Put like that, it sounds like a lonely and reclusive pursuit, doesn’t it, a depressive’s pursuit almost — and I think it is. The still-life painter doesn’t have and doesn’t need teams of assistants to do this and that for him. His scale is modest. He does it all himself. He chooses the objects, he places the objects, he moves the objects, a centimetre here, a millimetre there. The still-life painter has no need of weather, of models, of daylight, of big studios, of erudition, of classical references and, above all, of other people. It’s just him in the room and his chosen things. Thus, the true still-life painter is preordained to be a loner, a curmudgeon, a one-off, and the greatest of them, from Chardin to Cézanne to Luis Melendez, have been exactly that.
Melendez crashed into my orbit only in 1987. I had never heard of him before the National Gallery in London went out and bought a masterpiece by him featuring a half dozen oranges, a couple of terracotta jugs, some boxes of sweets and a melon, all plonked down artlessly, it seemed, on a knobbly wooden table. The gallery put its new acquisition on show and the first time I saw it I had a mild attack of Stendhal’s syndrome: my body started prickling in the upper-neck area and a long “wow” seeped slowly out through my lips. The oranges glowed as if they had Halloween candles inside them; the cheap wood from which the sweet boxes were made was so miraculously tangible, you could imagine its splinters going in under your nails.
How come I have never heard of this guy, I fretted. When I got home, I started opening up my encyclopedias and my overviews of 18th-century European painting. Melendez wasn’t in them. In fact, where his career should have fitted, from 1740 to 1780, there was a large hole in Spanish art. Nobody was there. From the death of Murillo to the coming of Goya, nada. Melendez may have been dead for 200 years, but as far as the canon was concerned, he was a new discovery.
Looking back on it, the National Gallery’s purchase of Melendez’s oranges and sweetmeats was an exemplary act of curatorial prescience. These days, Melendez is recognised all over the shop as a Spanish Chardin: darker, flashier, more macho, for sure, but an important player on the road to naturalness. It has been noted that Dali learnt from him, and that Melendez’s super-vivid fruit overloads, with their fantastically convincing illusionistic detailing, have a hysterical edge to them and were surreal a couple of centuries before the term was invented.
The National Gallery of Ireland’s mouth-watering — and I mean that literally — look-back at Melendez’s career has 40 paintings in it, all still lifes. They are similar enough to feel relentless and yet, on closer examination, overflow with differences. It’s a cascade of invention channelled down the narrowest of streams.
Melendez was born in Naples, in 1716, into a family of Spanish painters. They moved back to Spain when he was two, and little Luis seems to have taken two things with him. One was a taste for Italian-style super-fruit that has been brought to the point of extra-ripeness by the sun. How violently red and ripe are his bulging beef tomatoes; how unfeasibly huge and wet are his ridiculous watermelons. Melendez’s fruit makes British agriculture look shrunken, dry, glum, beige and pathetic.
His second import from Naples was a particular kind of darkness: it is a darkness without sadness, a non-pessimistic midsummer darkness that dramatises everything set against it as a black velvet cushion dramatises a jeweller’s diamonds. This exciting blackness at the back of the picture had originally been stolen by Neapolitan art from Caravaggio, who brought it with him from Rome while on the run after committing his murder. It’s a darkness of the day, not of the night, charged not with a sense of absence or any variety of melancholia but with the thrill of escape. For me, it’s the darkness of the siesta, of closing the shutters and lying naked on the bed with your maya beside you, her best bits illuminated by a shaft of fierce midday sun that has broken into the room like a burglar.
Excuse the purpleness of these observations: it’s a mini-attack of Stendhal’s syndrome. Melendez’s vivid art jabs like a pin into excitable bits of your memory. But even if you haven’t savoured the sweaty pleasures of the transgressive siesta, your taste buds will feel their juices rising at the sight of Melendez’s remarkably tactile tomatoes, his gargantuan watermelons, his 200-watt oranges and his outrageous, bursting pomegranates.
Melendez trained originally as a painter of miniatures, which was how he sharpened his powers of observation to their obsessive point. His father was the official painter of miniatures to the Spanish king, and little Luis, substantially more talented than his father, assumed, not unnaturally, that he would follow his father into the post. The catalogue lists his recurrent and pathetic petitions to the king to take him on. It never happened. So it was out of desperation rather than any higher motivation that he turned, in about 1760, to still life. Nobody else was painting them. They sold on the open market. It was, you feel, a ruthless decision.
Thus, there was from the off an absence of tenderness in Melendez’s extraordinary evocations of a heap of plums on a table, a loaf of bread and a jug. With most still-life specialists, with Chardin above all, you sense a bond of affection between the painter and his simple things. But not with Melendez. His self-appointed task is to show off his exceptional skills by painting what is before him with miraculous clarity. The wrinkled loaf of bread, which he records with astonishing detail, or the bulky wine cooler that patrols the backgrounds of so many of his groupings, are humble objects involved in a proud display of expertise. Here’s a cocky painter going mano a mano with his objects.
Most of the pictures in the show were painted to fulfil a single remarkable commission from the Prince of Asturias, who wanted everything Melendez produced. The entire set belongs to the Prado now: 44 successive still lifes, all in matching frames. Receiving this commission was the central event in Melendez’s career. It left him little time to do anything else and must have been a source of great anxiety as well as a huge workload. Unable to repeat himself, he was pushed to come up with 44 variations on a single theme. Melendez coped with the commission brilliantly. It forced him to experiment with different arrangements, different fruit, different moods, swapping from horizontal to vertical formats, from brightly coloured, pomegranate-packed pictures to mono-coloured simple ones starring the utensils. As a result of all the enforced variation, this remarkable parade of still lifes never stops surprising you.
Melendez died a pauper, ignored by everyone. The show covers 20 years of his output, from 1760 to 1780. As you watch him staring ever more intently at his things, you sense that anger is replacing love as the artist’s main emotional motor. I don’t think it’s a trick of the light. This man is going mad before your eyes. Look, for instance, at his pomegranates. Real fruit achieves ripeness slowly: Melendez’s pomegranates arrive at theirs with a magnificent, shuddering orgasm that has opened them up with a thunderclap and caused their seed to explode. Still life is the control freak’s best genre. But it doesn’t get you out much.