In 1669, art critic and Secretary to the French Academy André Félibien delivered a lecture on the hierarchy of genres; most highly revered were historical and mythological paintings, preferably large in size and crammed with figures in convoluted postures. Less fortunate, and descending in this order, were the portraits, the genre scenes and the landscapes; but the worst of the worst, the dregs of the dregs, the lowest of the low, were the still lifes. Dismissed as ‘low and basal’, Félibien considered the still life to be a mere observation of a world which is in itself fallen and imperfect.
On this premise, Rubens’ Rape of the Sabine Women is pretty damn good; a multitude of classicised figures are intertwined in complex positions across a vast canvas. It doesn’t get much better than this. On the other hand, Frans Snyders’ Still Life with Fruit Basket is what Félibien would describe as the ‘mechanical copying of particular appearances’ – it fails to elevate the viewer to a higher Ideal.
Félibien’s school of thought derives from Plato’s realm of the Ideal, which proposes that the world around us is low, fallen, and imperfect; it is a mere imitation of the higher realm. This notion was transposed by contemporary painter and biographer Gian Pietro Bellori (1613-1696), who suggested that the artist might replicate the higher realm by depicting Ideal forms; by combining the best attributes of individual people; so for example, Jennifer Aniston’s hair with Beyoncé’s booty, or Leonardo DiCaprio’s nose with Ralph Fines’ ears [whatever your flavour might be]. By combining these Ideal attributes, the artist may reproduce something close to God’s image of perfection.
If we apply Félibien’s hierarchy of the genres to Modern art, we find a different story. Following the four year apocalypse of the First World War, artists sought a return to the solid, sober and rational principles of classicism; a New Classicism arose in Paris, the centre of the art world in the early twentieth century. The jagged and fragmented chaos of Cubism which dominated the avant-garde prior to 1914 was perceived by many to be a ‘symptom’ of the breakdown in society which caused the First World War.
The New Classicism was led by Le Corbusier and Amédéé Ozenfant, known as the Purists, who applied Vitruvian principles of classicism to objects of modernity. Ozenfant’s Glasses and Bottles, c.1922-1926 is a still-life depicting a group of objects arranged to appear like a cityscape. The objects are fluted, and are intended to appear like classical columns and facades of temples. The Purists regards the most simple and basic objects of utility as timeless and classical; under the influence of the Darwin’s theory of evolution, the Purist’s used the term ‘mechanical selection’ to suggest that machines evolve in a similar manner to humans, and should be regarded as mechanical extensions of the human body. It is by arranging these simple objects as a cityscape, and depicting them with un-modulated tones, that the Purists sought to reconstruct society from the bottom-up. In light of Felibién’s hierarchy of genres, the Purists subverted the hierarchy, placing objects of still-life as the highest Ideal in art.