during the eruption, would have been used by the household servants and appeared to be in the process of being renovated or constructed at the time of the catastrophe.
The garden on whose back wall was adorned by the hunting fresco, meanwhile, featured a canal and two fountains, one of a nymph and the other a sphynx.
During the excavation of the townhouse, archaeologists found the skeleton of a turtle preserved in the garden.
The recent restoration work saw the paint film of much of the fresco — particularly a section featuring botanical decoration — carefully cleaned with a special laser. Experts also carefully retouched the paint in areas of the fresco that had been abraded over time, as well as instigating protective measures to help prevent the future infiltration of ra
Opening hours Herculaneum 2021 (excavation)
In summer (April to October) from 8:30 to 19:30. In winter from 8:30 to 17. These opening hours of the Herculaneum apply to every day of the week. Only 2 days a year are closed (1st Christmas Day and New Year’s Day). There is often a lot going on, it is worth buying tickets in advance on the Internet.
>>> On this link you can find online-tickets for the Herculaneum
Arrival by public transport Herculaneum
The Circumvesuviana narrow-gauge railway stop is about 400 metres from the entrance. The station is called “Ercolano Scavi”. This means “Herculaneum excavation”. Two lines run here: The line from Naples to Sorrento and the line from Naples via Pompeii to Pomigliano. From Naples there are about 3 trains per hour, from Sorrento 2 trains per hour and from Pompeii city train station one connection. The other station of Pompeii “Skavi” is located on the line to Sorrento and has about 2 connections per hour to the Herculaneum.
From the station “Ercolano Scavi” go straight down the street. After 400 meters you are at the entrance of the excavation of Herculaneum. The road is also signposted.
Our other articles about Pompeii and Herculaneum
Pompeii general info (like overview, directions, admission fees, opening hours…)
Pompeii baths (thermal baths)
Theaters Pompeii (the 3 big theaters)
Bus tours Pompeii (from nearby resorts, Naples and Rome)
Corpses Pompeii: All about Corpses and Dead in Pompeii and Herculaneum
Hello Perdix, You Old Friend
Today Narayan Nayar and I took the train to Pompeii to look at a fresco that features Perdix, a Roman workbench and some adult content suitable for Cinemax. (“Oh my, I don’t think I have enough money for this pizza.” Cue the brown chicken, brown cow soundtrack.)
As we got off the train, my heart was heavy with dread. Yesterday, our visit to Herculaneum blew my mind but was disappointing in one small way: The House of the Deer was closed that day to visitors. The House of Deer had once housed a woodworking fresco that has since been removed and has since deteriorated. So all I was going to get to see was the hole in the wall where the fresco had been.
So as I got off the train this morning, I fretted: What if the House of the Vettii is closed? After a not-quick lunch that involved togas (don’t ask), Narayan and I made a beeline to the House of the Vettii. And as I feared, its gate was locked. The structure is in the midst of a renovation and was covered in tarps and scaffolding.
I peered through the gate and saw someone moving down a hallway inside. He didn’t look like a worker. He looked like a tourist. Then I saw another tourist.
We quickly figured out that a side entrance was open and they were allowing tourists into a small section of the house. I rushed into that entryway and waved hello to Priapus. After years of studying the map of this house I knew exactly where to go. I scooted past a gaggle of kids on spring break and into the room with the fresco I’ve been eager to see for too long.
It’s a miracle this fresco has survived – not just the eruption of Vesuvius but also the looters and custodian that decided (on behalf of Charles III) which images to keep and which ones to destroy. (Why destroy a fresco? According to the Archaeological Museum of Naples, many were destroyed so they didn’t get into the hands of “foreigners or imitators.”) The royal collection preferred figurative scenes or ones with winged figures. For some reason, this one stayed in place and has managed to survive.
Narayan spent the next 40 minutes photographing the fresco in detail. The photos in this blog entry are mere snapshots I took with my Canon G15. His images will be spectacular.
OK, enough babbling. I need some pizza. Thank goodness they’re only about 4 Euro here.