Not far from where I live in London there is a small museum dedicated to modern Italian art. It was founded to display the collection of Erik and Salome Estorick, who lived in England for some years in the late 1940s and early 1950s, from where they travelled regularly to Italy to meet with artists and buy paintings and drawings. In the museum's permanent collection there are several works by Giorgio Morandi, the greatest European still-life painter of the twentieth century and, whenever I visit the museum, I like to spend some time in the room where his work is on display. His etchings achieve a wonderful sense of depth by means of simple variations in the density of the lines, while in his paintings, with their narrow range of creamy blues, greys, and whites, he generates a curious combination of calmness and vitality.
The English term "still-life" refers to paintings that portray neither the human figure nor the landscape, but everyday household objects: vases, glasses, and pots in Morandi's work; other painters have included cutlery, bowls, dishes, flowers, fish, vegetables, fruit, musical instruments, pens, ink, manuscripts, and books. Still-life painting draws attention to the technical skill of the artist – the ability to represent light and shadow on a wide variety of shapes and surfaces – while also drawing attention to everyday objects to which we often pay little heed. One of the best books of art criticism that describes the history and characteristics of the genre, by Norman Bryson, is called Looking at the Overlooked, which nicely captures the sense that these paintings are designed to remind us of what is familiar but routinely neglected. Sometimes these artworks include hourglasses or clocks, to signal to the viewer the importance of the passage of time, and in other cases they include human skulls, to signal that life is finite. The French name for the genre, nature morte, translates literally as "dead nature", which make this point rather more bluntly than its euphemistic English equivalent: inert matter might sometimes be overlooked in its stillness, but organic matter is always in transit from birth to death.
Historically, still-life painting has been considered separate from – and often secondary to – portraiture, and yet there is a sense in which the portrayal of objects that are collected and used by humans is similar in important respects to the portrayal of those humans themselves. When we look at paintings of people, the manner in which the sitter is presented to the viewer by the painter is significantly influenced by the objects displayed around them: what they wear, what they are holding, the environment in which they sit or stand. Paradoxically, in the genre of portraiture, those overlooked items that are at the heart of the genre of still-life remain important to the construction of the feeling and the meaning of the picture: the shape of the collar of a shirt or blouse, the angle of a hat, the presence of a watch or broach, a table on which there is a glass or a bottle, a map or a mirror in the background, a dagger or a pen in the foreground. These everyday objects help constitute our sense of the nature of the human subject.
In portrait painting, there is no need to add a human skull to remind the viewer of the inescapability of death, since the skull is already there, at the very centre of our attention, albeit disguised behind hair and skin. The bones that comprise the skull provide the structure of the face, the focal point of the image. The skull is the sign of death, the flesh the sign of life, their combination reminding us that only the finitude of every life makes the endless variety of individual lives interesting. If we all lived forever, no-one would need to have their portrait painted.
Portrait painting has been in decline as a genre ever since photography emerged as an alternate means of capturing the image of an individual. From the earliest daguerreotypes of 1839, photography spread rapidly, especially in the United States, so that forty years later Walt Whitman could predict with confidence that that by means of the photograph art would be democratized. Twenty years before Whitman, the potential of low-cost, mechanical reproduction portraiture to transform society had been noted by the man who was photographed more often than any other American in the nineteenth century, Frederick Douglass. He wrote that, what was once the special and exclusive luxury of the rich and great is now the privilege of all. The humblest servant girl may now possess a picture of herself such as the wealth of kings could not purchase fifty years ago. This great social levelling process was not restricted to the gulf between the self-esteem of the rich and the poor. Douglass saw photography as a means of overcoming the prejudice that divided people according to skin colour: negroes can never have impartial portraits at the hands of white artists. It seems next to impossible for white men to take the likenesses of black men, without grossly exaggerating their distinctive features. The photograph, Douglass argued, would replace hand-drawn, caricatured representation of blacks, whether slaves or free, thereby showing that all men and women were equally human.
Equally human and - therefore - equally mortal. Despite their ever-increasing speed, precision, cheapness, and sophistication, the portrait photograph remained a portrait, that is, a representation of a person, dressed in a certain costume, posing in a particular way, surrounded by objects to create an impression of character, but for all that, nonetheless, nothing more than a skull clothed in flesh. The shift in medium, from oils to film to digital, could not shift the message, that all lives are temporary. Frederick Douglass was first photographed in 1841 when he was twenty-three years old, and he died in 1895, aged seventy-seven. Over the years, his hair turned from black to grey to white, obviating the need for an hourglass to remind us that time passes. The photograph captures the face in an instant, preserving for posterity a likeness from that day, but while the image remains fixed, life itself moves on and the picture become a memento, a remembrance. Douglass sat stationarily as the light that reflected from his face was fixed chemically onto coated plates on at least one hundred and sixty occasions, but his life never stayed still. In the photographic portrait, we immediately become dead nature.
Today, there are many people who take their own photograph more than one hundred and sixty times each year (although I am not one of them). The development of the mobile phone with a reversable camera has made the act of self-portraiture easy. It has further democratised art. Within the Western art tradition, certain painters are renowned for their self-portraits. I have seen Rembrandt's selfies in London, Edinburgh, Berlin, Vienna, Amsterdam, and New York, but these works would have taken weeks, perhaps months to complete, and were used by the artist to document the development of his style of painting and his technical proficiency, as well as his changing appearance through time. Self-portrait photography, by contrast, is mostly concerned with the immediacy of our expression and location, which together provide information about what we are doing right now. The ability to share digital images instantly, so family and friends can be kept appraised of our activities and location on a real-time basis, encourages a fixation on the immediate present. Shared selfies broadcast to our network that we are still alive (and having a great time).
Except, of course, that photographs of our faces, whether taken by ourselves or by others, are comparable to painted portraits in precisely the respect that they show skulls clothed by flesh. However well-tanned, well-groomed, and well-focussed our happy, smiling faces appear on our social media feeds, the sad truth is that as soon as our image has been posted it is already in the past, a moment of our history that can never be recovered, a reminder of lost time for which we can search in our memories but can never experience again in the present. We can recall, recreate, and reimagine, but we can never relive the past. The photograph remains just as it was, but life moves on relentlessly and pitilessly towards death. We are not yet dead nature, but we are all heading that way.
Some of the best still-life paintings were made in the Netherlands in the seventeenth century. The growth of a new upper-middle class made wealthy through trade, willing to buy art to hang on the walls of their houses, created an unprecedented demand for pictures that captured the global reach of this small northern European society. Food, plants, tableware, and utensils from around the world were painted with precision and panache to remind their owners of the rewards for their labours. Symbols of mortality were included, to remind them also of their dependence upon divine grace for their worldly success and otherworldly salvation. These works were known as Vanitas paintings, from the Latin word for vanity. In Saint Jerome's Vulgate edition of the Old Testament, the phrase comes from the Book of Ecclesiastes, vanitas vanitatum - "vanity of vanities" – and draws attention to the futility of earthly wealth and pleasure, by comparison with the promise of eternal life.
I think this name is a confusion, a mistake, an error in thought. It is because the living things of the world – the flowers, fruits, vegetables, meats, fish, and the people who consume them – age and die, that the moments of life are precious. There is no vanity in taking pleasure in what passes away, for there is no pleasure to be taken, in fact no interest at all, in what is permanent for all eternity. We can only ascribe meaning to that which is temporary, we can only value that which is passing, we can only enjoy or regret that which we know we cannot keep. For which reason, the selfie is not simply a form of aesthetic democratization, it is also a mechanism by which we acknowledge the importance of the present, that is, of life itself. Every time we take a photo of smiling faces, we strive to delay the inevitable revelation of the skull that lurks behind.