CT – Still Life Research

The use of signs and symbols have been prevalent in global cultures for millennia, an interacting devise of communication stemming from the human condition and its consciousness. The two part process of interpreting the world around us and then describing that interpretation with symbols, either through obvious or subtle & coded messages, touches on so many areas of our lives today as it has through history. It’s therefore no surprise Semiotics recurs through many academic disciplines; linguistics, dilectics, religion, art history, philosophy, branding, cryptography, musicology….

So diverse is Semiotics, that for some there is no other way of communicating, such as Robert Schumann’s musical sphinx to Clara in his piano concerto 1845, following being committed into an asylum and denied access to his wife or family. What interests me even more is the human desire is so strong to solve codes and understand symbols, the entire process is self perpetuating. An endless cycle. The need for us to form patterns and make sense of them, moving from high to low states of entropy, doubtless will ensure Semiotics endure, never to leaves us (The Posthuman Condition, Pepperell, R., 1995).

Pictorial Semiotics I found a really interesting facet of material related to classical still life paintings. This was the source of inspiration for the first of three submissions in the second term. With a heavy emphasis on the technical elements of studio flash photography, the use of light is a fundamental feature of both classical art and the ultimate submission. To grow and develop my photography I was keen this term to say something through the submissions within the context of the brief.

Semiotics in Still Life
Early Northern European classical art focused on religious ideology and the Vigrin, with the lily symbolizing purity, but rapidly incorporated moralizing symbols such as vanity and desire for material things (Met Museum – Northern Europe).

Still Life with Lobster and Fruit, Abraham van Beyeren:

Vanitas 2

Digital Photo File Name: DP143207.tif Online Publications Edited By Steven Paneccasio for TOAH 12-18-2015

More vivid examples of opulence in still life I found in examples like Adriaen van Utrecht, Pronkstilleven:

Harmen Steenwyck ‘Still Life: An Allegory of the Vanities of Human Life:


The vanities in human life are expressed through Semiotics, the passing of life – birth and fertility (shell), death (chronometer, skull and extinguished lamp), luxury (musical instruments, books, silk). ’Vanitas’ symbolic art work of the 17th century in Northern Europe is littered with depictions of skulls and quills (Jacques de Gheyn II’s Vanitas Still Life 1603, Pieter Claesz’s Still Life with a Skull and a Writing Quill, 1628):

Vanitas a1

Working Title/Artist: Cup Department: Islamic Art Culture/Period/Location: HB/TOA Date Code: Working Date: 9th-10th century Scanned for Collections

Vanitas 1

Working Title/Artist: Still Life with a Skull and a Writing Quill Department: European Paintings Culture/Period/Location: HB/TOA Date Code: Working Date: 1628 photography by mma 1979, transparency #3c scanned and retouched by film and media (jn) 8_7_03

Similarly, the briefness of life is also depicted in Vanitas with Violin and Glass Ball Pieter Claesz:


Claesz incorporated a self portrait in the glass bowl, making this particular still life stand out. His work also captured the four elements, earth (skull), fire (candle holder), water (glass) and air (feather). The fragility and speed of life’s passing, with warnings against materialism and over indulgence, are ever present in many of the still life subjects in Northern Europe, echoed in the art of Souther Europe (Met Museum – Southern Europe).

Through my research I was really struck by ‘Allegory of Charles I of England and Henrietta of France’, Carstian Luyckx:

Allegory of Charles I of England and Henriette of France in a Va

The same themes of life and death are present, given Charles was beheaded at 44 years old. What I really liked was the very obvious statement of what hunger for power and glory can do to an individual, in this case enveloping Charles’s mortality. This was the first example I had seen in which power and politics on a global scale was memorialised. I did not find too many further examples of this in my research, but felt something I wanted to explore in the studio. All the examples I looked at referred to the issues relevant at the time, so while they may appear dated now, there was especial meaning attached to the subject and semiotics of these still life pieces.

The decision was made, I would portray a modern depiction of current power struggles in the form of still life within the studio.

Criteria: 1,2



One thought on “CT – Still Life Research

  1. Pingback: CT – Still Life Test Shots | Camsel Adams

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