Still Life with Peeled Lemon / by Neal Auch


“I believe that truth has only one face: that of a violent contradiction.”

― Georges Bataille

Here’s another sample from my most recent batch of still life compositions. This image appropriates two key motifs from the golden age of Dutch still life painting. The first is the poultry on the right, hung in a manner typical of game still lifes, a juxtaposition that I find interesting because the mechanisms of contemporary meat production have almost nothing in common with game hunting in the 1600s.

The second key motif in this image is the peeled lemon balanced precariously near the edge of the table in the bottom left of the image. The peeled lemon in art has a long and fascinating history that intersects with ideas of horticultural science, economic considerations, and the novel challenges that representing the fruit accurately presents to the painter. (If you’re interested there’s a great talk by Mariet Westermann on the topic.)

Of course motifs like the lemon almost certainly meant different things to different artists and the appeal of the lemon to me lies in its connection to the themes of vanity and memento mori. On the surface we have the usual interpretation that the fruit, like the meat, will rot and thus presents a reminder of mortality. But there is also something interesting in the contrast between the lemon’s beautiful colour and the sourness of its taste. Moreover, one might be tempted to argue a connection between the serpentine coils of the peel and the story of the garden of Eden…

There’s another symbolic aspect of the lemon that I find interesting in connection with my own still life work. This is the fact that, although the lemon certainly looks like a part of nature as it appears in a painting, the fruit is in fact the result of hybridization and, in this sense, could also be thought of as “man made,” just like accompanying the vases and silverware. I find this resonance particularly interesting because the overwhelming majority of the animals that we eat are also “man made” in that particular sense. It is no secret that contemporary farmed animals — chickens especially — are the result of extensive selective breeding and there are a host of ethical concerns one might raises around this practice that do not apply to the lemon (or other produce).

I’ve spoken about how the metaphorical content of the fruit and meat in image above can be juxtaposed with the meanings those symbols would have had in classical still life paintings. There’s another, more technical, interesting juxtaposition I’d like to draw attention to: the lighting. While I’ve borrowed the motifs and compositional techniques of 17th century still life in making this arrangement, my choice of lighting is rather contemporary. Typically still lifes would have had only a single light source (probably a window in the painter’s studio) whereas here I opted for a two light set-up. The key light is on the right, impinging on the scene orthogonally to the line of sight, and I also added a fairly harsh “kicker” light coming in from behind the arrangement on the left. I opted for this non-canonical setup because otherwise the cow and pig feet might have fallen into shadow and lost visual weight. As a bonus, the kicker light adds a sense of depth and texture to the cow foot on the left. This kind of intersection between classical and modern meanings and techniques is really at the heart of what I enjoy about making still life photographs.