Still Lifes

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Critical Review

Six Still Lifes demonstrate a graphic, colourful excursion by Lichtenstein into the history and features of the historical still life genre itself. The artist rose to prominence owing to his distinctive and inventive cartoon aesthetic. He was infamous for utilising mass-produced images and printing strategies throughout his oeuvre.

Lichtenstein’s first creative exploration into the principles of still life painting commenced in the early 1970s. His Six Still Lifes of 1974 manifest a colourful excursion into the diverse history of the still life genre. The series offers the artist’s own vivid and modernised version of the venerated artistic tradition. The distinctly figurative Six Still Lifes later inspired Lichtenstein’s abstracted Seven Apple Woodcuts of 1983.

Historically, still lifes would provide the public with allegorical depictions of life versus death, changing cultural values, contrastive social classes and diverse belief systems. The means of still life painting have been exercised since ancient times, offering sublime scenes of prosperity and temporality. Despite its long-standing practice, its particular mode of representation has never ranked highest in the hierarchy of art. In fact, the genre was often dismissed for merely being a creative exercise in composition and texture.

Embracing the decorative qualities of still lifes, Lichtenstein renders his prints according to a pronounced commercial aesthetic. Each composition in this bright six-part sequence is predicated on the legacies of the great modern masters of the 20th century. As such, the Six Still Lifes join the conventions of old master portraits with fauvist colour palettes, abstracted layouts and the striking designs of Lichtenstein’s own fantasy. The series is essentially a collection of still life types.

Lichtenstein captures an assortment of historical and contemporary subject matter in these prints. He inserts objects from his own surroundings, as well artefacts he imagines assisted artists of the past in their creative endeavours. The sequence is composed of symbolic illustrations of social and cultural dynamics and traditional still life depictions posed as graphic adverts. Colourful seaside and landscape settings are coupled with Lichtenstein’s minimalist renditions of classical motifs. The Six Still Lifes swiftly incorporate these appropriated elements, stripped of original gravitas and obscured in their relation to each other.

Why is the Six Still Lifes series important?

The immediacy of Lichtenstein’s art is the result of his lengthy creative process, executed over several planning and printing stages. He achieves graphically slick finishes in his Six Still Lifes utilising a combination of screenprint and lithography. On the one hand, the lithographic process enables the artist to progress from detailed elements to radical simplification in one fell swoop. Concurrently, the commercial qualities of screen print allow him to add his own signature style to the artworks. Although Six Still Lifes are devoid of Lichtenstein’s characteristic Ben Day dots, the prints exhibit dense areas of stripes.

In the end, Lichtenstein depicts objects as they would typically appear in historical still lifes, but eliminates their underlying and unifying purpose. The usual ambience saturating still life imagery has been exchanged in this series for the artist’s clever revision of the genre. Six Still Lifes humorously expands the iconography of still life painting, while simultaneously honouring its enduring influence.

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