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Rachel Nicholson, Still Life in Pink and Grey, 1992
E.Q. Nicholson, Jugs and Quinces, 1946 (collage)
Harriet Macaree, Angel Wings by Window, 1977
Sam Taylor-Johnson, Still Life, 2001 (35mm film, colour, silent, duration 3 minutes 44 seconds)
LIFE IS STILL LIFE
Reviewed by ANDRE BEAUMONT
I have never had the view that still life was a relegated or inferior art form, rather one extremely hard to do very well. When I see a religious or allegorical work by Rubens or Van Dyck I wonder at the feat of imagination, even though real models may have be used, but when I see a Flemish still life by one of their contemporaries, I learn a great deal about the way of life in the period and place that is largely absent in the great pieces of imagination.
However, I am grateful to the Life is Still Life exhibition in The Women's Art Collection at Murray Edwards College, Cambridge, formerly New Hall College, for putting the point that women may have been relegated to this art form.
I have learnt a great deal about still life, and acquired a new way of looking at it, at this show where the artists are solely women.
Women have not been relegated to the art form during the time that most of these works have been produced but the genre is stronger for having so much female input. The genre is thus pushed higher up the pecking order, if you conceive things in hierarchy, which I frequently eschew.
All the works here have been conceived in the domestic context. All the show's artists are mentioned here, though the light prevents proper photography of some works.
We have lived through the millennia of personal hierarchies - of the rule of royalty, aristocracy and religion. We have lived through more than a century and a half of the collective and the corporate. All remain, some a bit ossified. Institutions are ossified power.
We must now try, in terms of human development, to live through the age of the individual, however short or difficult to achieve it may be.
The corporate is the vanguard trying to resist this. The remains of the collective, still fighting the personal hierarchies of old, doffs its cap to it in the wake. Maybe it is has a role at the wake, if it comes.
(The pandemic has disabused us of the shibboleths that the state collective can provide - especially intellectually coherent healthcare, and war in Europe of those that corporations can provide - many will be left in poverty and hunger; in Britain we have had our first prime minister of the age of the individual and Brexit comes in a close fourth in influences on this nation in the 20twenties but the dice is still rolling. *
To playfully steal a little, the collector is not the collective and there has been a terrible accident or two.)
In this domestic context, the corporate is absent. Even the bleach bottle has the bokeh of obscurity. There are no brands in these still lives, only life. There is no commercial sponsorship.
So still life is in the avant garde of a new society, creating refuge and life away from drear edges.
Life is in still life.
Life is still life.
Shani Rhys James, The Collector, 1994
Arlie Panting, Haddock, 1955
Katy Stubbs, There Has Been a Terrible Accident, 2022 (glazed stoneware)
Maeve Gilmore, Still Life, Pears, c.1949-50
Maeve Gilmore, Still Life, Pears, c.1949-50
Hilary Peels, Breakfast Nook, 2021
Margaret Thomas, Nativity Scene, 1960
Maisie Cousins, Tiger Morse, 2017 (exhibition board)
Joy Labinjo, Perfect by Nature for Gift and Centrepiece, 2022
Sekai Machache, Hint of Blue 2, 2021 (digital print on aluminium)
Phyllis Floyd, Pitcher and Bags, 2010
Anna Liber Lewis, Misha Bleach, 2012
* At first it may seem unusual to make political commentary in a review dedicated to women's art (which is also why it is in the In The Ether section and not the Art Shows section) but it is still apposite.
Contemporaneously with the publication of this review the Labour party publishes proposals for constitutional reform. Some of its proposals are to give more powers to local authorities. However, these are institutions so run down by centralised power that they are near defunct and frequently distrusted. It is very hard to revive the weakest plants in your garden to compete with the strong ones. The civil service will find ways to keep existing local authorities down. New institutions are needed or centralisation has to be accepted as the de facto reality.
In short order the Conservative party has had three female prime ministers, the first prime minister of the age of individuals and a curent prime minister who can draw strongly from a broad cultural background.
The Labour party is a reactionary party with an ideology from the 19th century. The kind of internal discussion which will lead to the abolition of centralised housebuilding targets, which Labour opposes, is not possibly within Labour. It is fissured and suppresses dissent.
For as long as knowing New Hall - in other words since being a student - I have been in favour of abolishing capital taxation on individuals as a way of reducing the number of people who are poor in a society. It is the only way that individuals can be empowered to compete on equal terms in the enterprise space with corporate power and corporate advantages.
It is all the more important now we have entered the age of the individual. In the G7 we have recently had three leaders who have been individuals first and foremost, not legacy party men - Emmanuel Macron, Donald Trump and Boris Johnson.
Entrepreneurship in Britain is now financed almost exclusively by the City, City-related institutions like Cambridge venture capitalists, foreign wealth funds and government. Whatever the government does on constitutional reform it scarcely dents this new reality which I am willing to accept, except on the taxation front where I think change is possible, on quite different capital reserving policies for banks so that they will lend to individuals, and on different competition policy.
Business likes competition because it knows where it stands. If it is to be reliant on the handouts and whims of government - as agriculture is destined to be - it will not know where it stands and will reduce investment. As a whole it will relish many more individuals being successful.
I have known many women with independent power or influence - because they had personal capital - but few that had it solely because of their income. Independent suits women. I would rather there were more and fewer poor people. Liz Truss, one of the women prime ministers, got this right: there has been too much emphasis on redistribution.