[Reading Group] A Lively Death

‘A Lively Death’: Contemporary Artistic Conversations with the Still Life Tradition by Isabel Seligman

This article mentioned a vegetable-hybrid painting by Glenn Brown, this raised my interest as vegetable-hybrid is the subject matter of my work.

In the earlier part of the article, it talks about how still life evolved from the landscape painting. The subject matter in all kinds of early paintings is human, hence (ranking insert) portrait is always the first… and landscape is always depicting human events. What Glenn Brown did on his work is to paint a portrait of the still life rather than just a still life painting.

It seems like the vegetable-hybrid in Brown’s painting is the subject matter without any human in it. I am wondering if human traits is completely absent from this painting. After some readings on works of Graham Sutherland and Paul Nash (insert link), I think the subject matter of the work will always be the personage of something, something from the human world, something projected from out human mind. To me, the animated plant in Brown’s work is a personification or anthropomorphism of something from our familiar world, and becomes vague with the form of a monstrous hybrid.

The other part i feel interested in this essay is Sam Taylor Johnson’s video work ‘Lively Death’ and ‘A Little Death’. The work talks about painting is the condensed experience of the time of making. “..the rotting hare becomes not just a narrative but a theatrical action.” The work shows the beauty of decay, reminding me the The Treatment of Dead Wood in Historic Parks and Gardens from English Heritage. In the document, it said,

Gilpin described the picturesque appeal of twisted trees, exposed roots and irregular land forms. He observed that ‘it is through age that the oak acquires its greatest beauty, which often continues increasing even into decay’. Another advocate, Uvedale Price (1801) wrote ‘it is very possible, also, that the blasted old oak there – its trunk a mere shell – its bark full of knobs, spots, and stains – its branches broken and twisted, with every mark of injury and decay; may please the painter more than a tree in full vigour and freshness’

Humphry Repton (1715-1818) further developed the Picturesque style and his designs are characterised by irregular clumps of trees and a greater range of tree species. Repton noted in his Observations on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening (1803) that ‘The man of science and of taste will … discover the beauties in a tree which the others would condemn for its decay’.

The beauty of decay is uncanny and mystique.


Glenn Brown trees

Hybrid genre – the still life in a landscape

Vegetable fantasies

In the academic hierarchy, each genre is dignified by its proximity to the arena of human action. Landscape is lent nobility by playing host to illustrious events: if it cannot be historical or mythological, it can at least be human.

De Heer’s ‘lively Death’

Despite the casting call of its title, De Heer’s painting evokes no human actors at all., a statement almost obscene in its insolence.

Become portraits


‘every horror conceals a possibility of enticement.”


Transformation itself is a beautiful thing…


What might previously have been pretensions to the human in De Heer’s original become distinctly more humanoid, if horrifyingly so.


Brown has claimed putrefaction, the decay of matter without the presence of oxygen, to be a good metaphor for painting- the subject trapped in a world without air, movement or time.

The pleasure of making a painting over a period of months or years that it starts to condense experience. An array of often contradictory emotions gets wrapped up into a single work, often containing a single object. That object becomes the personification of time, and over time things grow and things decay.

Something that is lost even at the moment it is enjoyed.

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