Years ago I worked for the splendidly eccentric head of a Covent Garden ad agency who left me an equally splendid legacy. Whenever we were stuck on formulating a strategy, plotting a campaign or devising a unifying concept, his solution was simple. It consisted of dropping everything and going to visit a gallery, a museum or some other rich source of visual stimulus: refreshing the mind via the eye. “My darling, my darling!” he’d yell, clapping his hands for the attention of a large – and, saving my presence, imaginary – audience and blowing extravagant kisses. “We’re going to Sir John Soane’s Museum”, he’d announce, “come on, Minnie.” And I’d lope breathlessly after his Hitchcockian form as he breasted the crowds with imperiously single-minded speed like some grossly inflated Wodehousian aunt.
That ploy of his, it worked every time. The displacement, the displays of curios or pictures worked some kind of alchemy on the brain, turning blank space into feasible ideas or at the very least inducing delight sufficient to lift the spirits to a level where constructive optimism could kick in. I use it still. Nature, of course, works just as well as works of art.
But art and nature combined work wonders. As I discovered for myself years after I’d left the agency in Covent Garden when, faced with a work-related conundrum, I headed for the National Gallery. There by chance the curators were featuring an introduction to the work of Luis Melendez, a Spanish master of still life painting. Unfamiliar with his work, I wandered over and found myself instantly entranced, struck immediately by how easy it was to enter his world – despite the evident complexity of his compositions. The way Melendez lit his arrangements was extraordinarily skilled, drawing the viewer in, leading the eye effortlessly and encouraging it to linger luxuriantly. His gorgeous autumnal palette in fact consisted of a small range of the more readily-available therefore cheaper pigments (Melendez died before synthetic pigments became available); but you’d never know from the way Melendez used it. And all this skill deployed to depict humble, domestic objects and foodstuffs, fruit and vegetables making them worthy of our attention, our scrutiny and our deepest appreciation.
“Stop for a moment,” says Melendez, “look. No. Really look!” And you do, so authoritative and mesmerising is his style,
transforming common objects into art, showing us their true beauty. Hyper-real, yet surreal – as where the lemon poised on the corner of a humble wooden kitchen table in one of his canvases (on right) looks set to tumble. Looking at it, you’re tempted to reach out a hand. Smiling, you acknowlege the artist’s trick, and allow your eyes to follow the lines, feast on the variety of textures and glory in the colours of these beautiful compositions. Not only merely accessible, these works are friendly, companionable – they invite, there being nothing within them of the admonitions inherent in still life paintings of earlier periods. Melendez’ work is, thankfully, devoid of any blank-eyed grinning memento mori.
Now look at him – below, from the Musée du Louvre, is a self-portrait of the artist dating from 1746-7 when he would have been about 30 years old. That firmly confident posture, those intense dark eyes with their steady focus, the unflinching engagement with what is there combined with an equal reverence for beauty: it’s all present in this portrayal of a young man confident of his
powers, callow youth put aside and the future regarded with a worldly yet sanguine eye. This is far from the type of posturing characteristic of the high romantic era (pick a portrait, almost any portrait). This young man knows who and what he is – and his only concern is to fulfil that promise. Born in 1716 into a family of painters, painting must have seemed as natural to this talented artist as breathing. Once ensconced in the Academy in Madrid and showing great flair as a figure painter, Melendez seemed set fair for a lucrative career as a court artist and a life of comfort.
Sadly, he was de-routed due to a petty dispute between his father and the very Academy which Melendez père had helped to found. Thrown out of the Academy, barred from royal commissions, Melendez paid for this minor dispute all the rest of his life. Yet his rôle in the scenario was a mere walk-on part – literally, for he was the one who delivered the
offending letter penned by his father. Melendez took to wandering between Spain and Italy, scratching a living. One of the reasons he took up still life painting was that it didn’t require a commission and could be sold relatively easily. I suspect it might be entirely characteristic of him that he engaged in and with still life so completely, devoting to it all of his skills and vision. However humble the form, Melendez gave it not only his entire attention but imbued it with reverence.
He died destitute in 1780, his enormous talent unrecognised. But he left us about 100 paintings, mostly from the last 20 years of his life, 39 of which hang in Spain’s national museum of art – the Prado. They all display the same gleaming richness, gentle humility and devotion to all the beauty hiding in plain sight. And they are all technically assured to the highest degree. But I can’t help wondering what he might have achieved – this most misleadingly simple, quietly complex of 18th century masters – had some over-privileged patron bothered to give Melendez the chance he desired and deserved.
(All images courtesy of Commons Wikimedia)
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