Summary

Still Life with Frying Pan and Red Cabbage depicts a collection of objects drawn from Louisa Matthiasdottir's immediate domestic environment. Its title is characteristically spare and descriptive. The eponymous cabbage and frying pan are placed on a table with a blue and white cloth whose surface dominates this large canvas. They sit amongst a variety of other kitchen utensils and produce, such as an orange, a coffee-pot and a butternut squash. A circular mirror behind the table partially reflects the carefully arranged objects. The lower section of the painting is criss-crossed by a busy network of disjointed diagonals and recedes from the viewer. In contrast to this, the upper section, which depicts the wall and mirror beyond the table, is flat and largely devoid of detail. Its vertical plane is continuous with that of the wall upon which the painting itself might hang. The depicted mirror therefore meets the viewer's gaze on the same plane as might a real mirror, yet it conspicuously fails to offer the viewer a reassuring image of him or herself. Its emptiness thus evokes the still-life tradition of the vanitas. The fruit and vegetables also allude to this tradition. Their limited life and imminent decay refer to the transience of earthly pleasures and the inevitability of death. The precariousness of life is implied further by the perilously balanced objects at the centre of the canvas. The butternut squash leans against the frying pan which itself is balanced on its edge, thus suggesting an impending collapse. Throughout her career, Matthiasdottir repeatedly returned to the same familiar subject matter for her still lifes, restricting herself to a relatively limited range of objects. These were close to hand, to be found within the confines of the New York brownstone house where she lived from 1954 until her death in 2000. Despite the intensity of her colours and the confident, broad paint handling, Matthiasdottir's still lifes are without dramatic flourish.

This steadfastness in regard to subject matter applies equally to Matthiasdottir's landscapes and portraits. She painted the people closest to her, most often her daughter Temma and, frequently, herself. Moreover, in spite of having left her native Iceland in her early twenties, the landscapes and cityscapes repeatedly depict Matthiasdottir's homeland. Those sparsely populated landscapes and cityscapes, in which figures appear self-contained and isolated from one another, have been compared to the work of Giorgio de Chirico (1888-1978) and Edward Hopper (1882-1967). It is this sense of isolation that creeps into Matthiasdottir's still lifes after 1970, of which Still Life with Frying Pan and Red Cabbage is a major example. Before 1970, her still lifes were laid out more traditionally, with objects overlapping in a more compact arrangement. Subsequently, the objects selected became formally simpler, almost geometric in shape, and they are scattered over the surface of the table. In Still Life with Frying Pan and Red Cabbage, each object is resolutely separate from the rest. Only the frying pan is partially eclipsed by other objects, the spatula and the butternut squash, creating a moment of pictorial commotion in contrast to the restrained isolation of the other elements. The careful separation of all the objects renders the arrangement more staged, less naturalistic than earlier, more animated still lifes such as Still Life with Pitcher, 1967 (private collection). The arrangement of objects in Still Life with Frying Pan and Red Cabbage is unlikely to have occurred in everyday life and so points to the ordered artifice of painting. Matthiasdottir expressed this with characteristic simplicity when she said that 'either a form fits a painting or it doesn't. After all a painting isn't really a still life or a landscape, it's a mere canvas. It can never be real life. It has to be painting (quoted in Louisa Matthiasdottir: paintings 1930s-1990s, [p.2]).'

Further reading:
Louisa Matthiasdottir, exhibition catalogue, Kjarvalsstadir Listasafn Reykjavik, Reykjavik 1993.
Jed Perl (ed.), Louisa Matthiasdottir, Reykjavik, 1999, reproduced in colour, p.122.
Louisa Matthiasdottir: paintings 1930s-1990s, exhibition catalogue, Kendall Campus Art Gallery of Miami-Dade Community College, Miami 1996, reproduced in colour, [p.16].

Helen Delaney
November 2001