Juan Fernandez el Labrador, Still Life With Four Bunches of Grapes (1630; held at the Prado)
Fernandez el Labrador, Still Life With Grapes, Apples, Nuts & Terracotta Pitcher (c. 1633; Prado)
Last week the Prado mounted the first major exhibition of the relatively little-known seventeenth-century still life painter, Juan Fernandez el Labrador (click here for more on the show, and here for more on the painter).
We have documentation for only seven years of Fernandez's activities; we can only attribute 13 paintings to him with certainty.
The Prado hails him as a (more or less) modern Zeuxis, the Greek painter of the 5th century BCE who--according to Pliny--painted grapes on a wall with such fidelity that birds were deceived and flew down to eat them (click here for the famous story and its wide impact on art theory and theories of spatial reasoning & cognition).
Mimetic grace continues to astound and delight us, no matter our professions of modernity and sophistication. I feel the stirring of hunger, a trace of imagined taste on my tongue, as I contemplate the Fernandez paintings. (I love that the most common word in Spanish for "still life" is "bodegon," things from the pantry and wine-cellar, a word whose sibling "bodega" is intimately familiar even to Anglophones). My hands start to lift of their own accord, to pull off a grape, to feel the cool, smooth surface of the fruit contrasting with the roughness of the leaves.
For all the allure of conceptual art, performance art, the art of ideas, the endless parade of 'isms and movements and manifestos, I cannot deny the deeper, more primal attraction of paintings of fruit and other foodstuffs.
Such older tropes never go away. Sometimes they resurface in shows like this one, at the major museums of the world. The rest of the time they pour out daily in advertisements and in the lush and lavish photographs in all the food magazines, the cookbooks, on the cookery shows...
Eyes to stomach via the tongue...a formula that captures us (without struggle!) even while so much else that proclaims itself as art fades, finding no purchase...
Oh, and now it is time for Sunday brunch...