Dead or alive
Was it the analytical confrontation with the earthly and the hereafter? The critical examination of both, approbated by the authorities on high, by religion and church, and headed with the greatest of all admonitions: memento mori. Or did the great and lesser painters use the genre “Nature morte” to free themselves from classical motifs that equally sprang from the fount of faith? From religious and biblical motifs, but also from portraits of the high and mighty or depictions of Creation in the form of idealized landscapes? Or was it simply that they had had enough of painting mythical bloodbaths of yore, and those of the present, too? It’s probable that questions like these built the foundation for a new universe of European painting, and not only that of the Middle Ages. After all the seeking in distant religious or mythological climes, a universe that discovered something almost embarassingly shameful: the immediately natural. A flower. A glass. A board with a knife. A butterfly. A bowl of peaches. A snake. A book. A plant. All beautifully arranged, composed and set in the right light. As arrangement everything already picture-perfect, a picture placed before the picture which now only needed to be painted. Yet here too the painters were unable to avoid the deeper questions of meaning. A death’s-head skull as ingredient, a bird’s broken eye, desiccated beetles and stiff vipers turned into ambassadors of the earthly and the hereafter while erecting a cautionary memorial to reflect and linger addressed to those rushing through life.
What links the “Nature morte” from then with the “Nature morte” of now? Are the pictures by Braque and Morandi an expression of similar reflections? One could presume so, but the topic here is not the painted picture, the copperplate engraving, the drawing. The topic is “Nature morte” in photography. Though not during its beginnings, since the middle of the previous century at the latest it has laid claim to being a synonym for “Nature morte”. The German counterpart “Stilleben” and the English equivalent “still life” gave rise to the worldwide launch of the generic concept of a “still”. Just as with the painting colleagues of centuries past, nowadays there are genres of their own in photography. Photographers who shoot bloodbaths, photographers for reporting, landscape photographers, society photographers, photographers who have specialized in portraits, fashion photographers and others. Even photographers who photograph heaven and hell, except that heaven and hell look different these days.
What sets still photographers apart from their many colleagues? For them, the same applies that applies for painters of “Nature morte”: they work on two pictures. On the picture they arrange and on the picture of that image. And yet the result is so infinitely far apart, despite the common denominator. Today’s still photographer sets off into a design space involving extreme opposites. On the one hand the photographer refers to one of photography’s greatest promises: to depict reality as it is. On the other the photographer avails themself of the ever-greater manipulative potential photography offers. In other words, for the term that has entered into everday language usage as if it were the most natural thing in the world: imaging (whatever is not provided by the motif, camera, lighting and subject is supplied by imaging).
To grasp the pictures in “Nature morte” by Till Leeser it’s worth taking a much closer look at the objects one encounters in them. And almost as if it were a matter of course, another term from art history crops up: the “objet trouvé”. The piece of plastic, the stopper, the cord, the branch, the foil, the dead mouse, the scrap of paper: found!
Found yes, but also selected for the picture that is to become photography later on. And naturally the objects were sought out, brought together and composed according to a more or less precise, more or less deliberate plan. Here again it’s worth taking a look at classic artistic figures. The objects group themselves into symbols and patterns, into graphic abbreviations, into details that surrender their self-reliant existence in favor of ornament, structure and scriptural message. This occurrence nearly annuls the objects’ spatiality as well. Motif by motif, tableaus arise which speak a language all their own on several levels at once. A language that cites; a language whose meaning emerges from the inner relationship of the objects depicted; a language that is puzzling, alien, merely superficially familiar and decodable. And what’s more, a language that moves objects to part ways with the third dimension in order to articulate themselves in the second dimension. When one moves from picture to picture in Till Leeser’s “Nature morte” and allows their large measure of stand-aloneness to take effect, the pleasure of beholding unites with the observation: this “Nature morte” is impressively vigorous and alive.