Wednesday 15 April 2020

Write...Edit...Publish...+ IWSG April 2020 : Antique Vase

It's been a particularly godawful time between the last posting and this, so it's a relief to get online and get posting for Write...Edit...Publish..., phew! I hope all of you are hunkered down and socially distant, keeping safe and well. These past few weeks have made yet another advantage of WEP further clear to me - it's pandemic proof! 

I'm still kind of hungover from the previous posting, where there was an outpouring of fanwork based on  Vincent van Gogh's Cafe Terrace at Night.  So I let my mind wander in the same directions for this challenge too, but as usual my wordcount control is pathetic. So the 1000 wordstone is embedded within the text, read till there or go beyond as you wish, totally up to you. I would have split it into two, but what with the ongoing A-Z, I know I'd never get around to posting the second part. So, here goes -

The Grasshopper. The Pigeon. The Bulldog.

The usefulness of the pot lies in its emptiness. ~ Lao Tzu, Ancient Chinese philosopher.

The mind is a grasshopper. It leaps from one blade of thought to the next, and you don’t know the direction it will take. It can flutter along like a dragonfly, clear wings sparking off little rainbows over a silky expanse, all pretty predictable then wham! there’s some boulder or other, it changes course and voilà – grasshopper! Totally unpredictable. It also thinks disclaimers should be upfront in normal font, which is why you’re reading it now. Because this here is on topic, sure, but the route is quite grasshopperish.

So. The first touchdown is somewhere near 20,000 years ago. In Jiangxi, in China, where the oldest pots in the world have been found. The Chinese cuisine from the earliest times was based on steaming and boiling. They never made breads which can be baked directly over fire – makes sense that the oldest pot’s Chinese.

Pottery  is the most ancient and ubiquitous markers of humans. Entire cultures are characterised by the kind of pottery they produced (eg, Yangshao, Painted Grey Ware etc). China has historically been the most advanced and the world has trailed behind by centuries. She had already invented the decorative porcelain vase in the first millennium BCE. Europe caught up only in the 19th century.

Pots were shaped by hand and used mostly for storage, long before settled agriculture began. By 10,000 BCE agriculture had happened, and by 4,000-3,500 BCE the potter’s wheel revolutionised things. In 3000 BCE, the first vases were created in Mesopotamia, large storage containers for grains. Decorative vases were first used by the Ancient Egyptians - didn’t I tell you that all awesomeness starts in Africa? By the time the first millennium BCE had rolled around, the Ancient Greeks had established a whole range of vase designs, superbly decorative yet functional, each one suited for a different purpose. They even gave vases as trophies in the Olympics. The champion got an amphora of sacred olive oil.

As pottery evolved, so did ornamentation. From simple rope-pressed designs to sophisticated glazing, embossing and relief. Vases became canvases – they were used to tell stories, serve as a warning, comment on politics, point out a moral, celebrate a victory. And the flowers they held symbolised a gamut of emotions from friendship to love to an apology.


Painting still-lifes is the beginning of everything. ~ Vincent van Gogh.

As you can see, the mind is also a homing pigeon. However far it flies, it returns to roost on its favourite perches. One of them is, obviously, Africa. Like I said, everything begins there – humankind, good stories, coffee, art, right there in the grandmotherland of the world.

The first botanicals were likely depicted by the San tribes in prehistoric rock art in southern Africa, but dating them is notoriously fuzzy. Travel north to ancient Egypt and all fuzziness vanishes, the oldest flower paintings of the blue lotus is right there in the Valley of the Kings. And the oldest  still-life is also there in the tomb of Menna.

However, still-life didn’t  emerge firmly as a separate genre till the European Renaissance. Even though depiction of flowers was common in Eastern art and architecture in various forms, and here the grasshopper leaps into Islamic arabesques for a second, which is a totally different spin on flower depictions, and also segues into Japanese and Chinese art such as their bird-and-flower paintings. But still-life as in painting ordinary inanimate stuff as standalone subjects seems to be emphasised more in Western art.

The European Renaissance upended every facet of life, not just in Europe but worldwide. However, only two relatively tiny, apparently unrelated events are important for the pigeon's purpose. One, the sunflower which had been cultivated by Native Americans for millennia, was introduced into Europe by Spanish explorers around 1500.  Two, Jacopo de’ Barbari of Venice moved to the Dutch court around the same time. A dead partridge, gauntlets, arrow in wall – that’s the first signed and dated European still-life  Jacopo painted in 1504.

The Renaissance had seeded a subtle expansion in demand to include ordinary, everyday secular subjects in artworks, to hang in the homes of the increasingly wealthy middle-classes as well as grand, religious or classical paintings hung in churches and public buildings. Remember that this period also opened up the world and a huge amount of interest was generated in the flora and fauna of newly discovered lands. The first natural history museums, the first botanical gardens, the first zoos got established. Whole new sciences such as botany came to be, plant taxonomy systems were framed. Artists capitalised on this interest  to paint a wide range of subjects.

The period was also characterised by the landmark development of linear perspective in art and a shift towards realism, an evolving awareness of light and shadow. Vanitas, a genre of funerary artworks depicting the transience of earthly life indirectly through symbolism in everyday stuff, got adapted into still-life.   And that obviously included flowers, among other things. Nothing encapsulates transience like a flower.

And what happened to the sunflower? By the end of the 16th century, it had become mega-popular in Europe as an ornamental. It swept right across the continent and for two centuries it was grown for its showy blooms. Then it reached Russia and its potential as a source of food was rediscovered, because one season, the Russian church left off sunflower oil/seeds from the list of restricted foods for Lent. This spiked a boom in demand and spearheaded research. Sunflowers gradually became a commercial oil-crop grown worldwide.


I love all things, not only the grand but the infinitely small: thimble, spurs, plates, flower vases.~ Pablo Neruda.

The mind is also a bulldog. Because it’s spectacularly awful at letting go once it gets its teeth into an idea. It chews over vases and their contents and the connections to one particular man. All his vases are antique now, they’re more than  100 years old. (WC 1001. FCA.)  And his name is like an earworm and his artworks like the red glow of sunlight against closed eyelids lifted skyward - cannot be switched off. The bulldog jaws chomp down on it, the pigeon returns to its perch and the grasshopper leaps onto his blades of grass again and again.

The Dutch Golden Age began where the Renaissance left off. There was an influx of all kinds of talents into the Netherlands. A wealthy merchant class emerged and became patrons of art and culture. Dutch artists were the pioneers in developing the still-life genre fully, the term still-life itself derives from the Dutch stilleven. Gradually, the religious content and symbolism diminished and by the latter half of the 16th century ordinary objects were painted independently for the aesthetics alone.

Still-lifes showcased the skills to paint different textures and realistic lighting effects. Flower painting evolved into a subclass of its own and had its own specialists such as  Ambrosius Bosschaert (1573–1621) and Willem van Aelst (1627–1683). Flowers and vases were painted against a dark background showing off the colours of the blooms. No particular accuracy in arrangements, flowers from different seasons and different parts of the world were shown together. This was possible due to the botanical illustrations undertaken as scientific interest exploded. The Age of Enlightenment (mid 16th to 19th century) fed into the Industrial Revolution and led to waves of  exponential social change.

So this was Europe in the late 19th - on the one hand, an established  genre of secular still-life with a subclass of flower paintings much in demand by a wealthy merchant demographic. On the other, a voracious appetite for scientific enquiry, fascination with the natural world and systematic drawing and documentation of new flora.  This was the cultural milieu that Vincent inherited and came to inhabit. The foundation from which this pioneer of Dutch expressionism created his unique style.

The first of Vincent’s vases was painted in 1884, Vase with Honesty. Antique vase 1 is markedly different from his palette post-Paris - subdued colours, earth tones, white. He discovered colours once he moved to Paris, his interaction with the Impressionists and post-Impressionists impacted him deeply. He studied the Dutch masters extensively and was influenced by them too. In the Glass with Roses (1886) the palette is visibly brighter and yet the Dutch heritage of flowers against a dark background is also very much in evidence.

By the time he got to Vase with Lilacs, Daisies and Anemones, he had lightened up - both the background and foreground are less dark, the vase is a vibrant sky blue, the light reflecting off it in a dazzling spot, the flowers an exuberant mass of colours. Finally showing the detailed and bold brushwork that he would be famous for in the future. He painted irises, carnations, poppies, oleanders, gladioli, lilacs – flower still-lifes were good practice and sold well. However, Vincent did not manage to sell any stills, he only ever sold one painting during his lifetime - The Red Vineyard.

In all, he painted 170 still-lifes, several of them of vases, both full and empty. He painted rather a lot of everyday objects – bottles, jars, bowls, books, all part of the households he lived in. Pause here to ponder if any of those items, any of those vases exist still, whether their current owners know that those objects were once painted by Vincent van Gogh? Or did they get broken and discarded long ago?

Recreated in a jigsaw that’s been
with me for over twenty years.
His most famous stills are the series of four sunflowers, painted as a welcome for Paul Gauguin when the latter came to live in the Yellow House Vincent van Gogh had rented in Arles. Vincent claimed the sunflower as his own and today he is uniquely associated with it. And  that vase with the bold ‘Vincent’ signed across it? Possibly the most famous antique vase and the most frequently reproduced. 


Due to the most unfortunate family circumstances, I am unable to participate fully in this month's challenge.  Thank you for your prayers, support and understanding at this difficult time. 

Read the other entries below: