Talk like an Art Head: The Still Life

Ian Mastin

Just when I had accepted that Ron Lawson paints with gouache and not goulash and thought I had my hunger cravings under control, a new batch of food themed paintings arrived in the gallery.

Ian Mastin’s still lifes radiate from the canvas. They almost glow. And furthermore, they look delicious.

Vintage wines, decanters, elegant glasses, French cheeses and deep red fruit emerge from a dark, moody background with startling immediacy. The shadows and lighting are so well done that you are almost fooled into thinking you’re looking at a photographic image if not the real thing itself.

Which makes it all the more difficult when you’re tummy is rumbling and lunch is still an hour away. How lovely it would be to stroll up the painting, reach in and retrieve a glass of wine, slice of camembert and a cherry. Now that Ian’s paintings have been so gorgeously framed up and displayed in the very centre of the upstairs gallery, I literally have to stop myself from doing just that.

But surely still lifes weren’t invented to tempt the hungry gallery assistant. What is this fascination with painting food, I wondered. I recalled from art class that the still life serves as the fundamental composition for all artists starting out. Even then my stomach would rumble and I would be preoccupied by thoughts of food rather than developing my technique. Still, was this really the origins of the still life?

Turns out the answer is far more interesting, not to mention ancient.

Get this: Ancient Egyptians used to decorate the interior of tombs with images of food; they believed that in the afterlife the food would become real and nourish the deceased!

In Ancient Rome, still lifes played an active role in everyday life with wealthy Romans adorning their homes with images depicting the range of food enjoyed by the upper classes. Apart from showing off their bling, these images were also signs of hospitality. (And if I were welcomed into someone’s home whose walls here hung with Ian Mastin’s paintings, I would sure hope that some fine wine and grapes would follow!)

Ancient Rome had inherited the still life from Ancient Greece, where it had become an established genre with the help of Zeuxis and Parrhasius, who duked it out for the title of greater artist. Zeuxis painted a picture of grapes – so lifelike was it that birds flew down to peck at the illusory fruit. Next, Parrhasius presented his painting, hidden behind a curtain. Zeauxis asked his rival to draw the curtain aside, but for naught. The curtain was the painting! Zeauxis humbly bowed his head in respect, “I have fooled the birds, but Parrhasius has fooled me,” he admitted.

Ian Mastin’s paintings grow out of this tradition. He is especially influenced by Dutch and Flemish 17th century Masters who revived the Ancient Greek tradition of trompe-l’œil, which Parrhasius and Zeuxis had so adeptly championed. Trompe-l’œil is a technique that aims to depict everyday objects in three dimensions, creating an optical illusion.

Ian is also influenced by chiaroscuro, a technique that uses contrasts of light to create a sense of volume. Originating in the Renaissance, artists worked from the paper’s base tone towards light; it’s chiaroscuro that’s responsible for the way Ian Mastin’s figs and cherries emerge as if from nowhere with such vibrancy.

Through his paintings, Ian aims to draw his viewers into a reflective state, focusing on old objects whose value rests in the richness of their history and hands they have passed through. By using an ancient and timeless subject matter and employing such wonderfully old and traditional techniques, Ian achieves his aim thoroughly.

And what’s this? My stomach has ceased its rumbling, so immersed have I become in the history of the still life.

Although that doesn’t change the fact that if I could stroll up to an Ian Mastin painting and lift out a tray of scrumptious delights, I would definitely be taking my lunch break early!