Still Life Studies: Peeled Lemons by Neal Auch


… After my cousin died,
my father died & then my brother. Next, my father’s older brother
& his wife. And, finally, after my mother died, I expected
to die myself. And because this happened very quickly
& because these were, really, almost all the people I knew,
I spent each day smashing dishes with one of my uncle’s hammers
& gluing them back together in new ways. …

—Kathleen Graber, The Magic Kingdom (full poem)

These two new vanitas still life compositions both use one of the most common and perhaps most cryptic motifs from the history of still life painting: the peeled lemon. Lemons show up frequently in the paintings of the Dutch masters that act as my primary inspiration for this project.

There seems to be some disagreement amongst critics about what, precisely, the lemon represents in art. Of course there is the obvious fact that the lemon, like any food items or flowers in still life, can act as a reminder of the passage of time. As with human life, these items and the pleasure they bring will be gone all too soon. Lemons were also a very expensive fruit at the time; this might suggest an interpretation that the fruit is meant to remind us of the vanity of wealth. The fact that the lemon almost always appears partially peeled also seems significant. Presumably where the fruit appears in this way it is because artist intended to draw attention to the contrast between the beautiful saturated tones of the peel and the sour taste of the flesh. It seems likely that this presentation is intended to convey a message of warning about superficial beauty. Often the peel hangs precariously over the edge of the table giving the composition a sense of depth and, perhaps, also implying a deeper meaning about the fragility of beauty.

For the first image in this series I paired the rotting peeled lemon with chicken feet and dead baby mice. One of the mice has been placed inside the flesh of the lemon, adding a secondary layer to metaphorical interpretation discussed in the previous paragraph.


For the second image of this series I kept the motif of chicken feet, but added in a few new elements: human teeth and a broken ceramic plate. The broken plate is a fairly obvious metaphor for fragility and mortality. Here I was inspired not only by the history of still life painting, but also by the wonderful poem by Kathleen Graber that is quoted at the beginning of this post. (Do yourself a favour and go read the whole poem at the New Yorker; it’s a beautiful piece of writing.) Graber’s poem addressed fear of death in an intimate way and resonates with the central memento mori themes of my work. There is something very touching and human about the passage quoted above, in which the narrator attempts to cope with the loss of her loved ones by smashing dishes and glueing them back together. In my interpretation this is about denial of death and a hope for an afterlife; the narrator is engaged in a vain attempt to convince herself that what has been destroyed can somehow be remade.


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.