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Mary Pratt: Monumentalizing the Stuff of Life

The new book Mary Pratt is a retrospective of the life and career of the renowned Canadian painter. The book accompanies the travelling exhibition of Pratt's work, and includes images of her luminous paintings, a chronology of her life, and five critical essays which place Pratt's work in a wider context. One of these essays is "Vanitas" by Sarah Fillmore, which we are pleased to be able to share with you here.

Mary Pratt Cover

The new book Mary Pratt is a retrospective of the life and career of the renowned Canadian painter. The book accompanies the travelling exhibition of Pratt's work, and includes images of her luminous paintings, a chronology of her life, and five critical essays which place Pratt's work in a wider context. One of these essays is "Vanitas" by Sarah Fillmore, which we are pleased to be able to share with you here. 


I first met Mary Pratt at her home in St. John’s. She served pecan bars and they looked, as you would expect, perfect. White china teacups were nestled inside one another on a tray set on the kitchen counter. Tulips sprawled in a cut-glass vase on a white lace tablecloth. It all made sense: Mary Pratt’s home serves as inspiration—why look any further than the world around her? In her home we are faced with the real thing: the “real” bowl of fruit, the “real” jar of jelly or the “real” sink full of dishes. (Though let’s be clear: there was no sink full of dishes on the occasion of my visit.)

Smears of Jam, Lights of Jelly

MARY PRATT Smears of Jam, Lights of Jelly. 2007. oil on canvas 40.6 x 50.8 cm

Often described as a painter of “women’s stuff”—of kitchens and cakes, of dinner preparations and sparkling jars of jelly—Mary Pratt paints what she sees: “the stuff of life, that stuff that everyone touches every day, the stuff that a woman understands.” She not only paints what women see and understand, but she also elevates the subject through her skilful, glowing treatment in paint on Masonite, thus celebrating and monumentalizing the “stuff of life.”

Like other contemporary artists, Pratt deals in the concept of “real.” She uses paint where others use sculpture, photography, film or performance art. Pratt’s mature use of subject matter demands a new reading of still life—and vanitas genre paintings in particular—which has contributed to a renewed interest in her work.

Between the Dark and the Daylight

MARY PRATT Between the Dark and the Daylight, 2011 oil on canvas 50.8 x 76.2 cm

The lure of “capturing the real” is especially strong in Mary Pratt’s work. Her paintings present as moments in time—moments that she felt moved to preserve. She describes the impulse: “Seeing the groceries come in, for instance. Or cooking. I’m getting supper and suddenly I look at the roast in the oven or the cod fillet spread out on the foil, and I get this gut reaction. I think ‘that’s gorgeous, that’s absolutely wonderful and I must save it.’”

That impulse is shared: it comes from a longing to hold truth in your hands, to feel something of your own existence—a longing to feel alive. American writer Siri Hustvedt notes: “Still life is the art of the small thing, an art of holding on to the bits and pieces of our lives.” Mary Pratt’s paintings are not restricted to still life, but they are the ones that catch my eye. It is the sense of light they capture. The painting of the jelly jar is really about the way the light shines through the glass, the way that light is preserved, like the jelly, for all time.

When faced with great works of art, we tap into memories and smells, emotions and flavours, and experience familiar longings. I am by nature drawn to the light captured in Pratt’s work, the way the glass embraces the fruit in Bowl’d Banana (1981). I recognize that same obsession with light in the work of Caravaggio, Vermeer, Pieter de Hooch and Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin. As with the work of these great painters from the past, Mary Pratt’s paintings transcend time and place. Her subjects promise a bounty to come, dinners ahead, a breakfast for one, a mango sliced for a picnic. Just as the fresh grapes in Caravaggio’s TheSupper at Emmaus (1601) remain fresh and juicy through the centuries, Pratt has set the dinner table to feed our eternal soul.

Italo Calvino wrote, “Nobody looks at the moon in the afternoon, and this is the moment when it would most require our attention, since its existence is still in doubt.” Calvino’s musings offer a lens through which to view Pratt’s work. Her paintings reveal the elements that embody desire and life, and the satisfaction therein. They also convey intimations of mortality, holding our desires in check.

Caravaggio, Harmen Steenwyck and Théodore Géricault, to name only three, painted pictures that told of morality, mortality and the stuff of life. Some of their paintings fall into the still-life category of vanitas. These works were often dense with symbols: skulls, money, gold, books, rotting or fresh fruit, flowers in various states of bloom and decay. Vanitas paintings showcased the artist’s skill in handling paint and translating light. They were also warnings of the fleeting nature of life.

Split Grilse

MARY PRATT Split Grilse, 1979 oil on Masonite 56.1 x 64.0 cm

Pratt follows this tradition in her work, setting the composition simply, highlighting the main subject without distraction or clutter. Although many stories have been read into her simple subjects and pared-down compositions, Pratt doesn’t feel the need to narrate the scene. Her interests remain colour, light and the play of both on surface. As art historian Paddy O’Brien comments, Mary Pratt places items on plastic wrap or foil instead of traditional drapery. In so doing, her challenge is equal to, if not greater than, the challenges of those masters who came before her.

In her book on still-life painting, Erika Langmuir alludes to the genre’s ability to preserve flowers, fruit or summer forever. She describes the still life in the biblical scene The Supper at Emmaus: “By means of ‘the true imitation of nature,’ Caravaggio makes us witness the miraculous suspension of nature’s laws.” As art historian Norman Bryson writes:

Still life as a category within art criticism is almost as old as still life painting itself. The first modern still life showing such things as fruit, baskets, goblets, bowls, as independent pictures (not just details or margins in religious scenes) dates from the early 1600s: by the 1600s the French Academy already finds a place for still life in its aesthetic debates . . . In the later eighteenth century, Reynolds formulates a theory of still life in the Discourses, in which it features as a distinct branch of painting, taking its place alongside portraiture, landscape and history painting.

During my recent visit to Mary Pratt’s home, she mentioned that this exhibition of her work would be the first since her trip to Europe in 2008 to see the great galleries of Italy and Spain with her second husband, James Rosen. True to character, she fought the mindset that she should “love everything.” She was impressed by the work of Giotto and Goya in particular but felt confirmed in her belief that—in her own practice—art comes from life.

Pratt’s paintings create a still moment, one in which we can taste, smell and feel the elements just out of reach—inside the picture frame. As Hustvedt suggests, “A painting creates an illusion of an eternal present, a place where my eyes can rest as if the clock has magically stopped ticking.” In her work, she has cheated death, stopping the clock for that second and thus extending desire.

Mary Pratt’s training at Mount Allison University centred on still life painting; it was the basis of her education in fine arts. In The Art of Mary Pratt: The Substance of Light, Tom Smart describes her classes: “Mary was drilled in the basics of drawing, design, sculpture and working from still life before she was allowed to move on to a less structured senior year.” The still-life painting studio focused on design, both in the arrangement and treatment of groups of static objects and in the employment of the various techniques used in oil, watercolour and tempera painting.

In 1957, once out of school and married to fellow student and painter Christopher Pratt, Mary Pratt moved first to Glasgow, Scotland, where Christopher was a student at the Glasgow School of Art. In 1963, the family settled in the remote community near Sal­monier, Newfoundland. There she fit painting into and around her various duties as wife and mother. With little time to construct scenes from which she could paint, and finding that her preferred subject matter often perished before a new painting was complete, she eventually discovered the tool that she needed to stop time: the camera. Smart notes that her use of the camera was also a response to the unpredictability of light in Newfoundland: “The light wouldn’t stand still long enough for me to catch it,” she has said (nor could fish be left sitting on the kitchen counter for long).

Supper Table

MARY PRATT Supper Table 1969 oil on canvas 61.0 x 91.4 cm

Supper Table (1969)was the first painting that Mary Pratt made using a photograph. Christopher Pratt preferred slide film, which was particularly good at catching the light. These images allowed her to paint slowly: “The camera was my instrument of liberation. Now that I no longer had to paint on the run, I could pay each gut reaction its proper homage. I could paint anything that appealed to me: Barby eating an ice-cream cone, a dish of trifle in the garden, whatever. It also meant that I didn’t have to fuss all the time about the drawing. I could use the slide to establish the drawing and concentrate on the light, and the content and the symbolism.”

In this day of highly stylized food photography (“food porn”), Mary Pratt’s work seems ahead of the curve. She imbues her subjects—fish on tin foil, eviscerated chickens or a cut of beef ready for the oven—with a heightened presence and over­whelming sensuality. Like the vanitas paintings of the past, Pratt tempts us with the richness of this world.

In Sunday Dinner (1996),the glistening cut of meat, slightly out of focus on a shining silver platter, creates a powerful version of reality. What we are seeing, of course, is true—the image painted is the one that was photographed. Steve Edwards, in his short introduction to photography, explains: “Human vision is binocular, rather than monocular: Looking with two eyes spaced roughly 6 centimetres apart allows us to register spatial depth. This has important consequences for looking at pictures, because binocular vision enables us to see the flat picture surface as well as the depicted scene.”

It is precisely this that contributes to Mary Pratt’s work being unsettling, discomforting and affecting. Its off-kilter aesthetic and truth in representation put the viewer on edge. Our eyes and brain are unable to reconcile the flattened image with what we know to be “true.”

Pratt’s use of photographs becomes a point of interest when we see the detachment between artist and photographer. Describing a scene that recently caught her eye, she told me that she “asked Ned [her son] to get the camera.” As she says: “The photos and the paintings find me.” Despite this somewhat romantic notion, Pratt approaches each painting with a cold, clear eye. She uses photography to maintain objectivity. In her words, “The photograph keeps me cold. There’s no room for being messy and nostalgic.”

The use of photography to inform her work was introduced early in Pratt’s education: “Her classes at the Art Centre were balanced by others given by John Todd, a graphic artist and illustrator who set up a small studio serving the printing presses of Fredericton. Trained in New York at the Pratt Insti­tute, Todd brought to Fredericton an appreciation of photography as a source of images in the commercial art business.” Those commercial images informed Pratt’s aesthetic development and helped foster her predilection for smooth, glossy surfaces and streamlined composition. But the decision to use photography in her painting practice, beginning in 1969, was first and foremost a practical one, as described above.

The undercurrent of desire is strong in Pratt’s treat­ment of her subject matter—be it in the silky flesh of filleted fish (Cod Fillets in Cardboard Cartons, 1975), the shiny, taut tent of a turkey under foil (Christmas Turkey, 1980) or the glossy table of a patio scene (Artifacts on Astroturf,1982). Her everyday subjects glisten and quiver, ripe and ready to be savoured.

Eggs in an Egg Crate

MARY PRATT Eggs in an Egg Crate, 1975 oil on Masonite 50.8 x 61.0 cm

I return to the idea of vanitas. Pratt’s lush and luminous pictures allow us to see our world through new eyes. Her work resonates not only with painters of years gone by but also with artists of her generation. Montreal artist Sorel Cohen’s work questions our relationship to and perceptions of “women’s work.” Through her performances and photographs inBed of Want (1993), Cohen makes the most intimate of spaces—the bed—the subject of inquiry. Her photographs of an empty, unmade bed are presented as negative prints—the black and white are reversed — evoking forensic documentation. How long has the bed been vacant? Who was last in it? Was this a sick bed? A marital bed? Did a mother nurse a child here? She also raises questions of domesticity: Whose job is it to make this bed? And ultimately, why put this object under this level of scrutiny? The same may be asked of Pratt’s subjects. Why immortalize a cut of beef, ready for Sunday dinner?

The roast of beef, prepared to feed a family, is the centrepiece at the dinner table. I am reminded of Jana Sterbak’s “flesh dress.” Vanitas: Flesh Dress for an Albino Anorectic (1987) is remade for each exhibition from twenty kilograms of flank steak. The meat is prepared, heavily salted, cut to pattern and sewn to form a dress, which hangs and desiccates over the course of the exhibition. The ideas of desire, consumption and beauty are all called into question by this powerful work. Vanitas—a warning, a call to action.

Mary Pratt tells me: “In order to be a good painter, you have to live a full life.” She is heeding the implied warning in her own paintings—vanitas translates from Latin as “emptiness.” The careful, minute reading of everyday moments, paused for eternity by Pratt’s hand, prevents a life of emptiness and guarantees, instead, a full life. 

Sarah Fillmore is the chief curator of the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia and Curator of the Sobey Art Award.

Reprinted from Mary Pratt. Text copyright © 2013 by The Rooms Corporation of Newfoundland and Labrador, the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia and Goose Lane Editions; images copyright © by Mary Pratt. Reproduced by permission of the publishers and copyright holders.  

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