Curator's Choice: Henrietta Ward on Dutch still lifes and Mat Collishaw's Death Row meals

Henrietta Ward interviewed by Ben Miller | 20 June 2013

Curator's Choice: Henrietta Ward, of the National Gallery, talks about the relevance of Dutch still lifes to today's artists and audiences...

A photo of a young female curator in an art gallery full of paintings
“The display of historic still lifes in the exhibition I have just curated, Home, Land and Sea Art in the Netherlands 1600-1800, includes a great painting by Willem Kalf, one of the star Dutch artists in Manchester City Galleries’ collection.

Kalf depicts the most expensive, luxury objects of the time, famed for his sumptuous still lifes, known as pronkstillevens,

He spent much of his life in the prosperous city of Amsterdam, which was the centre of international trade in the 17th century.

Here, Kalf depicts some of the goods which were imported from around the world: citrus fruits from the Mediterranean, glass from Venice, and a rug, most likely from the Middle East.

These carpets were only found in the homes of the very wealthy, and were considered far too valuable to go on the floor.

While this painting may have darkened over time, the black background is typical of Kalf’s work.

He uses strong contrasts of light and dark to emphasise colours and textures, and enhance the effect of light glittering on precious objects.

These luxury goods are offered up to the viewer, yet are deceivingly unattainable and may allude to the vanity of earthly pleasures.  

Vanity and excess is a message that underlines many 17th century still lifes, and which is still explored by contemporary artists such as Mat Collishaw and his recent series of photographs, Last Meal on Death Row, Texas.

While curating this show of Dutch and Flemish paintings, I was searching for new ways of looking at and interpreting these Old Masters by including contemporary art.

As Collishaw takes direct inspiration from 17th century still lifes, his work offers many interesting comparisons.

Here, he has recreated meals as requested by inmates on death row, with each one named after the person who requested it.

This exhibition includes fives works from this series which are mixed together with all the still life paintings in a salon style hang.

Collishaw’s work explores the theme of mortality and the inevitability of death - another key theme of still life painting - but also the follies of luxury and momentary pleasures.

Kalf’s 17th century luxuries contrast with the criminals’ personal indulgencies: hamburgers, cinnamon rolls and ice cream. Yet there is also Jonathan Nobles’ last meal.

He turned deeply religious during his imprisonment and requested the bread and wine of the Holy Communion.

Despite the familiarity of these everyday foods, Collishaw’s works are compellingly beautiful.

He arranges and photographs his compositions with strong contrasts of light and dark that recall the work of Willem Kalf.

Yet underneath, these photographs are deeply morbid and disturbing. Placed side by side in this way, it helps us to see how relevant and influential the art of the past really is.”

  • Home, Land and Sea: Art in the Netherlands 1600-1800 is at Manchester Art Gallery until May 23 2014. This exhibition has been curated by the National Gallery Curatorial Trainee supported by the Art Fund.

More pictures:

An image of a painting of a roast dinner on a table
Mat Collishaw Last Meal on Death Row, Texas (Gary Miller) (2011)© Courtesy Mat Collishaw / private collection
An image of a cup full of wine on a darkened wooden table
Mat Collishaw, Last Meal on Death Row, Texas (Jonathan Nobles) (2011)© Courtesy Mat Collishaw / Blain|Southern
An image of a painting of fruit on a darkened table
Willem Kalf, Still Life: Fruit, Goblet and Salver (1660s)© Manchester City Galleries
A photo of a contemporary art gallery
Visit Henrietta Ward's blog for more.
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