Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Allegory, Realism, and The Larder

One of the primary themes of our discussion on Friday was the overlap between the instructive purpose of drawings and art and the aesthetic choices made in representing them. We disagreed with Flores’ argument that the transition from “allegorical” to “scientific” approaches to art implied a “progress” culminating in hyper-realism, and took issue with the idea that “unrealistic” art is bad art. Whether or not artists increasingly valued live models for their work, it seems to me that this does not imply that to earlier artists and authors “the actual physical animal was of little or no importance”(Flores, 5)—on one hand, yes, the essence and nature and allegorical purpose of the animal is the true subject matter, and the physical appearance is simply another characteristic element. But if this is the case, why illustrate at all? I think Flores devalues the “allegorical” picture as a teaching text with as much (if not more) riding on accuracy as the “scientific” style.

            While I agree with previous posters that the goal is to evoke the idea of an animal by some representation of its constituent parts, there seems to be an issue with this “shorthand”. It works well with common animals—if it has four legs, a tail, and a snout, it can be any type of dog—but how does this translate to the uncommon animals like the elephant? Size, trunk, and tusks would only serve as shorthand for someone who has seen this animal—or perhaps it is a self-referential shorthand, and evokes all other drawings composed of trunk and tusks as the essence of “elephant”.
            I think a very important point from our discussion is that “realistic” or “scientific” does mean “non-allegorical”.  Flores’ dichotomy implies a difference of purpose that is simply not borne out in our observation—one style is morally didactic, the other wants to represent animals “as is” strictly for the purpose of zoological knowledge? Allegory does not disappear with “realism”.

I wanted to try my hand at interpreting a still life with the type of symbolism we saw in class.
Image from  National Gallery of Art website

This still life, entitled “The Larder” by 17th century artist Antonio Maria Vassallo, seems to fit nicely in the genre of allegorical still life we discussed in class. The National Gallery of Art seems to tiptoe around the fairly overt Christian overtones in this work (from the nga website):

This painting, a compendium of motifs Vassallo used in other pictures, can be seen, and was perhaps considered by the artist himself, as a summing up of his achievements as a still-life artist. Each object has the same uncompromising conviction of reality. They are massed in one enormous display, but Vassallo turned an acute eye on each individually.

Visual description may not, however, be Vassallo’s only motive. Scholars have been tempted to find a symbolic meaning, pointing to abundance or perhaps to God’s provision for men’s needs, both physical and spiritual. In contemporary Dutch still lifes, viewers were reminded of the transience of wealth and life itself by such clues as vessels that were tipped over, insects, or overripe fruit. We do not find these signals here, however.

Another suggestion sees this as an allegory of the Four Elements: air, water, fire, and earth are each represented. The bounty of food includes fruits of the earth and sea as well as birds trapped from the sky. And in the background is the flare of a cooking fire. In collectors’ cabinets, such allegorical themes often provided the organizational principle for the display of wonders like fossils and minerals. Existence of these collections, in fact, helped create a demand for still-life painting.

I think it is more likely that “the larder” is a reference to the populace awaiting the resurrection; many of the elements have connotations of resurrection and immortality. The fish are associated with baptism, through the connection of water, and multiple fish can be a signal of the faithful as a group. The peacock is a symbol of immortality, from a legend regarding the durability of their flesh, and is also perhaps a reference to resurrection in the continually renewed brightness of the tail feathers. The hare and the lobster we have seen before as references to resurrection. The cock can be a symbol of vigilance, as it is thought to be particularly alert to the dawn. In conjunction with St. Paul it can be renunciation, but on church weather vanes has the connotation of guarding against evil. I could find no overt references to the turnip or the duck, but the half lemon in the foreground has the connotation of fidelity (all looked up in A Handbook of Symbols in Christian Art by Gertrude Grace Sill).  Taken altogether, I think these elements combine fairly explicitly into an allegory of watchfulness and fidelity amongst the faithful looking forward to the resurrection. It is interesting that the NGA summary is concerned more with the "uncompromising conviction of reality" in the composition.


1 comment:

  1. I like your reading of The Larder very much! I think you are right to take the NGA's description to task. Although it acknowledges the possibility of allegory, it is much too secularist in its reading of what that allegory might be. It is ironic how much of what is clearly Christian in the early modern tradition has been written out in succeeding centuries--including the deep theological underpinning of much modern science. Yet again, "realism" and "science" do not necessarily exclude the conviction that looking at nature is a way of looking towards the sublime and, therefore, God.