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Still life

'Why there are so many tables of still life in modern paintings is because they are really laboratory tables on which aesthetic problems can be isolated’ – Margaret Preston, 1929

Still life, traditionally a minor genre in Australian art, became the arena of sophisticated artistic experiments in the 1920s and 30s. An arrangement of modest domestic objects or simple fruit and flowers, the modern still life was devoid of traditional moral or allegorical overtones and was instead a means to artistic ends.

Like Cézanne and Picasso before them, Sydney artists used still life to experiment with geometry, light, shape, line and texture, as well as the aesthetic relationships between objects. For modern artists, still life was not simply about the objects represented, which were often abstracted, but the inherent qualities of the medium in which they worked.

Questions and activities

  • Compare the still-life works in Sydney moderns. How do the colours vary? What objects are represented? Can you always tell what the objects are? Choose your favourite example from the exhibition and create your own still life, adopting the style of your chosen artist.
  • Discuss the Margaret Preston quote using particular examples from her art practice to support your point of view. How does this statement support modernist ideals?
  • Research some of the moral and allegorical references traditionally found in the still-life genre and compare these to the modernist approach. Trace the role of the still life through time, noting its ‘value’ in the traditional hierarchy of painting subjects.