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The purpose of this essay is to compare and contrast the work of two very different artists, Andy Warhol and Willem Claes Heda. Heda's origins are obscure. An inscription "aetate 84" on a 1678 Jan de Braij portrait of Heda (c. 1626/27-1697) gives us a useful indication. Heda spent his whole life in Haarlem, where he joined the Guild of St. Luke. Heda's son, was mentioned as his apprentice in a document dated 7 July 1642. He died in Haarlem, in 1680.
Andy Warhol's was born to Czechoslovakian immigrant parents in Forest City, Pennsylvania. He left high school to go to the Carnegie Institute of Technology in Pittsburgh. He passed his bachelor of fine arts degree in 1949, and went to New York. In New York, Warhol found design jobs in advertising. Before long he began specializing in illustrations of shoes. His work appeared in Glamour, Vogue, and Harper's Bazaar. Warhol had achieved great fame by now. Warhol became a film director and producer as well which brought him into contact with the world of media. In 1968, in anger at Warhol's indifference, a woman called Solanas shot and nearly killed Warhol. During Warhol's extended convalescence he began to work on a new mode of art. Considered his "Post-Pop" period, the images were primarily portraits of living superstars. Throughout the '70s and '80s, Warhol produced hundreds of portraits, mostly in silk screen. His images of Liza Minnelli, Jimmy Carter, Albert Einstein, Elizabeth Taylor, and Philip Johnson express a more subtle and expressionistic side of his work. On February 22, 1987, Warhol died of heart failure at his home in New York.
At first sight, there would seem to be nothing in common between a Twentieth Century American Pop Artist and a Seventeenth Century Dutch still-life painter. Perhaps there is none. The discernment of difference is the beginning of discourse. Yet this essay sets out to show not only that there are similarities, but that these similarities are important for art history and aesthetics. The similarities lie in what these artists' pictures represent and the interplay of genre and tradition that allows them to do so..
In his review of Charles Sterling's Still Life Painting Ernst Gombrich (1959) committed himself to the view that the psychological emotions communicated by the inanimate world of still life could never have done so without the pre-existence of the genre. He did this in an argument against Croce's view that aesthetic traditions are irrelevant to the intuitions of artists. Gombrich does not give a reference, but the following is relevant. "Intuition is the undifferentiated unity of the perception of the real and the simple image of the possible." (Croce , Aesthetics (1964 p 4.) Such intuition-expression cannot be subdivided. Under this view Warhol would be related through hunger and the depiction of food; Hedda in his still lifes and Warhol in his cans of Campbell's soup.
Yet the interplay of genre and tradition is more subtle than this. Even graffiti is a genre, referred to as one by Jamie James in his book on Pop Art (1999) and Warhol's portraits, self-portraits and disasters are too. One could add any view that subordinates genre to forces outside of the control of tradition would come under the same criticism. Many Postmodern and Structuralist theories follow Croce; to exist at all emotion must precede genre. For example, Lacan's view that structures of the unconscious manifest themselves symbolically in language. Like a groundswell, signifier and signified shift in an unstable relationship to each other.
In Norman Bryson's view, taken from Lacan (1978.), the 'gaze' commands an objectified world external to itself. It seeks so actively to perceive that it dissociates the visual from the social and linguistic and from meaning in general. For example, the Baroque still life tradition could only assert the reality of what it sought to represent by making it appear distant. The glance of informality has become petrified into a gaze. The genre can be subordinated to the social concern to mediate Dutch wealth to its consumers as a petrified informality. This sounds a convincing way forward, but genre is being characterised as a conceptual component. In which case the perceiver still associates society with what he sees. The gaze depends on the genre: not genre on the gaze. The Pop art of Warhol too could be seen as attempt to mediate American consumers' helplessness and materialism through a blankness of gaze that that gives rise to the photographic coldness of his acrylics. Yet at the same time his fastidiousness follows in the Realist line of Sloan and Wyeth. A specific genre of portraiture, landscape, still life and social comment is being presented.
The same inability to do without genre could also be found in Simon Schama's view of the baroque still life artists mediating Dutch anxiety over their prosperity. To give Calvinist consciences a sense of being graced through the beauty of their food might be a motive for some still life painters. Dutch anxiety over prosperity: the admonition to temperance, could have been a concern of the industrious Heda, but this view depends upon existence of a tradition to be expanded. Schama of course is a historian and he assumes the representational nature of the tradition to investigate Dutch history and trade. A historian of the USA could use Warhol in the same way, but it would not relate the two artists as it would first have to relate their times together. Art History and Art criticism have to proceed by defining what the work of art is. The soul of its definition lies in its power to represent. In considering the painting as representation, I have been influenced by the thinking of Paul Ziff. (1966)
I look at Heda's paintings first. In Figure 1 Still-life with Gilt Goblet, 1635 (Oil on wood, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam)
Firstly what do we see?
We see a table with two table cloths one dark, almost black and spread. The other is white and has been partially pulled away. On the table are three ornately painted and glazed china plates. On the plates are small pieces of oysters, other shellfish and bread. At the back is a large pewter goblet with its lid still open. Next to it, forming the apex of a pyramidal diagonal axis with the other objects on the table stands a gilt one with its lid shut. A salt-cellar and a cruet, possibly of vinegar stand next to a glass that takes up the centre of the composition. It contains a standard measure of wine. Another empty glass stands further over on the left. Oysters still in their shells are scattered on the table. A peeled lemon is on the right by another overturned glass goblet. In the centre left a gilt goblet with a shallow rim (called a tazza) has been cast on its side. Its position focuses on the embossed metalwork on its side, a pattern that is caught up in the chased guild cup on the table. A knife lies in the third plate wrapped in the white table-cloth. Its large handle seems poised to fall as do two of the plates.
Secondly, what is associated with what we see?
The colours are monochrome and yet sparkle with a gleam that carries from the dented, or reflecting pewter jug to the intricate detail of the lemon with its dangling spongy peel. These colours are also associations to what we see. Everyday objects made enchanting in subtle counter positions of light and shade. Precious glass and pewter rendered sombre in monochrome style. We are aware all the time that what we see has aspects passing into an invisible past. The memento mori of a skull. The hour-glass, the clock, a candle, lit or snuffed, could all convey time passing. Other painters show us a crown, a sceptre etc., or a purse, or coins. The iconologists tell us they could symbolise power and possessions. Just as a knife or a sword could sum up futile valour and aggression. Powerless flowers decay.
An occasional symbol too may be slipped in the still-life. Here the peeled lemon symbolizes Deceptive Appearance: beautiful to look at, a lemon yet tastes sour. Other associations could be symbolic too. For instance, the bowl conveys a sense of emptiness or the transience of human sensual desire. The wine close to the bread could have a Christian significance. Yet what this picture represents also is a meal just eaten. Heda's realism even puts a curl of paper containing pepper into the picture. Lemon was advised to be eaten with oyster to avoid the less healthy properties of the seafood.
Thirdly what is the Specific Visual Aspect?
If we follow Gombrich and not Sterling then we need to assert the primacy of a genre, but as Paul Ziff says genres happen. We call this tradition. It is here that we need to research, but only within a rage of alternative meanings stemming from the tradition of vanitas.
The critics present many alternatives for recognising and what the picture specifically represents. Panovsky referred to the Dutch Still Life tradition as 'disguised symbolism.' He traced it back to Dutch religious painting of the previous century. Gombrich preferred to think of it as arising out of Renaissance realism in Northern Europe. Sam Segal emphasised the themes of transience and temperance related again to earlier religious themes. De Jongh would prefer to leave symbolism to expectation. Vroom refers to the still life painters as "writers of the Annals of daily life".
Fourthly what set of visual attributes is associated with vanitas?
The banketje genre conveyed a banquet with Chinese porcelain, Damask cloths, Venetian glass and green, glass roemers, with their studded holder, a bekerschroef. Sometimes the pictures take on the theme of tabakje, a smoking still life, with their sufurated nettle stems as pipe cleaners or zwavelstockje that tell us life is smoke. In contrast there can be the pronkstilleve a style to show off with nautilus wedding goblets and rich foods.
Is there Christian imagery in the knife? Does it relate to Isaac? Yet how can we be sure? If we want to pursue the issue of what this painting represents then we need to remind ourselves of the questions we are asking..
We are challenged to decide what picture we want to see. Do we want to see a warning about impending mortality and the passing of time? Do we see a warning about the mixed sweetness and bitterness of life. It is here that Ziff can help us. There is a first set of visual attributes; the tipped glass, the crumpled cloth, the imperilled crockery and the half finished glass, these depict a specific visual aspect of vanitas. Yet another set of visual aspects, the peeled lemon, the subdued colours, the contrasting surfaces of crustaceans, broken bread and vinegar and pepper. Can we relate the two sets of attributes. I think not because the specific visual aspect is not in common. What about choosing another set of visual attributes?
Do we see a rich celebration not only of a feast or a light meal but a riotous homage to human joy that happened just a second ago? Despite the toppled glasses and bowls, the specific visual aspect is most likely to be that of a so-called sumptuous, or luxurious still-life. Heda was a master at rendering different reflections of light. Heda's early vanitas still lifes and breakfast pieces evolved from additive compositions to monumental, monochrome breakfast and banquet pieces, executed with delicate brushwork that captures a wide range of materials and textures. This picture is Hedda at his most typical.
However can we claim the picture is both a warning and a celebration? One set of attributes lies in its compositional shape. Heda did not start to paint diagonal compositions until the mid-1630s: the compositions start with flat plates, continue with pieces of ham and goblets, and culminate in a zenith-like fashion with a water jug or goblet. The objects are put on a table, but the table is placed against a plain background which is strangely transparent with dull light. Heda then went back either to his triangular or his pyramid-shaped compositions. After 1640 his compositions went on to become even larger, richer, and more decorative.
We can conclude then that there are enough attributes in common for this painting to be most likely a warning because of the doom impending zenith, the empty, discarded vessels and the china poised to fall. At the same time it is a celebration in the diagonal features and the elaborate vessels. Less likely is the bitter sweet combination of tastes as there is no specific visual aspect that enables us to distinguish a peeled lemon, or vinegar representing its taste, or in this case Christian imagery.
"I'd prefer to remain a mystery. I never like to give my background and, anyway, I make it all up different every time I'm asked." This comment from an interview sums up the curious independence and lack of theory in the work of Warhol.
During the time he gave this interview, Warhol had also been working on a series of pictures separate from his commercial advertisements and illustrations. It was this work that he considered his serious artistic endeavour. Though the paintings retained much of the style of popular advertising, their genre was just the opposite. The most famous of the paintings of this time are the thirty-two paintings of Campbell soup cans. With these paintings, and other work that reproduced Coca-Cola bottles, Superman comics, and other immediately recognizable popular images, was Warhol mirroring society's obsessions? Where the main concern of advertising was to slip into the unconscious and unrecognizably evoke a feeling of desire, was Warhol's work meant to make the viewer actually stop and look at the images that had become invisible in their familiarity? These ideas were being dealt with by artists such as Jasper Johns, Roy Lichtenstein, and Robert Rauschenberg -- and came to be known as Pop Art.
If we apply the same set of questions to Andy Warhol, 200 Campbell's Soup Can, 1962. Firstly what do we see?
We see a stark array of soup cans. Each is not identical to the next. The different soups are presented in a chance array of varieties with resultant variations in colour and names. The words "soup", "Campbell's" and the uniform red and white appearance with gold circles is beautifully presented. The twenty X ten matrix presents a formidable and striking wall of food.
Secondly, what can be associated with what we can see?
Associations include geometrically regular shapes (a cylinder with a partial silver lunette), flag-like stripes of red and white. This is a traditional barber's image, with overtones of commercial art, advertising and packaging. It also has very basic associations with food. These tins are full, providing about ten week's daily soup for two people. In this sense the genre of soup cans can be directly compared with the still life genre of seventeenth century Holland. It too shows edible food, but instead of the geometrised disarray of hasty and rich consumption, there is the hidden and monotonous regularity of Twentieth Century Consumerism.
Thirdly, what is the Specific Visual Aspect? The soupcan prints, paintings, acrylics and silk screens constitute a genre in themselves and are part of the Pop Art tradition. The specific visual aspect in this case is uniformity. In other examples, such as his Big Campbell's Soup Can ( 1962) (oil and acrylic), the can is empty. In others the label is torn. This in its own way relates to emptiness and the passage of time. Though time's passage can also be attributed the uniform images. There is also a causal difference. The still life painters were craftsmen priding themselves on producing unique if realistic works. The use of a pan-opticon, which is possible is to further the detailed depiction of unique reality.
Fourthly what set of visual attributes is associated with the Specific Visual Aspect?
The Pop artists sought to create works that seemed to be more like the anonymously produced images found in commercial advertisements. The depthless quality of such paintings seems calculated to suggest that there is no underlying theme behind the works, or more precisely, that the underlying theme is simply that there is no underlying theme. All that remains is a surface of highly-finished, visually arresting forms. Yet line, colour, and texture can effectively invoke the subtlest dimensions of artistic expression in a painting. Where subject-matter and symbolism are the riveters of meaning, line, colour, and texture are the finely calibrated instruments that effectively "finish" the meaning of any given work of art. Warhol's art is the art of the "finish". Warhol has achieved through line and shape a similar fastidiousness and array to the still life painters. Yet in conclusion, does the specific visual image allow us to determine whether or not Warhol also makes a statement about being self-aware in an age of indifference? I think the answer is yes, as Warhol's very use of uniform, but fine textures is making controlled uniformity out of chance uniformity. This could also sum up an aspect of the stillife painters such as Heda.
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