Thursday, September 25, 2008
Balthasar van der Ast
Balthasar van der Ast. Still Life with Flowers, Shells, Insects, and Novelty Elephant Pipe, ca. 1635.
Such dread here! Normally, I would not draw attention to such a misanthropic painting, but van der Ast's still life paintings are, in their own way, wonderfully idiosyncratic and captivating. Van der Ast's still lifes are darker than most – they crawl with insects, symbols of death and putrefaction, while his flowers rot and wither. (Of course, many of his other paintings are sunnier in their outlook – but, to me, van der Ast's bleaker moments let us glimpse the darker half of every artist's soul.) It is worth noting, though, that even among his more disgusting memento mori, van der Ast has placed shells (he is a pioneer of the glorious art of shell painting), symbols not only of protection and rebirth (consider the hermit crab) but, more nobly, of Christian redemption. At last, though, moments of levity in the shadow of his fleurs du mal, purity among the skulking arachnids – two fresh flowers (though we know them to be at the verge of a withering death) and a jovial novelty elephant pipe, treated with the same tender care as van der Ast's beloved shells.