Come to me

Come to Me

2010, 150 cm x 190 cm and 144 cm x 113 cm

Margriet Smulders and her perspective on the 17th century still life art

When in 1999 Margriet Smulders visited the exhibition Dutch Still Lifes 1550-1720 in the Rijksmuseum she was so inspired by what she had seen that she afterwards produced a magnificent series of works on stilleggent leven, to paraphrase a term of one of the oldest descriptions of that school of still life art. At the exhibition of Jan van Huysum in the Delftse Prinsenhof in 2006 I, in turn, got gripped by the large, shining artificial worlds with flowers trapped in indefinite spaces which Margriet presented to a public that was primarily there for the Jan van Huysum’s real life flower pieces. On that occasion it occurred to me that there were more differences than similarities between the striking true-to-life arrangements by Van Huysum and Margriet Smulders’ crystal clear but almost annoyingly inscrutable realms. I considered her work as rather a welcome contemporary commentary on the Jan van Huysum’s painting than a continuation of its 17th century tradition.

As can be seen from the first photograph of Jan van Huysum’s work the bouquets are larger and prettier than they really would have been but one after the other the flowers are presented painstakingly and with great refinement, imitating a reality in all its details making you forget that the whole has reproduced an almost impossible truth. With Smulders’ everything appears larger than life, as a reality that is absolutely improbable. Yet, this reality has been photographed and so must truly have existed at some time or the other.

Furthermore, Smulders devotes herself to flowers while still life painters of the 17th century focussed their attention on a much wider range of objects like books, skulls, ink wells, smoking tapers, old documents, cheeses, shells and so on. Even worse, the percentage of flower still lifes at that time were considerably less than representations of food stuff. The produce from the land - all that is edible and freely given by God’s goodness - was a much more popular motif than a vase of flowers.

In the second photograph there are parallels to the drawn with the flower garland by Daniel Seghers. At first sight this painting shows flowers randomly scattered in small, loose sprigs on a black grey base. On closer inspection it turns out to be two garlands suspended on an ornamented stone relief of the image of the Vision of Saint Catharine of Sienna. The relief is in sharp contrast with the flowers, more or less serving the same purpose as the mirror base in Smulders’ other work. This is after all the background against which flowers can shine though this also could lead to some confusion. In Seghers’ work the relief provides an addition to its context. St. Catharine is captured in a vision at the moment she faces a choice between earthly riches - a crown and jewellery - or a crown of thorns, the symbol of Christ’s suffering. These options reverberate in the garlands for among the roses there are thistles and thorns. It is a painting with an evidently religious message. Smulders too, looks further than the realism of truthfully reflected flowers as can be seen in the poems as well as the expressive titles that refer to Baudelaire and Shakespeare, Rembrandt, Goya and Maria Callas. Further depth is added by quotations from the bible - Genesis, the Song of Solomon, Revelation - and Ovid's Metamorphoses. Like Daniel Seghers, Margriet Smulders addresses other layers in the viewer’s consciousness by means of contextual associations.

When considering the question of similarities and differences, the wonder of an illusory reality set on a flat plane is important, both for the 17th century painters and for Smulders. During the 17th century, viewers were astonished at how three-dimensional spaces could be conjured out of flat canvasses. Although a great deal had been painted by then, they were still amazed when an artist was able to convincingly depict an interior, a human face or a vaseful of flowers, transforming some paint on a piece of wood or canvas, into a remarkably lifelike image of the real world. That situation has changed: today’s art lover knows all about the possibilities of photography, and is aware that most artists no longer focus on creating a virtual world on a flat surface, but instead seek to portray their own unique take on reality. The miracle of still life art of the 17th century partly takes place on another plane. The painting materials that artists used were not always easy to come by, and they sometimes deliberately chose a limited palette. By appealing to the imagination of the viewer, a single dab of paint could in one moment be a damask tablecloth, and in the next a candle, a white wall or even the reflection of a window in a green glass. The painter’s skill in using the same palette over and over again to evoke the impression of totally different materials must have been a constant source of astonishment to people of the 17th century. Today we have the impression that the old masters painted in a very precise manner. In fact the effect was not achieved by obsessive attention to detail, for this could lead to a lifeless whole, while a generous daub of paint could add a wonderful shine to a gleaming object.

Smulders’ work draws you into that uncanny world, often using a chaos of colour and one suddenly realises that she must have put an immense amount of effort into preparing this wild water flora. The same applies to the work of the 17th century artists, notably the carefully staged tables on which objects were displayed with apparent nonchalance. Floral pieces require a combination of close and distant reading. A large vase bouquet needed to be carefully ar- ranged and would seemingly have meant waiting for particular flowers to come into season. Also many flower arrangements consist only of a front-facing design. One wonders how such an enormous bouquet could ever have fit into a single vase: the overfill seems impossible, nor can one see how the bouquet could be reduced to a plausible round whole. Smulders would not have been able to wait either, even though, unlike artists of the past, she could have flowers flown in from all over the world rather than having to wait for them to come into season. She must have experienced a moment when, like a photographer, she had to make a final decision and release the shutter. In her desire to capture such grand efflorescence in every piece, she joins those painters of the past who were constantly striving to create beyond the boundaries of their day.

In some 17th century paintings reality is already somewhat disjointed. A single flower sometimes lies beside the vase – a device the artist used to emphasise their transience and immortality.
A similar ploy is used in Smulders’ works. The flowers seem to be detached from everyday reality: their vulnerability has been transformed into permanence, into an immutable world that remains forever fragile. The viewer wonders at the flowers that bloom in her indefinite worlds, reflected on a glistening surface, probably water but perhaps a mirror or even both. It is often unclear where the border lies between the reality that is photographed and its reflection, which results in chaotic and exuberant opulence. She gives viewers the impression that they are looking into a world behind the mirror, as in Alice in Wonderland, an illusory world where flowers and plants, frogs and goldfish are larger than life and everything seems eternally disconnected from the natural cycle of growth, blossom and decay. The perfectionistic finish of the work is in stark contrast to the impermanence of the tangible reality of wilting flowers, ebbing water, a darting fish or a frog vanishing into a dark pool. The point regarding the portrayal of movement is, for Smulders as well as for the 17th century painter, a tense one. The artists at that time were thoroughly aware of this issue. The fact that a wanderer in a painting would never reach the village in the distance was not a problem, nor was the knife immobile halfway through slicing a loaf. However, these frozen movements presented all sorts of other complications. For this reason, laughing was more or less a taboo in portraits. Many painters did not know either how to deal with rippling water: they painted the reflections of entire ships on the waves during a strong breeze, while we know that a flawless reflection is only possible on a windless day and when water is as smooth as glass.

There are moments when this motion is so controlled, or so charged with emotion that the actual movement is no longer of any consequence. When Judith lifts the sword to kill Holofernes, we know what is going to happen, and when she plunges the sword into the victim’s neck and blood gushes out, as Caravaggio depicted in his painting, we accept that the blood seems to flow eternally. Another example more closely connected to still life art of the 17th century is Johannes Vermeer’s The Milkmaid: no one is bothered by the motionlessness of the trickling milk. It gives us the feeling that we are there, part of that particular moment in time.

The margins of what is acceptable when using ‘frozen movement’ are explored by Abraham Mignon who, in The Overturned Bouquet, paints a cat that overturns a vase full of flowers on its hunt for a mouse (photo 3). The cat hisses, water pours from the vase, the mouse escapes, and all is captured for eternity. One feels that Mignon’s painting should have been called A Cat Overturning a Vase.

Such static moments are also present in Smulders’ works, though in a way that relates more closely to Vermeer than to Mignon: there are ripples on the water and the occasional bubble that seems as if it might burst at any moment. As with the 17th century artists Smulders’ stilleggend leven is quietly present, disorderly yet executed with finesse and a barely concealed tension. No matter how long we continue to look, we will never discover what this wonderful world is about and although we are sure that there will be no movement at all, the tension seems close to discharging. Even though Smulders’ larger-than-life world sometimes expands to huge proportions, it remains an unfathomable mystery.

Wouter Kloek

Cited literature | Notes

Alan Chong, Wouter Kloek, Het Nederlandse stilleven 1550-1720, Amsterdam/Cleveland (Waanders, Zwolle)1999. The oldest names for still lifes are discussed in Alan Chang’s essay page 11-13; stillegent leven is a quote from Rembrandt’s inventory of 1656.

For the exhibition on Jan van Huysum, see Sam Segal, Mariël Ellens and Joris Dik’s, The Temptation of Flora, Delft (Waanders, Zwolle) 2006. Part of the exhibition that was dedicated to Margriet Smulders is reflected upon by Daniëlle Lokin and Robbert Roos in Get Drunk! Margriet Smulders, Nijmegen, 2006
In the exhibition Still Life Paintings from the Netherlands 1550-1720 the total number of works shown was seventy eight, fifteen of which were flower pieces. Food was the main subject of over thirty paintings.