The Many Lives of Paulette Tavormina’s Still Lifes

by Wayne V. Andersen, Art Historian

I will astound Paris with an apple
--Paul Cézanne

Still life is a strange and problematic term. Its 17th-Century origin is the Dutch still-leven—the motionless aspect of living nature. A century later in France, where still life painting came late, still-leven became nature morte, dead nature.

In English, a still life is motionless—still, tranquil, static. Stillness can be a condition of the moment or of forever as existing still. A still life doesn’t speak and it can’t listen. It cannot move but it puts the viewer’s eyes in motion. It nourishes inquisitive eyes and assures an abundance of visual life. Eyes are always in motion. In death, eyes are the first to become still—still-leven, then nature morte.

My photographs tell stories. The “Figs” express the Sicilian family history. I can imagine they are from my brother’s tree that was a graft from my father’s tree and in turn a graft of my grandfather’s tree. Snails on the branches are from my cousin’s villa in Palermo, next to the abandoned Giuseppe Lampedusa’s villa (author of Il Gattopardo, The Leopard). Lampedusa died in 1957. Snails at his villa look the same as snails at my cousin’s villa.

Tavormina’s still lifes are inspired by the Dutch, Spanish, and Italian still lifes of the Golden Age. But what the prototypes meant in the past remains in the past. We see the past only with eyes in the present. As T.S. Eliot said, “The past should be altered by the present as much as the present is directed by the past.” The past cannot be relived but can be converted into meaning for the present. The human condition is incessantly evolving, trapped in the gravitation pull of the future. Tavormina’s still lifes are her poetic way of expressing respect for the human condition.

The Crabs are playful — back to back. It took an entire week to shoot this picture, arranging the crabs, adjusting the lighting, putting the crabs back in the refrigerator every night, taking them out in the morning and starting over … like putting oneself to bed at night and getting out of bed in the morning.

Still life photographs are not pictures taken by a camera. The photographer makes the picture and tells the camera how to take it. The camera, not the subject, is told to be still and not even think, just look. Then the life of the still life that is about to become eternal (forever a photograph) is cut short by a blink of the camera’s eye. The cut flowers wilt, the fruit rots, the dewdrops evaporate, the butterfly’s wings crinkle, the vase is put back in the cupboard. In the chain of history, life, which is never still, comes before death. If there is any intellectual value to the notion of trompe l’oeil (trick the eye), greater value surely accrues to trompe mort (trick death). Nature morte can also mean that death is natural.

Walking the streets of New York City, I look for dead bugs to put in my pictures. Once I found a praying mantis that was intact, and the butterfly that’s in Peonies. I found a huge queen bumblebee that must have bumbled into a passing car, and on another day, I saw a grasshopper where for blocks around there was no grass to hop over. I was about to pick it up when I saw that it was plastic. On a recent trip to Nantucket, I found a horseshoe crab and other dead crabs. I put them in a box and took them back with me to Manhattan. I had to soak them in my bathtub with Clorox to get rid of the awful smell.

For the present to be present, it must have a face on the past. Behind that face, time’s past fades into memories. “I have always been attracted to the magic of objects that evoke memories, Paulette says. “Being a sentimental person, capturing moments in photography brings me back to past feelings so I can savor them again.” Every element in her still lifes has another life in memory. Like the dual life of a butterfly—does it remember having been a caterpillar? Does the frog remember when it was a tadpole with a wriggly tail and could breath under water? Does the fading rose remember its virgin youth as an innocent pink bud before it was burned on the Altar of Love by the heat of Hymen’s torch?

I wanted to find a naturally grown rose for putting in Strawberries, and found one when riding in a taxicab. Through the window, I saw a rose bush and had the taxi stop so I could jump out and pick a flower from it. That rose now rests partly on a rock and partly on a crevice. Trying to keep its balance.

Without a fixed place in nature and submitted to arbitrary and often accidental manipulations, the still life on the table is an objective example of the formed but constantly rearranged, the freely disposable in reality and therefore connoting the idea of artistic liberty. The still life picture, to a greater degree than the landscape, owes its composition to the artist, yet more than that it seems to represent everyday reality.

--Meyer Shapiro, 1968

As for the Strawberries, I spent day and night of the 4th of July weekend just setting it up. As soon as I had cut the leaves from the stems, they wilted and died, so I had to cut off lots of leaves as replacements. Because it was dead and as dry as a mummy, I had to steam the large insect to soften it so with tweezers I could separate the legs and the antennae that were stuck together. When I placed the lifelike insect in the composition, the strawberry above it came crashing down and broke off one of the antennae … (that would have happened in nature, too, I suppose).

After the shooting, to celebrate, I made an old fashioned strawberry shortcake heaped with whipped cream. As in my still life, the shortcake’s strawberries struck me as very dissimilar people: different faces and personalities, some guarding their space, others leaning to reach another, some looking silly, some old and some just starting to live, some sexy and some decadent. But all were perfectly delicious.

During the tenth sitting of Ambroise Vollard for his portrait by Cézanne, Vollard dozed off, slid from his model-stand chair, and crashed onto the floor. Cézanne scolded him for getting off the pose and ordered him to get back in his chair, resume his pose, and hold still as if he were an apple. As for his still lifes, Cézanne would rarely finish one on the same day he started it, so his apples rotted, couldn’t even be eaten. And he refused to paint cut flowers, as Monet and Renoir painted, considering the short life of flowers in bloom. But in his day, every proper household had in the salon a bowl or basket with plaster fruit. Cézanne bought a basket of plaster apples and pears that would forever look the same, gathering dust but never rotting.

While planning to shoot Pears, I found that I needed one more pear. It was late at night. Grocery stores were closed. But luckily, I remembered I had purchased a ceramic pear when living in Santa Fe. Voila! It completed the composition.

Watermelon Radishes is among my favorites. It took an entire week to get the lighting just right. By the end of the week, the root on the left had reached out of the frame and then curled onto its self. The radishes and the roots touch each other—a tentacle touching an open leaf, like an embrace or as if holding hands. They dance with each other. The green ceramic bowl I made myself.

I am always careful not to dislocate leaves from the fruit, but while setting up the shot, one leaf broke away, leaving it by itself, alone. So accidents are sometimes the way things should happen.

All of Paulette’s still lifes are about the simplicities of life: seeing and feeling the birth of things, aging while seizing precious moments, facing up to the fragility of love, balancing emotions on thin high-wires, hiding secrets in sealed tombs, suffering desires—tempus fugit, loving and being loved, passionate in relation to one another, touching, embracing, huddling, and with tears of joy or sadness being cradled and comforted on nature’s lap.  Oddly, her still lives are not still, but like her, are scrambled with life.

Wayne V. Andersen

About Wayne V. Andersen

Until his passing in January 2014, Wayne Andersen was Emeritus Professor, History, Theory and Criticism of Art and Architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.  His essays on art and literary criticism are widely published in Europe and America, and he is the author of 11 books on subjects ranging from Cézanne to Picasso.  His most recent book is Marcel Duchamp and the Debasement of Modern Art.