One of the most famous ancient Greek paintings depicted grapes that, apparently, attracted birds. In time, a painting representing everyday objects began to be referred to as a ‘still life.’ They were often commissioned by people who wanted to feast their eyes on the objects they owned. The 17th century witnessed the growing popularity of paintings showing market stalls with a religious scene in the background. Their aim was to remind people that the meaning of life could not be reduced to amassing goods. In 20th-century painting, the still life did not lose its importance.

In modern art, the primary function of a still life has been to provide a pretext for the artist to display his craft. Indeed, it was an author of ‘still life’ paintings, Jean Siméon Chardin, who, in 1765, was hailed by the critic Denis Diderot as the master of colour and a painter with the most accomplished style among contemporary artists. However, whereas Chardin’s ambition was to convey moral lessons, a still life in the 20th century was supposed to demonstrate nothing more than the autonomy of art. Seeing such paintings, viewers did not ask about the meaning of the represented story. They did not have to read anything to understand the message. The artistic form of paintings was absorbed visually. Viewers either savoured it or were surprised that an apple, plate or napkin could be represented in a particular way. The artist could show the avant-garde quality of his work, which is why still life was de rigueur for many innovative movements in the visual arts.

One of the most influential movements of this type was Cubism whose name comes from the French word le cube. The school was initiated in 1906 by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque who worked in Paris. Old paintings usually represented the world as if the artist was frozen in place and could see with only one eye. However, life in the modern metropolis picked up steam. Mass production of goods increased their supply and exchange. The multitude of daily newspapers and photographs as well as the development of cinema resulted in an overload of information. People were less and less able to observe the world from a distance, as they found themselves in the midst of a spinning reality. The Cubists sensed this change perfectly. In their paintings, they tried to show an object from several perspectives simultaneously. They fragmented its shape and broke up the contours that separated objects from one another and from the background. All elements started to merge together.

The Paris Cubists were quickly followed by Czech artists. They adopted Cubism more readily and for longer than artists from other countries. They also gave it a new form that was more emotional and expressive. The Czech innovators were led by František Kupka who lived in Paris from 1895. Excellent results were also obtained by Antonín Procházka and Bohumil Kubišta.

The Cubists reduced their range of colours to shades of brown, white and gray. More colours would make it difficult for viewers to follow the way in which objects had been disjointed.

The colour came back as the driving idea of the still life in the works of such artists as the Polish painters from the Paris Committee. The name of the group was derived from their long stay in Paris in 1924. The Committee included Hanna Rudzka, Jan Cybis, Artur Nacht-Samborski and Józef Czapski. Their entire artistic effort was aimed at achieving innovative combinations of colour. Was it still possible? In the 19th century, the Impressionists wanted to capture the diversity of colours produced by changes in sunlight. Now, the point was no longer to emulate the natural play of colour and light. Shadows and spaces between objects disappeared. Still life paintings became colourful and flat surfaces. Full of tension and dramatic contrasts, they were not similar to wallpaper though. When we look at wallpaper our eyes glide over its regular patterns. In the paintings the viewer’s attention is drawn to the represented objects that, although familiar from everyday experience, look as if they have been given a new life by the artist. His or her material is not wood, porcelain or glass but patches of colour and their subtle relations, layers and configurations.

The significance of objects was radically different in the American painting movement known as pop art. It was born in a world flooded by mass produced goods. It is worth looking closer at the way in which this reality is addressed by such paintings. In 1962, Andy Warhol created his Campbell’s Soup Cans. The work consists of thirty-two paintings, measuring 51 × 41 cm, that depict soup cans in all available flavours. The aim was not to imitate the appearance of real-life objects. It is true that the work resembles a shopping shelf full of products, but the experience of watching it goes beyond the situation from a grocery store. Enlarged, the cans exert an inevitable pressure. Moreover, while supermarkets display a variety of goods, Warhol’s works lay bare the monotony of mass consumer culture. Its diversity is only an appearance. There is a choice, but we all choose from the same options. Warhol was right when he said that mass culture makes everyone ‘think the same.’

This fact was not yet known in the Central Europe of the 1960s. There, freedom of thought was jeopardized not by consumer culture, but by communist ideology. People suffered from a permanent shortage of goods, including the most basic products such as toilet paper that was pilfered from public toilets in a matter of minutes. Only the communists in power had unlimited access to a variety of products. Hence, the countries of Central and Eastern Europe did not provide fertile ground for pop art. The deluge of imported goods did not reach them until 1989. Even then, pauperized by communism and the political and economic transformation that followed, most people could not afford to buy much. Paradoxically, in spite of political freedom, access to certain goods was again restricted to a section of the society. Demand was satisfied mainly by cheap, second-hand imported products such as the ones depicted in Jarosław Modzelewski’s painting Luxury Western Clothing from 2004.

Suggested illustrations:
1. Bohumil Kubišta, Still Life with Skull, 1912, oil on canvas, 87 × 67 cm, National Gallery, Prague
2. Bohumil Kubišta, Still Life with a Glass (Red), 1935, oil on canvas, 54 × 73 cm, National Museum, Warsaw
3. Andy Warhol, Campbell’s Soup Cans, 1962, 51 × 41 cm, Museum of Modern Art, New York