The most ambitious and compositionally complex work in a suite of three fishbowl still life paintings which broadly quote the Matissian source, Still Life with Oysters, Fish in a Bowl and Book is one of Lichtenstein’s most iconic images from a series of still lifes executed in the early 1970s, the artist’s most consistent exploration of a single theme since the cartoon Pop paintings from the 1960s. On temporary loan to the Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco since 2003, this stunning work embodies the two fundamental tenets that underpin Lichtenstein’s oeuvre: his intuitive grasp of the nature of visual communication and the abiding legitimacy of previous modern art movements. Furthermore, by self-consciously referencing Matisse, Lichtenstein establishes in Still Life with Oysters, Fish in a Bowl and Book an art-as-art dialogue that questions the notion of authorship and originality in art.
Lichtenstein had already treated the still life genre in two subtly different series from the early 1960s. On the one hand, he presented a new kind of still life by rendering those specific single objects that had become central parts of our consumer mentality, such as Tire, 1962. This radical format established great flexibility for further exploration and indicated a context for the more complex still life paintings of the 1970s. In a second series, Lichtenstein explored a more scenographic approach, in which the elements are placed into a setting instead of floating in negative space. Black Flowers, 1961, (fig. 1) the most successful of this group, is importantly depicted in the background to the present work, establishing a self-referential link between the two series and staking Lichtenstein’s own claim to his position alongside Matisse within the canon of modern art history.
The two elements in the foreground of the composition – the plate of oysters and the goldfish bowl – are indirectly expropriated from Matisse and signal Lichtenstein’s intention to continue the modernist tradition of still life while substantially changing its representational and symbolic values. Lichtenstein would have known Matisse’s Poissons Rouges et Sculpture, 1912, (fig. 6) housed in the Museum of Modern Art in New York, a masterpiece that has affected many subsequent artists. He would also have been familiar with the later work Still Life with Oysters, 1940, (fig. 4) in the collection of the Kunstmuseum, Basel. Lichtenstein appropriates these familiar Matissian motifs, recombining them into a new setting, presented on a larger than life scale and rendered with the economy of line and visual clout which was the common currency of mass communication. As with his earlier comic derived iconography, however, Lichtenstein never copies directly and his form of appropriation is not mere rote duplication; instead, Lichtenstein manipulates, reorganises and reframes in a strategic way, investigating in his idiosyncratic fashion the same formal problems that concerned his greatest ancestors. By combining different sources in this way, the painting becomes more than the sum of its parts.
The choice of Matisse is not incidental, and brings with it important stylistic and connotative implications. In general terms, Lichtenstein admired both the transcendent apolitical, artistic and historical role of the elder statesman of modern art, as well as his formal goals and techniques. In his still lifes, Matisse’s compositional and aesthetic sense is consistent with Lichtenstein’s pursuits, however it is in Lichtenstein’s tight finish that he moves away from Matisse’s painterly, transparent facture. Matisse is remarkable for his sensitivity to colour and his fluid, brilliant line, both of which are ironically subverted by Lichtenstein’s dispassionate pictorial vocabulary embedded in modes of mechanical reproduction. In the Matissian prototype, the essence of the goldfish is enshrined in a single, darting vermillion brushstroke, an almost childlike, calligraphic gesture which contains an indexical link to the hand of the artist. Just as Lichtenstein’s comic-derived imagery of the 1960s jettisoned the semiotic importance of the artist’s touch which was so central to the ideologies of Abstract Expressionism, so here the rigorous stylistic order cools the sensuousness and emotion of Matisse’s masterpiece. Matisse claimed of his still lifes: “My purpose is to render my emotion. This state of soul is created by the objects which surround me,” (the artist cited in Robert Hughes, The Shock of the New: Art and the Century of Change, London 1991, p. 141); he portrayed objects clearly loaded with private, even sentimental value. Lichtenstein, by contrast, uses objects that have been standardised, schematised, creating generic systems of reference. As a result they assume a kind of intellectual validity by flash association rather than photographic illusion. Paradoxically, Lichtenstein’s diagrammatic rendering nonetheless belies the same exquisite draughtsmanship and a formal concern for colour that is the cornerstone of Matisse’s practice.
Unlike the earlier cartoon series, the subject is now ‘real’ in origin; however, in Lichtenstein’s facsimile, the natural phenomena are reduced to an insistently flat amalgam of black lines and blocks of primary colour that do not appear in nature. The motifs that fill the canvas – oysters, fish, lemon, water and reflections – are all mainstays of the traditional still life genre, objects that in the seventeenth-century Flemish tradition served to illustrate the virtuosity of the artist in realistically capturing varying textures, trompe l’oeil effects and receding perspective. In Lichtenstein, by contrast, these organic forms are translated into geometric ones, in a composition which reads up and down without any sense of depth, thereby reinforcing the ineluctable flatness of the picture plane which has become the hallmark of high modernism. The inclusion of his own Black Flowers in the background serves to reinforce this flatness. On the one hand, the tulips depicted are, like the oysters, traditional topoi of the still life tradition, synonymous with wealth and luxury in seventeenth-century Flemish iconography. In a formal sense, however, the framed canvas acts like a window onto another world, a favourite device of Matisse in such paintings as Open Window, Collioure, 1905. In this instance, however, the ‘opening’ is in fact another intrinsically flat surface, a heavily schematised two-dimensional rendition of a three-dimensional view. Rather like Matisse’s The Red Studio, 1911, reproductions of the artist’s own work line the walls. As Diane Waldman comments: “As he had in the past, Lichtenstein was able to subvert the representational subject matter by belying its reality and conforming instead to the reality of a reproduction and, ultimately, the even more fundamental reality of the canvas.” (Exhibition Catalogue, New York, Solomon R. Guggenheim, p. 131).
The notion of reproduction is important here, because Lichtenstein’s source is not the painted original, but rather its many reproductions in the deluge of illustrated art books in which the impact of a work of art is inevitably and dramatically altered by a change in scale and the four-colour plate printing process. His real subject is not just art history but the culture of reproductions, so essential to the wider dissemination of an artist’s work, including his own. This is ingeniously embedded in the very fabric of Still Life with Oysters, Fish in a Bowl and Book, in the motif of the illustrated book which rests open in the centre of the composition revealing what appears to be a Matissian cut-out. It is through these mass-produced books that many people come to experience art, and monographs on artists perform a vital role in reinforcing notions of authorship. Ironically, however, it is this very authorship that Lichtenstein’s mode of appropriation throws into question. By lifting Matissian motifs from the realm of high-art, re-packaging them in his low-art derived iconography and representing them in the high-art context, Lichtenstein challenges traditional notions of authenticity and originality in art. Years before Warhol began his Art from Art series, Lichtenstein’s quintessentially post-modern investigation into authorship shows him grappling with the same art-historical concerns. A complex game of authorship is at play here: Lichtenstein claims Matisse as his own in an act which is at once reverential and confrontational. Furthermore, by including his own Black Flowers in Still Life with Oysters, Fish in a Bowl and Book, he appropriates his own image thereby subjecting his own work to the same process of critical reinterpretation.
In Still Life with Oysters, Fish in a Bowl and Book, Lichtenstein paints an amalgam of images culled from the grand manner of high art to look like a reproduction. Through using ephemeral material as his source, Lichtenstein solicited from it by means of simplification and enlargement a style of monumental presence. Unlike conventional still life painting which requires from the viewer a momentary willing suspension of belief, asking them to accept the painted image – at least for a moment – as the scene itself, Lichtenstein instead stresses the artificiality of his representation in a painting which engages in a complex dialogue with his forefathers.
Oil and magna on canvas
Paris, Galerie Daniel Templon, Homage to Leo Castelli: Dedicated to the Memory of Tony Castelli, 1987
New York, Sidney Janis Gallery, An American Homage to Matisse, 1993
New York, Feigen Contemporary, Roy Lichtenstein: A Tribute, 1999
San Francisco, Museum of Modern Art (on temporary loan 2003-2006)
130.8 by 108cm. 51 1/2 by 42 1/2 in.
Emilio Tradini, Les figures de Lichtenstein ou l'archivage du visible, Artstudio 20, 1991, illustrated in colour
Mr. and Mrs. Harry Anderson, Altherton, California
Leo Castelli Gallery, New York
Enrico Carimati, Milan
Acquired directly from the above by the present owner in 1984