Paulette Tavormina "The Oysters"

by Silvia Malaguzzi, Art Historian and Author, Florence, Italy


Paulette Tavormina’s The Oysters is both seductive and unsettling as it presents in photographic form what anyone with a background in art would instantly recognise as a painting. Tavormina’s camera captures an arrangement of real objects similar to that created by the brushstrokes of Flemish still-life artist Willem Claesz Heda.

Still Life by   Willem Claesz Heda El Prado Museum, Madrid

Still Life by Willem Claesz Heda
El Prado Museum, Madrid

Oysters, After W.C.H. 2008 by Paulette Tavormina   Alimentarium Museum, Vevey, Switzerland

Oysters, After W.C.H. 2008 by Paulette Tavormina
Alimentarium Museum, Vevey, Switzerland

The viewer is misled by the re-creation of a similar setting and the selection of almost identical objects, with only one substantial difference: Claesz Heda achieved a trompe loeil effect with pictorial proficiency while in Tavormina’s work it is a natural consequence of photographic technique. Moreover, in transforming a recognizable and datable pictorial subject into photography, the artist turns something intended as an illusion into something real. Tavormina also generates spatial-temporal disorientation by creating a contemporary piece with all the characteristics of the 17th century.

This sophisticated intellectual operation reveals Tavormina’s erudite preferences and makes viewers wonder to what extent Claesz Heda’s cultural climate endures in The Oysters and what belongs to the genuine contemporary sensitivity of the artist-photographer.

A comparison between The Oysters and Claesz Heda’s Still Life located in the El Prado Museum in Madrid is useful. By 1620, Claesz Heda had achieved certain recognition in the Dutch market for 17th century still-life paintings: the elegance and sobriety of his monochromatic ‘Breakfast Pieces’ received the approval of the frugal Calvinist community[1]. The food and vessels he selected reveal many of the refined eating habits and table manners of the wealthy Dutch middle class. Oysters were not merely delicious seafood from the North Sea but symbolised supremacy of the Indian Ocean, recently acquired by the Dutch government for its pearl industry.

Pepper, depicted here in its typical paper cone, was an exotic spice imported from the Far East and therefore rare and expensive and a source of income for traders and the whole country[3].  The Roemer glass was used for tasting fragrant white wine imported from the Rhineland and destined for particular consumers[4].

Every detail contributes to defining the high social status of the clientele of this kind of artwork but a lot more can be deduced by analysing the image in detail. The uneven tablecloth, the partially peeled lemon, the remains on the dishes and the overthrown fruit stand are all traces of human passage. The two glasses evoke a couple drinking together. The firm-based Roemer reflects a man with selective tastes, favouring imported white wine to beer, the national beverage of the Dutch. Meanwhile, the precious façon de Venise goblet refers to the delicate feminine palate. Oysters have been renowned since Roman Antiquity not only as a culinary speciality but also for their aphrodisiac properties and hence allude to the pleasures of both gastronomy and sex[5].

Such details suggest the commissioners were a wealthy couple fond of food and life. Meanwhile the discreet presence of a gold pocket watch reveals the subtle moral intent of the artist.

According to conventions of 17th century Flemish artists, a watch represented a reminder of the passage of time and the transience of worldly possessions and pleasures[6]. Claesz Heda very likely included this time-keeping instrument to warn his commissioners against the risk of expecting the joys of youth to be eternal when in fact time condemns everything and everyone to the same sad end. The watch is absent in Tavormina’s artwork and the melancholy of man’s tragic fate gives way to her joyful celebration of everyday life and its intimate and poetic simplicity.

Oysters reflects a very solitary and private meal, but nonetheless elegant and learned. Alongside the peeled lemon, oysters, a Roemer glass and pepper in a paper cone, the artist intentionally reveals her modernity by introducing a few pink peppercorns, which scientists recently differentiated as an entirely separate genus from black pepper.

Salted capers were little known in Holland in the 17th century and thus reveal the artist’s Sicilian origins. They transpose Oysters from simply an erudite emulation of Claesz Heda’s painting to an independent piece of artwork which is openly and joyfully autobiographic.

The Exihibition opened at The Alimentarium Museum May 2, 2013 in Vevey, Switzerland

[1] GROOTENBOER Hanneke, The Rhetoric of Perspective, Realism and Illusionism in Seventeenth-century Dutch Still-Life Painting, Chicago and London 2005, p.82.

[2] DE GIROLAMI CHENEY Liana, “The Oyster in dutch genre paintings moral or erotic symbolism”, in Artibus et Historiae (Roma), 8.1987,15, pp. 135-158. 

[3] MALAGUZZI Silvia, Il cibo e la Tavola, Milano 2006, pp. 276-277.

[4] JOHNSON Hugh, Il vino: storia tradizione e cultura, Padova 1994, p. 278.

[5] PLATINA Bartolomeo, De honesta voluptate et valetitudine, lib. X, cap. 366.

[6] SULLIVAN Scott A., “A Banquet Piece with Vanitas Implications”, in The Bulletin of Cleveland Museum of Art (Cleveland), N°61, 1974, p. 281.v