Why does Juan Sánchez Cotán’s cabbage look so contemporary?

Piero Bisello  -  April 5, 2018

Brussels. Bozar sheds some light on Spanish Still Life and reminds us how close still life is to Duchampian ready made and contemporary object based art.

There is nothing like a cabbage to make a great artwork, a rounded bundle of rough and tick leaves contributing to masterpieces. Some might think we’re hinting at some kind of found-object art, a duchampian gesture of putting a cabbage in the middle of a museum gallery. Perhaps that makes for great art too, yet this isn’t quite what we had in mind. The exhibition Spanish Still Life at Brussels BOZAR, which includes “Quince, Cabbage, Melon and Cucumber” by Juan Sánchez Cotán shows another way of turning cabbages into showpieces.

The idea behind this exhibition has a relatively long history. Following the popularity of still life paintings by Francisco de Zurbarán showed at BOZAR in 2014, the museum decided to give further opportunity to the Brussels public to enjoy paintings of similar kind. Collaborating with art historian Ángel Aterido Fernández and scholars from Museo del Prado, BOZAR put up an excellent display of still life paintings spanning more than four centuries, and comprising artists such as de Prado, Goya, Picasso, and Mirò.

Especially when it comes to 16th and 17th century, the genre of still life is deeply associated with Netherlandish old masters as well as Italian. This exhibition proves that their Spanish counterparts weren’t less remarkable. The parallel between Spanish and Flemish still life can be fully appreciated during the period of the exhibition, since important collections of the latter are available a few-minute walk away from BOZAR at the Belgian Royal Museums, or a short train ride to the Snijders & Rockox House in Antwerp.

As to the conversation between Spanish and Italian still lives, this will also be possible when the exhibition moves to Turin in a few months. It will be shown at Musei Reali, which also co-produced the Brussels instalment, and visitors will be able to appreciate Italian examples of the genre at the museum as well as at Galleria Sabauda.

Coming back to the cabbage, our take is that Cotán’s interpretation of this beautiful vegetable by itself makes the visit to the show worthwhile. We cannot but agree with John Marciari, San Diego Museum of Art’s curator (where the painting is held) when he says that ” ‘Quince, Cabbage, Melon and Cucumber’ is an old master painting for those who don’t like old master paintings, because of the sparseness, the almost abstracted quality of it.”

This way of painting is unusual for the period and place, so understating Cotán’s artistic choices is a puzzle. As Anne Judong, exhibition coordinator at BOZAR puts it, “some conceive Cotán’s attention to details, forms and composition as religious symbolism, based on his later engagement in the Carthusian Order. Some others, put it into the context of the emergence of still life as a safe and free territory, far from the rules and conventions of the religious paintings, for artists to experiment concepts such as geometry, naturalism or picaresque, discussed among the Toledan clerical and intellectual elite.” Such interpretations might also well apply to the second painting by Cotán in the show (“Window Fruits and Vegetables”), which is owned by the Abelló Collection and is one of the few private loans.

Curator Aterido Fernández maintains that “Quince, Cabbage, Melon and Cucumber” might even be an unfinished work, which would make its contemporary look be a matter of chance. This begs for a thought experiment, in which we could imagine unwanted characteristics of a contemporary artwork making for successful reception by future generations. If artists are obsessed by control on their artwork, the idea of lucky accidents is somewhat ironic. Similarly, the contemporary look of “Quince, Cabbage, Melon and Cucumber” is also owed to its unframed display, which is also an accident due to conservation worries rather than a choice.

If there is one negative aspect of the exhibition Spanish Still Life at all, this is the strange attempt to build a national narrative spanning more than four centuries. In other words, it is doubtful that artists from Cotán to Mirò could be so easily reduced to their common property of being born in Spain. Such stress on “nationality” over time comes across as a bit shallow, also because we noticed that the display gave considerable less attention to some centuries over others, making a not-so-strong case for a cross temporal Spanish artistic identity. A narrower show focusing only on 16th and 17th century would have perhaps resulted in a more consistent exhibition.

Overall, we think Spanish Still Life and in particular Cotán’s paintings are best appreciated by leaving historical and geographical considerations aside. Whether or not a focus on ancient paintings that are close to contemporary taste was the intention of the organisers, we believe it is an especially fruitful way to fulfill the duty of pleasing a larger and more diverse public of today.