Andrew Lambirth

The reality of things

The fourth in the National Gallery’s series of touring exhibitions (remember Paradise in 2003 and Making Faces last year?) comes to London after showing in Bristol and Newcastle. Entitled this time The Stuff of Life, it is a welcome excuse — should excuse be needed — to look at a group of first-rate still-life paintings, and ponder on their meaning. The merest glance at this exhibition returns us promptly to the world of things, if we ever managed to escape it. Unenlightened materialism is poor sustenance for anybody, but it is important to live in the moment with the reality of things (what Sickert called ‘gross material facts’), with cabbages as well as kings, provided we keep in mind the possibility of deeper truths.

Plenty of cabbages in the four vast paintings of the seasons (or the elements) by the little-known Joachim Beuckelaer (c.1535–75). These stiff and stilted compositions, overwhelming and without subtlety, present an extreme of pictorial fact — a literal avalanche of it — without the spiritual leavening necessary to make it anything more than a clumsy catalogue of things. Compare the poignant delicacy of Zurbar

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