Late still lifes by Ivana Kobilca (1861–1926) are notable for their slight colour and spatial permutations and are understood as a continuation and distillation of a motif that attracted the painter throughout her life. The focus on a direct and inviting genre can also be understood in the light of expectations and limitations faced by women artists, while the serialization reminds us that the viewer is witnessing the results of a creative ritual.
Kobilca’s Still Lifes
All floral still lifes kept at the National Gallery of Slovenia are from the artist’s late period, from 1914 onwards, when Kobilca was living in Ljubljana after her return from Berlin at the onset of the First World War. The artist was 53 when she finally left the German capital, her last European sojourn. Her still lifes were becoming simplified and by the time of her death the painter depicted flowers with limited changes to the original formula.
Dahlias, (private collection, c. 1914), are the most colourful late still life. Different sorts of dahlias are placed in a white vase on a bright table, half-covered with a tablecloth. The petals are painted with swift and thin strokes, which animate the still life. Bright colour scale echoes the Berlin years and the painting must have been completed soon after Kobilca’s return to the Carniolan capital.
Still Life with Poppies is the most dramatic still life in the series. The bright red blooms stand out against the dark colours of the background and the tablecloth. The picture is a study of one sort as seen in different profiles and stages of flowering. Some blossoms are open or closed, some stalks are pushing upward, while others are bending under the weight of the flower, and some blooms are facing the viewer, while others are turned towards the wall.
Two paintings of chrysanthemums are very similar. For both, Kobilca used the same glass vase and a small table. She only changed the decorative silk ribbons (she had around a hundred of them) and the tablecloth. Still Life with Chrysanthemums I creates spatial depth by means of a looking glass leaning against the plain wall behind the bouquet, while Still Life with Chrysanthemums II builds space with a china dish leaning against the wall, both decorated with floral motifs.
Kobilca placed two bouquets of roses in front of a similar brown background and on a tablecloth that fuses with the wall and barely functions as picture space. She focused her attention on the yellow flowers; the bouquet in Still Life with Roses I is placed in a vase with the same floral motif we see on the dish in Chrysanthemums II, while the vase in Still Life with Roses II is the same as the one in Still Life with Poppies.
Still Lifes and Women Painters
The academies also prevented women from becoming painters. The reason was “common sense morality”: the pillar of academic study was life drawing, including nude models, making the practice completely unacceptable for women. Women, who nevertheless became painters and who were in exceptional cases allowed to attend academies, were often slandered, especially if their figures were dexterously painted. Thus, we can understand that Kobilca, like many women painters before her, focused on still life and portrait, since these genres did not require the study of the (naked) human form.
Despite obstacles, Kobilca succeeded with the help of supporting parents, her study abroad, and bourgeois and Church contacts. Her supposed conformity should not be understood as a lack of skill or ambition, but as a tactic that led to the greatest possible subversion: the most successful Slovenian artist of all time is the person who was most held back by the society.