Day 6 – Quince, Cabbage, Melon and Cucumber

Day 6 – Juan Sánchez Cotán, Quince, Cabbage, Melon and Cucumber, ca. 1602, San Diego Museum of Art, California.

Originally posted on 24 March 2020

If I were to give these musings a title each day, today’s would be ‘The Vengeance of the Vegetables, or, In Search of Celeriac’, and it is a response to the various suggestions I have received for ‘Best Cabbage in Art’, or for that matter, the strangest manifestations of cabbages, together with a request for some beautiful celeriac. As a result, today we have #PicturesOfTheDay’, to do the subject justice, and fto draw a line under it. So don’t worry if you have never liked cabbage, this will be the last purely vegetable based choice for the foreseeable future. Thoughts, suggestions, and questions on vegetable matters are always welcome, of course, as are requests for non-vegetable inspired art. 

The search for a celeriac has opened my mind to the way my mind works. My first thought was, ‘Ah yes, Cotán, that wonderful, if slightly obscure Spanish Still Life painter’ – and the painting I thought of was today’s main image, ‘Quince, Cabbage, Melon and Cucumber’. And yes, you’re right, there is no celeriac. It was, however, suggested by more than one person as a nomination for ‘Best Cabbage’, and it is certainly very high on my list. But why did I think it might have a celeriac? First of all, to anyone who knows Cotán’s work, this must be the first painting that comes to mind. Once seen, how could you not remember it? It is so weirdly beautiful, oddly sparse, and mesmerically modern for a work that was painted about 420 years ago. And I suspect that that is what makes it so memorable – the apparent simplicity of it all, combined with the unusual intellectual complexity. Just imagine going to your larder (does anyone still have a larder?), opening the cupboard door, and seeing a quince and a cabbage hanging there, swinging slightly – you would be hypnotised, wouldn’t you? Not only that, but the melon has had some slices cut out of it, some have been eaten, but one has been placed in the cupboard, projecting slightly, in conversation with a cucumber. The latter projects further out, casting a shadow below the shelf, and pushing into our space, as if it wants to be grabbed and eaten. Reading from left to right, and from top to bottom, the alternation of fruit-vegetable-fruit-vegetable is also mesmeric, and traces out a parabola, almost as if Cotán has tracked the fall of an object in time. And although the quince’s leaf is in front of the cabbage’s string, the forms also seem to emerge gradually from the cupboard.

What is it that makes a work iconic? I know, a much-overused word these days, but I mean it in terms of – well, you know what I mean. What connects the Mona Lisa, the Sunflowers, Whistler’s Mother and American Gothic? They all fit in that category of rather surprisingly famous paintings. It’s not always the beauty. I think it’s the initial impact of the image, which is bold and easy enough to understand at first glance, and so burns itself onto your retina. At second glance you already have the affirmation of recognition, and you congratulate yourself as you know you’ve seen it before, because the simplicity of its presentation is already in your memory. Already you start to notice the slightly quirky nature of the image, and by the third glance you are wondering ‘Why is she smiling? Or is she? Where is that vase? Why is she in profile, parallel to the wall, when we’re out her? What is the pitchfork for, and why are they standing guard outside their house?’ If you’ve seen those images you should know what I mean. Being parallel to the picture plane seems to have a lot to do with it. 

Why does Cotán have a quince and a cucumber hanging in his cupboard? And why are they socially isolated? The objects in his paintings rarely touch. There’s no real mystery here, as foodstuffs were suspended in cupboards to help prevent them from rotting, and that’s also why they are kept apart. A useful lesson to be learnt from this, I suspect, but please don’t try it with the string. It is this measured suspension in space, combined with the detailed, naturalistic depiction of the forms, that makes it almost unreal (which is why I would use the term ‘naturalistic’ rather than ‘realistic’ – the same applies to much of the work of, say, Jan van Eyck).

It’s a great painting, but no celeriac. A quick survey made me realise I had been thinking about the second painting, ‘Still Life with Game, Vegetables and Fruit’, also from 1602, which is in the Prado in Madrid.

Yes, I know, it’s not a celeriac, and it’s not even celery, but the possibility in my memory that it might be must have been why I thought about it. As Jacqueline Cockburn pointed out (and she really knows about Spanish art – look her up on http://www.artandcultureandalucia.com), it’s a cardoon, and is still used in Spanish cooking. What is a cardoon, you ask? Well, it’s an artichoke thistle, or ‘Cynara cardunculus’ (that should be in italics, but FB doesn’t do italics), a member of the family Asteraceae (it’s at times like this I’m glad I’m socially distancing with a plant ecologist). It’s another glorious painting, and just as magical as the last. 

It has been suggested that the sparseness of Cotán’s paintings relates to his life as a Carthusian monk: unlike some Spanish Still Life paintings, there is no excess. (I must tell you about the Carthusians some time – they would be doing very well right now, as their entire life consisted of social distancing within a community. But that’s another story).

It’s also a great painting, but still no celeriac. One of the things I realised was that I didn’t actually know what celeriac is. Now I do. It’s ‘Apium graveolens var. rapaceum’, or, in other words, a variety of celery in which the stem between the lowest leaves and roots is swollen and edible. Again, thanks to the Plant Ecologist. So I now know what it is, but I can’t find one in Old Master Painting. However, I have a have found a beautiful example by a New Master Painter (female). As Grizelda Pollock pointed out many years ago, ‘Old Mistress’ has connotations which are unhelpful. So follow this link:

Sally Jacobs is a rather wonderful botanical illustrator whose work has an intense, hyper-realistic and slightly surreal feel to it. Her site doesn’t want me to download the images without permission (fair enough) so I’m just going to send you her way, and if you really like the celeriac you can but a print of it (no, this is not product placement – I’ve never spoken to her!)

So much for celeriac. There remain two images of cabbages that I cannot let go.

Thanks are due to Judith Aldersey-Williams for mentioning the Miraculous Cabbages of Ascoli Piceno – despite at least six visits to this most beautiful and least visited of Italian towns, I had never heard of them. And thanks, also, to Natasha Broke who found the story for me. The fourth image is ‘The Miracle of the Garden’, painted by Augusto Mussini, who, after he got into a fight with another artist about over a third artist (female), ran away. He ended up seeking hospitality in a Capuchin Monastery, only to end up as a friar himself. It is part of a series of works from the early 20th Century depicting the life of San Serafino of Montegranaro, which is in the Church of the Capuchins in Ascoli Piceno. I’m sorry to say I’ve never been in. Or rather, I’m happy to say I’ve never been in, as it’s a good excuse to go back. This is how Natasha explained what is going on: 

‘The story goes that when San Serafino was working as a porter at a monastery he gave away all the vegetables growing in the garden to the poor and got into terrible trouble with the Abbot. The next day the garden was again full of vegetables, although in the picture we mostly see cabbages. They are not as beautifully rendered as those in your earlier post, but we hold them, San Serafino and Ascoli in great affection which transcends the talent or otherwise of the artist’.

There is a lot I like about this painting, and I’d love to see it in the flesh to see how it works. I’m especially intrigued by the way in which the wing of the angelic gardener in the bottom right projects over the frame and into our space – a baroque game played by the likes of Bernini. It appears to be a carved gilt-wood frame, and I can’t work out from this photograph how Mussini did it, but I love how it connects us to the world of the miracle.

And finally, possibly the maddest picture I’ve ever seen, posted by Ruth French: thank you again!

Apparently there are several versions of this painting, ‘The Legend of the Baker of Eeklo’, variously attributed to Cornelis van Dalem, or Jan van Wechelen, or both, or their circle. This image comes from the Christie’s website – they sold it in 2014 for £30,000 – and Ruth found the following explanation on Bonham’s:

‘According to legend, when townfolk of Eeklo in Flanders had trouble with their heads, they went to the village bakery. There they would be diagnosed by a doctor, whose assistant would lop off their heads and place cabbages on their necks to stem the bleeding. The heads would then be kneaded and rolled, rubbed with a curative cream, baked in the oven and ultimately replaced.’

I have absolutely nothing to say about that. Well, not true – it makes me think of St Eligius (but that’s another story). It also reminds me of the fantastic Irish close harmony trio The Nualas, and their song ‘Curly Kay,’ aka ‘Girl with a Cabbage for a Head’ – google ‘Nualas Curly Kay’ and you’ll find it! I’d post a link, but for some reason YouTube won’t load on my laptop.So – that’s it for the vegetables. I hope I leave you well nourished. Don’t lose you’re your heads, and enjoy the rest of the day. And remember: Cotán’s vegetables are socially distancing. Be more Cotán.

Published by drrichardstemp

I talk about art...

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