The Peach Code
“Oh fruit blessed above all others
Good before, in the middle and after the meal,
But perfect behind” (Francesco Berni)
I went to the El Paso Museum of Art to see The Birth of Cubism exhibit. I tip-toed into an austere room. There one the wall were the bassinets. Two very neat rectangular canvases. This is how it looked:
And there you have it. A clean silent birth, ala L. Ron Hubbard.
I cooed at the paintings. From a doorway, someone shushed me.
I turned around to see an anxious nurse. It appeared to be her first day on the job. Her white uniform still damp from the dryer. Slung over her shoulder and wrapped around her neck like a scarf was a twenty year long umbilical cord. It drips with oily white paint. She stared at me. I averted my eyes to the Cezanne painting. Her eyes continued to plead, “release me from this hell”. She was offering me the placenta. It was cube shaped. It shuddered in her open palms. I quickly turned my thoughts to the fruit bowl but, the placenta opened up with a widening grin and screamed:
I bolted out the exit and jogged home.
Why fruit? Are peaches really that exciting?
The history of peaches in still life art is a strange little trip from the tree to the vine and on to the table. From tree to table to canvas? It’s connotations are both biblical and satirical. The humble peach has traversed the globe.
The Peach originated in China and is referenced in the Books of Confucius in the fifth century BCE, where it was the favorite fruit of the elite. It symbolized longevity in Chinese culture and is often depicted in the trees, on a vine, or in a modest basket as in the Qi Bai Shi’s painting below:
The peach traveled the Silk Roads from China to the Persian Empire. Alexander the Great brought peach pits back to Europe in 334 B.C.E. after his campaign in Persia. The Greeks called the fruit Malus persica, or Persian Apple, believing it to have originated there. In fact, in many languages, the word for peach still literally means Persian (Pêche in France, Pfirsich in German, persik in Russian, to name a few). The Romans brought some pits home after their own expeditions to Persia, during the reign of Roman Emperor Claudius. The fruit grew well in the Mediterranean and soon became a popular staple.
Still Life with Peaches, a Roman mural in the town of Herculaneum that dates from around 50 A.C.E., was preserved, ironically, by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. The painting is both sophisticated, in terms of contrast and composition, and unsophisticated, in its depiction of space and shadow.
Christian art is coded in ways to inform and reinforce Christian ideals. According to A Handbook of Symbols in Christian Art, by Gertrude Grace Sill, the peach is symbolic of a virtuous heart and tongue, with the stems and vines representing the tongue. The fig, fig leaf, and fig tree represents lust. The pomegranate is a symbol of eternity and fertility due to its many seeds. Gourds imply Resurrection, particularly in the story of Jonah and the whale. George Ferguson’s Signs and Symbols in Christian Art, includes the orange as a symbol of purity, chastity and generosity. The grape is symbolic of the Blood of Christ.
For the illiterate masses, these symbols served as cues, reminding the Christian believer that God is everywhere. Fruit, flowers, and tree branches were representational of that ideology. Except for bananas. There are no bananas in the Bible. In fact, bananas as a topic in still lifes did not become popular until the 1960s.
“The artists of the Renaissance, under the patronage of the Church, introduced little that was new [in the way of symbolism]” wrote George Ferguson.
Caravaggio liked his gourds. As you can see above, the white gourds, peaches and figs are set up in a suggestive manner. This is not my imagination. This is the Renaissance. That white gourd is less about Resurrection and more about some other ‘rection. Ya dig?
In 1588, anthropomorphism became popular with the publication of Giambattista Della Porta’s Phytognomica. In this pseudo-scientific work, botanical species were compared with human organs. This started a trend of visual puns in Renaissance art. Obscene fruit adorned the churches. The church officials were blissfully ignorant of these ‘inside jokes’.
In Niccolo Fragipane’s work, Allegory of Autumn, a grinning Satyr is gripping a sausage in one hand and inserting his left index finger into a cut melon. In 1527, the Academy of Vitners, were known for celebrating the harvest with burlesque poetry for their suggestive crops. Among these poets was Francesco Berni and his poem about the peach. Peach, or pesca, appeared in the Italian English dictionary of 1598 and meant “a young man’s bum”. Interestingly enough, the rest of Berni’s poem went on to discuss the priests and their fondness of peaches (cough).
The sexual connotation of peaches had its hey-day up until the still life began to fall out of favor in the 19th century. The Academie Francaise indoctrinated artists with a “Heirarchy of Genres” and still life was not on the top of that list.
Our beloved peach would not appear again until Impressionism. Beautiful fruit appeared once more but stripped of its biblical and satirical codes. Peaches became peaches. Emphasis was placed on composition, color harmony and technique rather than the subject matter. Artist Pierre-Auguste Renoir painted peaches numerous times:
By the 19th century, peaches were being cultivated in the North American states of Georgia, Virginia, Delaware and Maryland. Thomas Jefferson had peach trees at Monticello. In the Americas, the peach was introduced either by the Spanish settlers in St. Augustine, Florida in 1565 or by the French in 1562. Native American peach culture migrated north with the travels of Jesuit and Franciscan missionaries and with the Native Americans themselves. Thomas Jefferson cultivated over thirty-eight varieties in his South orchard at Monticello. "I am endeavoring to make a collection of the choicest kinds of peaches for Monticello" wrote Jefferson to Richard Threlkeld in March 26, 1807. Peach culture spread as far north as Pennsylvania, where Peter Kalm observed, "every countryman had an orchard full of peach trees which were covered with such quantities of fruit that we could scarcely walk in the orchard without treading upon the peaches that had fallen off, many of which were left on the ground."
The peach was also the standard Southern commodity, as William White, from Athens, Georgia, attested as late as 1859: "Indeed, the peach is the favorite, and in many instances, the only fruit tree cultivated by our planters." William Mason Brown’s fame as a still-life painter catapulted when he sold the painting A Basket of Peaches Upset to William Schaus, a New York art dealer, for $2,000, a very high price for the 1860s. The painting was reproduced through a new technique of color-printed lithography which made Brown’s work accessible to a broader segment of the art-buying market than ever before. Still life was considered ‘dining room’ painting and used for decorative purposes, rather like the Roman art on the walls of the Herculaneum. I’m not sure if the fallen peaches are echoes of Christian symbolism or if this is more of a narrative. Brown liked to portray still life in natural settings but wanted the viewer to be aware of his interference; his hands placing the peaches on the ground. We see the effect of whatever mysterious cause disturbed the fruit. The darkening background speaks of a quiet violence.
What do you think?
Another great leap for still life fruit came occurred in Europe during the late 1800s. For Cézanne, still life was a primary means of demonstrating color, form, and line. From this exploration within the confines of a canvas, something new began to emerge in the 20th century.
“In cubist artworks, objects are broken up, analyzed, and re-assembled in an abstracted form. An artist depicts the subject from a multitude of viewpoints to present the piece in a greater context. Often the surfaces intersect at seemingly random angles presenting no coherent sense of depth. The background and object (or figure) planes interpenetrate one another to create the ambiguous shallow space characteristic of cubism” (New World Encyclopedia).
The peach preservered through the 20th century. Henri Matisse experimented with the perspective of the peaches below, reducing the subject to bold outlines and amplifying the background with vibrant color. In one, we see the plate from above at the corner of a yellow tablecloth. On the right, the plate is tilted and is from the point of view of a seated observer or child. The blue tablecloth looks like a tongue, having just lapped up a whole peach. There is a tension with both paintings as the objects appear to be on the verge of falling off the edge. Even the green sideboard doors have been left ajar.
By the 1960s, popular still life art would once again have a code. The commodified image of a commercial product would be the true subject instead of the physical thing itself.
“The artist is the creator of the object”
The placenta was screaming for peaches. It was vocalizing a want of a thing. I could go to the farmer’s market and happen across a splintered crate of peaches.
Those peaches existed before I came across them. However, a drawing of a peach does not exist before the want. An artist has to want to paint a peach. Before the want, there was nothing. To understand art as a language, we have to want something from it. Pop art of the 1950s and 1960s, has in it a “hidden want”. Where Caravaggio was making a visual pun with the scandalous gourds, Andy Warhol, for example, was hiding his intention. Of all the possible works an artist conceives, he/she has chosen to externalize the work before us.
What is the relevance of an artists intention to the understanding or appreciation of a work? Either way we look at the piece before us, there exists an indexical bond. This is our understanding of the artist’s existence. He/she was there before the canvas conjuring the thing into its flat existence and offering us the possibility of a sexual metaphor, or a bit of irony, or simply, a contemplative moment of really seeing the peach.
We stand before the art knowing someone was there. Someone created that banana.
Any combination or all of these hidden codes are what the placenta wanted. It was screaming for all of them. The nurse, well, she couldn't have possibly known how to satisfy its want. Her own was so dramatically different. Perhaps tomorrow I shall release her from her hell and take the placenta home.
And we will buy some peaches along the way. Organic peaches. Not those weird ones that taste like they've been stuffed in an exhaust pipe over the winter.
The infant Jesus is holding fruit in two paintings in the Renaissance gallery at the El Paso Museum of Art. A prize for the first person to name the fruit AND the names of the artists and titles of the paintings. Send your answers to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Visit the Museum!
Paul Cézanne and Pablo Picasso: Birth of Cubism
October 3, 2014 – February 1, 2015
Peter and Margaret de Wetter Gallery
Admission is Free