“He who produces perfect landscapes is above another who only produces fruit, flower, fowl or seafood. He who paints living animals is more estimable than those who only represent dead things without movement, and as man is the most perfect work of God on the earth, it is also certain that he who becomes an imitation of God representing human figures is much more excellent than all the others…”
Those words written in the 18th century by a French theoretician named Andre Felibien practically damned the still life to the lowest rung of painting. His unquestioned pronouncement formed the hierarchy of genres with which to judge the value of an artwork.
Though the still life—defined simply as a depiction of an assembly of fruits, flowers, musical instruments or objects—has appeared since ancient times in Egyptian tombs, Greek vases and Roman floor mosaics, the appellation “still life” started only in the 16th century, derived from the Dutch word stilleven. The French word is nature morte or “dead nature,” ascribed to the preponderance of inanimate objects.
A form of still life was the so-called vanitas, referring to symbolic objects that suggest the mortality of man, such as guttering candles and skulls.
In Spain, the still life was called bodegon, derived from bodega, meaning pantry or tavern, and depicting kitchen items. Juan Sanches Cotan and Francisco de Zubaran were the masters of bodegon.
That historical background is the more essential in the context of much contemporary art, like a child screaming for attention: “Look at me!” As a relief from all its raucous visuality, pomposity, and emotional and psychic disturbances, we certainly can do with some much-needed stillness and serenity.
For that, we turn to the recent works of Ofelia Gelvezón-Téqui now on view at Altro Mondo Gallery. Let it be said at the outset that the art scene still thinks of Téqui as a printmaker, known for her “Apolocalypse,” better known as the “Pinball” series. She has, however, moved on to the still life, a theme that has possibly found its perfect time in her development as an artist.
A long-time resident of France, married to the Frenchman Marc Téqui, she has worked nonstop on her art, through all the demands of motherhood.
The Téqui couple have moved from Paris to a place called Limeuil, in the Dordogne region. Here they have settled for the past decade, finding the space and contentment of domesticity that find its correspondence with her still lifes. Téqui has been quoted thus: “At this stage of life, one learns to divest oneself of the superfluous, opting to discard rather than accumulate, learning to accept the transient with the permanent, and love them for their ephemeral beauty.”
Her words touch the very nerve of still-life painting: a recognition of the transience of life on earth.
The subjects are almost severe and ascetic: Chinese vessels atop a surface, recalling the tabletops of that master of the still life, Giorgio Morandi. Unlike Morandi’s bottles, however, which huddle together with almost stifling proximity, Téqui’s objects do not invade each other’s space.
She takes delight in investigating the variety of textures on the Oriental vessels. It is not improbable that Téqui’s works should aspire to the qualities inherent in the famous “Six Persimmons” by the 13th-century Chinese monk MuCh’i. (It has been described by the Chinese historian Arthur Waley as “passion… congealed into stupendous calm.”)
Despite the differences in medium, Téqui handles acrylic with as much reserve and restraint as Mu Chi’s spontaneous gesture in blue-black ink on paper.
A touch of welcome color is introduced in the “Famille Verte” plates, standing upright on a wooden holder, with the background turning a blushing pink or serene blue. Even the orchids that ornament the sequential arrangement preen with a subtle chromatic pleasure. Consistent throughout is the wooden antique table lending warmth to the bare immaculate space.
Most impressive, of course, is Téqui’s precise and punctilious placement of objects, lined straight or calculatedly distanced from each other. There’s not an arrangement that is even a hair’s breadth off-key. The works are like a sequence of notes, creating not so much melody as silence. The parallelism of Téqui’s still lifes with music is not inappropriate. The great T.S. Eliot hit the perfect note, as it were, when he wrote: