Picture one of the richly laid banquet tables in a 17th-century Dutch still life, with its abundant cheeses, olives, oysters, and melons. Now imagine photographs that show what is left after the banquet is over. There is a half-empty coffee cup. A half-dozen glistening grapes on an otherwise empty plate. A single uneaten melon with its identification sticker from the supermarket still intact. Finally, imagine photographs that, in place of the vibrant flower arrangements popular with Dutch painters 300 years ago, capture drooping sunflowers and weedlike strawberry plants instead.
Seventeenth-century Dutch abundance gets a shot of 20th-century angst in a new exhibit at the Cleveland Museum of Art called Janna Dekker and Jan van Leeuwen Photographs: Contemporary Dutch Still Lifes. This fine 18-photograph exhibit has been ingeniously designed to complement the current Still-Life Paintings From the Netherlands, 1550-1720, on display in neighboring galleries. It's not that there are any obvious signs of strife here -- the subject matter is limited to domestic interiors and arrangements of fruits, flowers, and vegetables -- but there is nevertheless a pervasive sense of unease. Even as this work celebrates the Dutch still-life tradition, it also seems to be telling us that the magnificent banquets that tradition celebrated are over. Frida Kahlo once said that fruits and flowers "speak to us in a provocative language and teach us things that are hidden"; these two photographers take common objects such as sunflowers, melons, and strawberry plants and make them speak not of abundance and economic prosperity, but rather of the brevity of luxury.
The phrase "art is long, life is short" could have been the motto for 17th-century Dutch artists. That message was sometimes conveyed through the use of stock symbols like skulls and recently snuffed-out candles. When, in some oil paintings of the period, a cheese looked so ripe that it appeared rotten, the point was that people liked it that way; the point was not that ripeness had a limit. The distinguishing feature of the photographs is that they explore transience by using the very objects that were used in the paintings to exemplify luxury. That is, they have the wheel of cheese (or the bunch of grapes or the strawberry plant) represent what the skulls sometimes did in the 17th-century still lifes.
Dekker's photograph of the aforementioned cup of coffee pretty well sums up her quiet, unostentatious approach. The 42-year-old photographer has said that she is interested in capturing "the poetry and silence of daily life moments," and certainly, nothing is more everyday than a cup of coffee.
There is more than initially meets the eye, though. The image has a history. This coffee is cold (a stain that runs around the inner perimeter of the half-emptied cup tells us that it's probably been here for hours). The impression one gets is not of a meal hastily interrupted (the partially sliced hams and cheeses in the still-life paintings often give off this effect), but of the last vestige of a meal that has been over for a long time. This photograph is like a punctuation mark with nothing preceding it: You are called on to supply the missing sentence.
And so it goes for Dekker's eight other photographs. You are called on by the photographer to be a co-creator. A few scattered grapes on a plate photographed from slightly above are freighted with significance, but one must carefully search the four corners of the shot to get clues as to why.
Dekker's gift is for giving just enough to pique interest and to encourage further reflection. In the shot of the grapes, for example, one is drawn to the way a prominent crack in the plate at the left-hand side of the frame (was it dropped and subsequently glued together?) is echoed in the threadlike grape stem at the far right. Dekker also is skilled at finding abstract patterns in folds of cloth and in repeating textures (in one particularly effective shot, she draws a connection between the rough surface of a melon and the rusty floor on which it has been placed). These shots are full of formal control and concentrated observation.
The danger in work like this is that it may leave too much to the viewer's discretion. As renditions of surfaces, these photographs are exemplary, but whether they can withstand scrutiny as meditations on the Dutch still-life tradition will be a question viewers will have to answer on their own. In any case, viewers will have a better understanding of these modern works if they have already seen the Dutch still-life paintings.
One of the hallmarks of the paintings is their creators' interest in the exact appearance of things. With infinite skill (and much patience), the 17th-century artists translated subtle gradations of color and shadow in real space to a two-dimensional canvas. The interesting thing is that photography, which can record reality with such fidelity, does not hold our attention in the same way as painting. We can't take the precision for granted in the paintings -- it took a trained eye and a ready hand to produce it -- but, often, we can, and do, take verisimilitude for granted in photography. What holds our interest in Dekker's work is not the way she has gotten textures right. It's that she has succeeded in discovering a point of view in quiet situations that do not merit a raised eyebrow in daily life. The festive Dutch banquets of yore are gone, but concentrated observation still exists, and it is observational ability that these photographs celebrate.
The same sense of closure can be found in Jan van Leeuwen's atmospheric and carefully composed photographs. As a youngster, van Leeuwen (who was born in 1932) endured the Nazi occupation of Amsterdam, and the majority of his work has been described as "an emotionally raw kind of self-portraiture." His nine photos at the museum are serene, but there are hints of turbulence just beneath the well-ordered surface.
Van Leeuwen specializes in employing 19th-century methods, but there is nothing outdated about these works. He uses a 100-year-old wooden camera, and his prints are either blue-toned cyanotypes (precursors of today's blueprint) or brown-toned Van Dyke Kallitypes. Most importantly, these printing techniques are not an affectation. Van Leeuwen is not an unthinking devotee of antiquarian techniques. He uses these techniques not because they are old, but because they are the techniques best suited to helping say what he wants to say. The grainy surfaces and the slight loss of sharpness help to impart an elegiac tone in this work. A drooping sunflower in a 1995 brown-toned print is almost like a faint remembrance of a long-extinct plant form. The same sunflower in cyanotype blue has a fuzzy underwater quality, as though it's a specimen of some rare deep-sea plant.
Shots like "Strawberry Just Before Taken Inside to Hibernate" demonstrate a gift for a gritty kind of lyricism. The strawberry plant is a tangle of dead leaves combined with smooth ones that reflect light. The leaves, which tip over the basket, suggest a sense of abundance, but it's not exactly a happy thought that some leaves die before plants are taken in to hibernate. It's also a fine metaphor for what photographers do. Some negatives die before the printing phase. Certainly, not every photograph taken will survive the artistic process to become a museum-worthy print.
And so, the characteristic Dutch theme of transience comes full circle in the 20th century with the recognition that even art is not permanent. Though this exhibit includes only 18 photographs, the works of Dekker and van Leeuwen demonstrate that contemporary art that is conscious of its roots can use that groundedness to explore contemporary themes and problems. Drawing on the past can sometimes be quite progressive, and there is nothing musty or dated about this exhibit of still-life photographs.