188 – Of Cabbages

Alison Watt, Frances, 2022. Courtesy the Artist and Parafin, currently on view at Tristan Hoare.

When I first started writing this blog, on 19 April 2020 (the week before lockdown – see Day 1 – The Rape of Europa), I nominated one of the fish in Titian’s painting as ‘the Best Fish in Art’, and went on to clarify that this was ‘a category of which I was previously unaware (although I do have two suggestions for the Best Cabbage)’. Inevitably, I went on to post about the two vegetables, with Day 3 – Cookmaid with Still Life of Vegetables and Fruit by Nathaniel Bacon, and Day 6 – Quince, Cabbage, Melon and Cucumber by Juan Sánchez Cotán. I still think that they are wonderful paintings, and well worth re-visiting. But, of course, there are plenty more cabbages in art – there’s a fine example by Joachim Beuckelaer in the National Gallery, for example – and more have been painted since I started the blog. There are always more pages being written in the book of art, and today I want to turn over a new leaf. A new cabbage leaf, of course, and one painted by Alison Watt, whose current exhibition, A Kind of Longing, will be the subject of my talk this Monday, 20 February at 6pm. The following week I will introduce the V&A’s superb exhibition, Donatello: Sculpting the Renaissance (which turns out to be very different from its embodiment in Florence last year), and then two talks inspired by exhibitions in the Netherlands, Vermeer’s Delft – in the eponymous city – and the Rijksmuseum’s Vermeer, in Amsterdam. Click on those links, or check out the dates in the diary.

This is Frances, painted by Alison Watt last year – 2022 – so arguably art’s most recent brassica. The materials are oil on canvas, and it measures 76 x 62 cm. Those are the facts – what remains is the looking, and, as so often, looking at the original is far more revealing than seeing reproductions. The subtleties of human sight are not matched by cameras – or, for that matter, communicated by screens, whether phone, tablet or laptop. So what you are seeing is only an approximation. In any case, so much is dependent on context (but more of that on Monday). What we see is a single cabbage leaf, lying on its back (if that means anything), or at least on its outer side. The inner, shallow, bowl-shape of the leaf is therefore uppermost (towards us), the stump of the stalk at the top of the painting, almost as if the leaf is hanging down. It casts a diffuse shadow to the right, dense in the upper two thirds, framed by a penumbra which encompasses different degrees of light and shade: the illumination of this leaf is broad and unfocussed. But what are the shadows cast on? Where is this leaf? And why is it there? We are not told. The shadows are cast on the background of the painting, effectively, which is a uniform pale pink. The colour might suggest that the background wasn’t really pink, but white, and that what we are seeing is the complementary contrast to the light, bright green which make the leaf look so fresh. Either that, or the background is painted pink so that the leaf will look greener. We don’t see digitally, but by comparison: next to something green everything else looks more ‘not-green’, and as red is opposite green on the colour wheel, it will look more red – or in this case pink, which is, simply put, pale red.

But there is a contradiction in what I have said. The leaf appears to be lying on a flat surface, and yet I have also suggested that it could be hanging. Are we looking down at the leaf, which is lying flat on a table, or straight across at it, floating mysteriously in front of the vertical canvas? If it is the latter, then how does it stay in place? The leaf has been presented to us as if it is a specimen, an example of something, inviting us to look and to learn, even if we don’t know why it is there, or why the artist has chosen to paint it. The flawless technique with which it is painted makes it appear real, and demands our attention. Its very presence in the middle of this large, apparently empty space, asks questions about its purpose, and the nature of its existence, which we can not answer. This combination of mastery and mystery is a feature of Watt’s art that intrigues me.

The leaf is painted in almost hypnotic detail. As so often, I am indebted to the Ecologist, who directed me towards a diagram of the Parts of a Leaf. At the top, the petiole (stalk) has been roughly broken off, with a mere stub remaining. The midrib stretches two-thirds of the way down the leaf, with veins, and then venules, radiating from it, supporting the lamina (leaf blade) with its ragged margin. The subtle variations of light and shade model the contours of this leaf as securely as if it were a topographic map, and where, down the right-hand flank, the leaf is folded over, the sheen of the reflective surface is indistinguishable from reality. Trust me, I spent a good ten minutes with my nose almost touching this painting yesterday, and I couldn’t see how the luminosity was achieved. However, it is not unique.

On the left is ‘our’ leaf, Frances. On the right is Boscawen (2019), which featured in Watt’s last exhibition, A Portrait Without Likeness, staged at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery in 2021 (see 141 – a Rose, By any other…). Boscawen has subsequently been acquired by the National Galleries of Scotland. The exhibition link will take you to the catalogue (should you wish to read more about Watt’s art), from which this quotation is taken:

I like to portray the same objects multiple times, from different perspectives, as a way of suggesting that how we view the still life fluctuates. Sometimes objects stand for what they are, sometimes they suggest something other. (Alison Watt, in conversation with curator Julie Lawson)

I have no doubt that Boscawen and Frances show the same leaf – the fold on the right flank confirms it. And yet I know that this is not possible. Or rather, I know that Watt can’t have painted both ‘in front of the motif’ – to use an Impressionist idiom. One was painted in 2019, the other, 2022. Cabbages do not last that long. But whether one was painted from life and the second from a photograph, or one was based on the other, I do not know. Boscawen is a darker green (or at least, it appears to be so, from the available photographs) and on a lighter background. It also appears to be slightly closer: it takes up a larger proportion of the surface of the painting. However, Boscawen is actually a smaller painting, measuring 67 x 53.5 cm (about 12% smaller). The earlier leaf is also tilted, with the midrib running along a diagonal from top right to bottom left. These differences remind us that we see things according to their context – whether position, time of day, weather, or lighting – or, for that matter, our mood, our state of mind, how much sleep we had last night, and so on. But the differences do not tell us whether the objects are standing ‘for what they are’, or suggesting ‘something other’. The names of the two paintings are the key. Also important is the subtitle of the 2021 exhibition: ‘a conversation with the art of Allan Ramsay’. If we put these clues together, we might want to look at Allan Ramsay’s Portrait of Frances Boscawen (c. 1747-48), which is in a private collection.

There is nothing else quite like it. A society hostess, wife of an admiral of the fleet who was also a Member of Parliament, sitting there in all her finery with a cabbage leaf on her lap. In the cabbage leaf are some berries, or maybe hazelnuts. Why does she have them? What is the symbolism of the cabbage? What did it mean to Frances Boscawen, or to Ramsay? Or, for that matter, to Bacon, or Cotán, or Beuckelaer? Rushing to what is still the standard dictionary of symbolism, Hall’s Dictionary of Subjects & Symbols in Art (Revised Edition), published in 1979, we are none the wiser: James Hall goes from Butterfly to Cadmus without so much as a whiff of Cabbage. In his essay in the catalogue for A Portrait Without Likeness, Tom Normand suggests, ‘It may be, given its position on Boscawen’s lap, that it alludes to her fecundity – and certainly she had five children’. Fruitfulness and fecundity are certainly themes in Bacon and Beuckelaer’s works, and the latter is also celebrating God’s bounty. Normand continues, ‘More prosaically, it may connote Boscawen’s fascination with gardening… In which case the cabbage leaf was simply a convenient salver carrying some fruit from the garden’. His essay, by the way, was entitled A Kind of Longing, giving the current exhibition its name. We are seeing the continuation of the same body of work, a working through of similar ideas.

If Boscawen was a gardener, then so was Nathaniel Bacon. As well as being that rare thing, an aristocratic artist (even fewer and further between than women, in this particular profession) he was also an avid horticulturalist. A cabbage, as you probably know, is a bud. If left to grow, the leaves will open out as the stem lengthens, and before long, your cabbage has bolted. In a third painting, Stocking (2020), also seen in A Portrait Without A Likeness, Watt painted the whole vegetable, placing it further down the canvas, and to the left. The remains of the petiole are to the lower left, allowing the possibility of growth up the canvas towards the top right corner. This could imply that the cabbage stands for ‘something other’ – fecundity, and growth. Or maybe it is just itself. What the cabbage meant to Cotán (Day 6) is not entirely clear, but the abstract values of form, texture and colour were undoubtedly important, as was its value as food. However I was intrigued to see, in a photograph of Watt’s studio that was reproduced in the above-mentioned catalogue, that she had a book lying on the floor open at a page illustrating Cotán’s painting, with a detail of the cabbage itself pinned to the top of the wall. I would have shown you a reproduction, but my scanner isn’t working.

Through all of this we must remember ‘Ceci n’est pas un chou‘ – to misquote Magritte. This is not a cabbage. Or, in the case of Frances, this is not a cabbage leaf. It is a painting. And ‘painting’ has always been one of the themes of Alison Watt’s work. How does painting function? What is it about the application of paint to canvas that allows us to assume that this is a leaf, and make us question where it is, and why it is there? If it is it lying on a flat surface that we are looking down on, or floating, magically, in front of a wall? Why are we so willing, in theatrical terms, to suspend our disbelief? All of the paintings in this exhibition, and all the objects they depict, have a source, we are told, and therefore a relevance to the artist. She presents them to us as ideas, as clues, as evidence from which we can construct a narrative. There is something almost forensic about them. But we are left free to make of them what we will. Seen in their present location, 6 Fitzroy Square, built in 1792 to a design by Robert Adam, who was a friend of Allan Ramsay – and in a space which can be mapped, almost directly, onto Alison Watt’s studio in Edinburgh’s Enlightenment New Town – they are given a context which can only serve to deepen their meaning. As Watt herself has said, ‘As only physical appearance is actually visible, the rest is conceptual’. This idea – this concept – is just one that I will explore further on Monday. Mastery, mystery and meaning: what more could you want?

Published by drrichardstemp

I talk about art...

3 thoughts on “188 – Of Cabbages

  1. “The time has come,” the Walrus said,
    “To talk of many things:
    Of shoes—and ships—and sealing-wax—
    Of cabbages—and kings—
    And why the sea is boiling hot—
    And whether pigs have wings.”

    From Lewis Carroll’s The Walrus and the Carpenter.

    Beyond understanding but nevertheless enticing us to seek for it.


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