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Still life

"simple, wholesome food standing on a sill or held in air by the hand of a geometer and poet adept at ordering a world of marvels: did he not suspend a quince and a cabbage at the end of a string, where they turn and glow like planets in a boundless night?" Charles Sterling

No this is not my desk calendar, this is a lucky dip post from a a book given to me by a friend a long time ago, called The Art of Food. This particular page is a reproduction of this painting - Still Life of Quince, Cabbage, Melon and Cucumber by the Spanish artist Juán Sanchez Cotán (1561-1627). Of whom I had never heard I confess. The page of writing about this painting states that Caravaggio was a big influence on the Spanish still life painters, and you can certainly see that.

So where to from this curious beginning. Well there are a few paths to follow I think.

Perhaps I'll start with the book, which I should really turn to more for inspiration I think, because it's full of wonderful paintings. It's by a lady called Claire Clifton and was first published back in 1988.

Initially I couldn't find anything about the author other than that she seems to have written four books although none of them are famous. This seems to be the most available one. I guess that's the way of the world isn't it? Some people find fame and fortune and others don't. I suppose this is a cookbook with limited appeal, more of a coffee table art book than a cookbook, although there are recipes. Each double spread has a painting on one side, and on the other something about the painting and other thoughts of the author plus a recipe or two from the period in which the painting was created.

Later though, having flicked through the book looking at the various paintings, I found on the flyleaf at the back a portrait of the lady and a few words about her. Which really only told me that she was American and that she was a journalist, in England mostly, as well as an author. So there she is, perhaps standing outside her home, with arty implements on the wall and with her cat. And even though the cat is still, and somewhat representative of a still life, she somehow doesn't look like the kind of person who lived a still life. Fixed for all time with an 80s head of hair and a smile. An independent looking lady. The publishers - Windward, which is part of W. H. Smith - must have thought it worth their while at the time to publish her book for it must have been a relatively expensive book to publish - rights to the paintings, and it is an expensively produced book.

Then there's that painting. I had actually lighted on this page for the lucky dip - a painting by Velazquez entitled Kitchen Scene with Christ in the House of Martha and Mary - also Spanish and also Caravaggio influenced and very striking. But then I saw the one at the top of the page and decided on that as my starting point. But bear the Velazquez in mind.

The artist of the quince, the cabbage, the melon and the cucumber was apparently a Carthusian friar who created all of his still lifes before he became a friar. Before he took up a still life of contemplation. He was about 40 years old at the time. Only seven of those remain, although there are believed to be another two somewhere. He later painted several religious paintings, and had done more previously, but it seems to be the still lifes for which he is famous.

"Each form is scrutinized with such intensity that the pictures take on a mystical quality, and the reality of things is intensified to a degree that no other seventeenth-century painter would surpass."

The French for 'still life' is 'la nature morte' which means 'dead nature' - considerably less poetic than 'still life' it seems to me. 'Still' implies a state that could become something else, a mindful way of being. Dead implies just that. Dead. Finished. Over. But that painting at the top of the page is by no means dead. It is indeed surrounded by death - all that black background is waiting silently - indeed takes up most of the painting - but the life in front of it is vibrant and living, ready to be enjoyed. Somebody has already begun cutting into the melon.

Moreover it's food - God's gift the religious would say - and food, besides providing nourishment is also used in all sorts of ceremonial, religious and celebratory ways. Currently birthday cakes and Halloween titbits that fill the foodie magazines are to the fore and both of those things have their origins in religion - whether pagan or Christian.

It's mysterious and spiritual. Calm? I'm not sure. But definitely still. And mysterious.

"Many contained a message - a memento more (the iconography of which was familiar at the time) - to remind even the rich that life is short." Claire Clifton

Velazquez's painting is religious too - Jesus is in the background, but in the foreground we have ordinary people preparing food for a meal - however, symbolic fish and eggs may be. And note the very new chillies from the New World as well - so we have a bit of history in there too.

I should say that all of the paintings in this book are not still lifes. Many of them are paintings of people gathered at various meals and feasts, or harvesting the food that we are to eat. Food related paintings, of people, and gatherings, of life.

And what of the recipes - well there are two - one for pumpkin - I think some people refer to the melon in the picture as pumpkin - indeed the book does, but if you look at it closely it is very clearly a melon. The pumpkin recipe is not very tempting but the quince one is. It's for Quince liquor and is very simple:

"Mince 1.5kg quinces in a large bowl or earthenware crock with 900g sugar, 1 chopped lemon and a small, split vanilla pod. Stir throughly to dissolve the sugar. Cover and leave for 11 days, then filter and bottle. You can put in more sugar and more alcohol, but not less."

I love the phrase 'still life'. I think it is something I would like my life to be. Still and somehow expectant. Still implies that I think. Alas nobody ever lives a still life. The world is too busy even the little world in which we each live. Take today for example. Every now and then there is a torrential downpour which has us rushing to the window to see if our drains are coping, followed by a burst of sunshine. We can no longer hear the water rushing over the rapids in the river at the back of our block. The rapids are completely covered and the water just flows straight across. It is wider and higher than I have ever seen but not a danger to us I think. But inside all is still. Here I sit at the computer thinking of this and that, as I write this post. David sleeps for a while at the end of his much busier day. A still point before the coming together for food and conversation.

Always in the background of everything we do is the knowledge that one day it will all end in darkness. So concentrate on the beauty of the foreground - the stillness of the natural world - well its fruits anyway. Juán Sanchez Cortán's other still lifes, except one - this one of carrots and a thistle? - cardoon I think - have much less black in the picture. The foreground dominates, not just by its life, but also by its abundance.

I shall return the book to its place on my shelves, but I shall be thinking about that painting for some time I think. It ought to be gloomy and threatening, but somehow it's not. Just still, waiting for the pleasure of eating something delicious - luscious even. Risotto with fish and that fennel pesto tonight, served with the ubiquitous green salad.


David insisted I photograph yesterday's Ottolenghi Double lemon chicken because it was so delicious. It really was and it wasn't difficult. I'm not sure that rice was the best carbohydrate match though, although I'm not sure what would have been better. Maybe couscous? The asparagus, which was very simply cooked in a little oil and water was absolutely divine. Coles has it at $1.00 a bunch at the moment. Buy some, cook it, eat it. And make that chicken.

And apologies for, not very thoughtfully, using the same photograph as the header for two posts this week. Too late to change now.


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