Not long ago I started comparing street artists with the kind of art that you would generally expect to find in the likes of the National Gallery or the Tate. You can see the links I made between ROA and Stubbs here.
There’s a divide between these two kinds of art which we’ve almost subconsciously maintained for a long time, but which is just starting to shift. That one is “low” art and the other “high”.
This distinction between low and high art is an arbitrary one first established in the eighteenth century to divide art into that which could only be appreciated by those with the most sophisticated and educated taste, and then low art for the masses. For the sake of clarity, I will continue to refer to my more classical-style pieces as “high art”, but as I’m sure you’ll quickly see, this classification doesn’t really stick.
I’d like to start by talking about the incredible Fanakapan. He is genuinely one of my favourite street artists at the moment. It’s the kind of work where you have to and really want to touch it just to check it’s not real.
Fanakapan is originally from Dorset and is now based in London so you may have seen some of his hyper realistic balloons around the city. He comes from a prop-making background which inspired him to paint 3D objects to try and depict them as realistically as possible.
And that’s why Fanakapan is a perfect comparison to…
*drum roll please*…
Pieter Claesz (1594 – 1680)!
No, don’t know him? Well, all that’s about to change. He was part of the still life wave which took off in the Dutch Republic in the seventeenth century.
If you look at his Still Life with Drinking Vessels in the National Gallery as an example, the artistic movement was all about depicting objects as realistically as possible, just like Fanakapan. Claesz played with different materials: glass, cloth, fruit, metal, to show he could paint each one, and he challenged himself by making a mess, so that everything overlaps and interacts with everything else, and he’s shown he can paint the objects in odd positions but still make them a whole. It’s a cohesive composition, not just a disparate assortment of random objects.
Fanakapan’s balloons similarly react to each other and their environment. They’re not standalone pieces. In his balloon bubble writing especially, the letters overlap and seem to bounce off each other. It’s like someone’s actually holding them by strings at the bottom and is about to let go, and they’re all cleverly squashed into whatever area Fanakapan has to work with.
From the National Gallery website.
Realism has been a central focus of Western Art for centuries. It was all the rage during the Renaissance, generally considered to have kicked off in Italy in the fifteenth century, and then more widely in Western Art for several centuries after that. Less so when you get into Impressionism in the late nineteenth century and then onwards into modern art, largely because the invention of the camera meant that painting no longer needed to be the bulwark of posterity that it had been for so long. But that’s a matter for another blog post.
Jumping back to seventeenth century Europe, after the Eighty Years’ War with Spain ended in 1648, the Dutch Republic emerged with its solidified independence and quickly became a political and economic powerhouse. This period of history became known as the Dutch Golden Age, as the Republic dominated international trade and established a vast colonial empire. Obviously only a golden age for one side of that arrangement…
As a result of all of this wealth coming into the northern Dutch provinces, more people could buy nice stuff (and luckily there was more nice stuff arriving which people could buy), and on top of that, more people could buy and commission art! Basically, so they could have paintings of all the nice new stuff they were buying.
It’s the equivalent of us nowadays taking pictures of our food and posting it on Instagram, so that we can show people all the delicious food we can afford to guzzle down. #hipsterlife, am I right?
People wanted really nice paintings of their expensive things, but also really realistic paintings because, you know, #nofilter, and so accuracy was very important. It was also a challenge for the artists and became a demonstration of their own skill to be able to convince the viewer that what they were looking at was real. Fanakapan is similar. He’s flattered when people tell him they thought his work was real at first glance. Because it’s true that that’s one of the biggest compliments you can pay someone when they’ve worked so incredibly hard to realistically depict what’s in front of them. To hear that it’s so lifelike that it was briefly mistaken for the real deal. I’m always blown away, for example, by how Fanakapan even incorporates his environment into the reflections of his balloons. It’s something that’s so special about street art , in that, a gallery painting can move around, be sold on, and end up anywhere in the world. A piece of street art is stuck to a wall (generally, but not exclusively) and can’t be (easily) moved, so the environment it’s in becomes an incorporated and important part of the work. By including the reflection in so much detail, Fanakapan heightens that realism for us.
It was similar for the Dutch still life painters, and really, it’s been a lot like that generally in the history of Western Art. Accurate reflection has always been a sign of a great artist. Jan van Eyck did it in 1434 with his mirror in the Arnolfini Portrait, Caravaggio did it in the late sixteenth century with Narcissus, Monet obsessed with reflection and the movement of light in his water lily paintings in the late nineteenth century. Even our very own Pieter Claesz in Vanitas with Violin and Glass Ball (1625) includes a hyper realistic glass ball with a self-portrait of himself reflected in it. It’s absolutely exquisite. The only reason I’m not using this one as the main comparison with Fanakapan is because it’s in Nuremburg in Germany and I’m trying to stay London-based! But it is worth mentioning because the self-portrait in Vanitas does remind me of a balloon dog by Fanakapan which appeared in Shoreditch a few years ago. On the dog’s left foreleg, Fanakapan had included a silhouette, maybe it was meant to be the artist, maybe it was intended to be you, the viewer. Or more recently, his new Snoopy mural in Berlin which includes the same kind of reflection. It’s a clever way to make the audience feel like part of the art as well.
The title Vanitas with Violin and a Glass Ball also tells us a bit about how these still life paintings were understood in their day. They were known as ‘Vanitas’ paintings, a nod to the emptiness of material ambitions, or a ‘memento mori’, literally meaning ‘remember thou shalt die’, and both terms are meant as a reminder to lead a good and moral life. The Dutch Republic was Protestant so services were very plain, churches were generally unadorned and the magnificent, gold altarpieces of old were no longer required. This meant that people could no longer get their weekly dose of moralising from religious art and so these moral messages transferred to their close second… still life. I know, it seems like an odd transition, but when people’s souls are at stake, desperate times call for desperate measures, and your grapes could very easily become a sign of Christian values or your lobster could turn into a symbol of gluttony and temptation.
In Still Life with Drinking Vessels, the strawberries (which, I’ll admit, look a bit like raspberries) in the foreground are considered fruits of paradise and were representative of the human soul. They are front and centre. And then arranged around the fruit are the symbols indicating how you could protect your soul in this gluttonous, sinful world. Strawberries, and especially strawberry leaves, were also seen as a symbol of the Holy Trinity, and we can see very prominently one of the three-pointed leaves of the strawberry plant spilling over the edge of the dish. On the left hand side of the painting, paired together, is the age-old duo of the bread and wine, the body and blood of Christ, and tucked away behind them is a bowl of olives. Just as the dove brought the olive branch back to Noah as a sign of peace and a fresh start now that the great flood was over, the olives in the still life could be interpreted as a sign of man’s peace with God, especially in its proximity to the bread and wine.
On the other hand, these paintings were also often a sign of wealth and extravagance (which is possibly why they also came with the free moral smallprint not to get caught up too much in the collection of worldly goods). The Rummer drinking glass with the ornately studded grip would have been expensive and the small bowl with the strawberries is Chinese porcelain, extremely valuable in the seventeenth century.
And there are other paintings by Claesz, for example, Breakfast Still Life (1640), which show similar examples of wealth. Here we have the exotic herbs and spices you can make out quite clearly in the meat pie, and also the lemon, not exactly native to the cooler climes of northern Europe. They’re all symbols of that burgeoning trade in the Dutch Republic at the time. We can see the clockwork pocket watch in the bottom left corner as well: a sign of technological advancement, but also possibly another subtle reminder that our time on this Earth is limited so we should use it wisely.
So you can see that interpreting these paintings isn’t easy, and a lot of it is very subjective. Fanakapan takes a similar approach to his work. He very rarely imposes a view on you and prefers to leave his work open to your interpretation. I particularly like his astronaut which is currently floating peacefully above Brick Lane. It’s very clever because it’s painted across the corner of a building, so he’s had to use an anamorphic, stretched painting technique to make it look flat when seen from across the street. Fanakapan has said that he wanted to paint the astronaut purely because the walls were already painted black. For me, because of the anamorphosis, it actually reminds me of Holbein’s The Ambassadors (which I’ve talked about quite a bit here). Funnily enough, Holbein’s anamorphic skull was also a ‘momento mori’ which ties it in really nicely with all our talk about Dutch still life. Now, I’m not saying that Fanakapan’s astronaut is a reminder that we’re all going to die and we need to find Jesus Christ as a result, but I really like that funny link and that’s what it always makes me think of.
I’ve spent my time here fighting for the recognition of street art but in reality we’re probably already most of the way there. Street art has definitely made its way up in the world in the last few decades and nowadays there are collectors who’d pay just as much for a piece by a street artist (especially if it’s a Banksy), as a buyer at Christie’s would for a Monet! And I’ve seen enough street art tours going on in Shoreditch to know that the love is alive and thriving.
Street art and “high” art are not the same, that’s not what I’ve been trying to show. It would be naïve to assume that all street artists are just waiting for their big break into the gallery world. Fanakapan does do studio work and takes commissions because that’s how he makes money, like many other street artists, but that still doesn’t mean he’ll leave the street art world behind. Street art is an excellent way to show off your work and become recognised, especially in a world of social media where a quick pic and hashtag can almost instantly go viral. In addition, Fanakapan isn’t aiming for a career exclusively in galleries because the urban environment is so much a part of his work. He uses the environment to enhance his art, something that would be lost in many cases if confined within the four walls of a gallery. It’s the same with ROA, whose animals are most at home on the walls of the city where they themselves live.
It’s been so much fun finding comparisons between two, seemingly polar opposite worlds. The idea that really, maybe, it’s not so crazy to consider a gallery where a ROA stands next to a Stubbs and Fanakapan is featured with a set of Dutch still lifes. Dulwich Picture Gallery did a similar thing a few years back. They were also trying to tap into those two worlds, which often see themselves as more opposing than they actually are. For that person who loves Da Vinci and Van Gogh but sees street art as defacement, as well as for someone who obsessively roams the city after Banksy and Fanakapan but would also assume that there’s nothing for them in the National Gallery or the Wallace Collection. They’re just different genres of art, which each deserves its own time in the spotlight.