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Still-life masterpieces serve visual feast at N.C. Museum of Art
Carolina Meadows

A Visual Feast from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
North Carolina Museum of Art, Fall/Winter 2012/13

Still-life painting – without calling it by that name – has been around a long time.
When the ashes from the eruption of the Vesuvius in 79 A.D. were finally cleared away from the homes of Pompeii, wall paintings and mosaics appeared with pictures of bowls of fruit and other foods, often arranged on kitchen-like cupboards. These daily food items were called xenia and represented hospitality gifts the owner of the house offered his guests (incidentally, the Spanish word for still-life ”bodegón” also means pantry).

The Greek philosopher Heraclitus made the observation that life is an unrelenting stream of impressions and nothing stays the same. The desire to halt this stream and turn a particular moment into a permanent time fragment is a nostalgic human wish. In modern times there are several ways which come close to catching that time fragment: photographs, video (stills) and holograms are examples of realistic resemblances. But in ancient times, drawings and paintings were the only way to connect a memorable item to a treasured memory. Therefore, paintings needed to be hyper-realistic. Besides requiring great artistic skills, artists would employ devices such as trompe-l’oeil to enhance the “touchability” of the artwork, fooling the eye of the public. It could create an allusion or take on metaphoric significance. This became particularly pronounced in Renaissance still-life painting.

During the Middle Ages, religious painting became more dominant. However, in the Renaissance, interest in still-life painting resumed to the point that it acquired an equal place among religious, historical and other categories of painting. Italy and the Netherlands were leading the way in still-life theme expansion. Market scenes with vendors and larger varieties of fruit, vegetables and wildlife items appeared. Musical instruments became a popular subject. A growing interest in science showed up in tableaus with books, pinned notes on boards, and academic paraphernalia. Most pronounced were the skulls, snuffed candles and broken stems of flowers in the Vanitas paintings, representing their Memento Mori message and thus urging the human race to live an honorable life.

The present exhibit counts several exquisitely painted still-lives from the 19th and 20th Century of predominantly French and American painters, among others Fantin-Latour (1872), Cezanne (1899), James Peale (1830), MacDonald-Wright (1923).
20th Century artists, experimenting with new styles, dropped the hyper-realistic still-life technique but held on to the term ”still life”. Among others: Braque (1921), Gris (1925), Morris (1941), Kline (1946).

For the unsuspecting visitor to this exhibition who anticipates just paintings with beautifully arranged flower bouquets, tastefully built stacks of fruit and dead ducks precariously hanging over the edge of a table, there are surprises in store.
The organizers of the show took the concept “still life” a step further by including three-dimensional objects such as a covered porcelain dish in the shape of a sunflower (London, Chelsea Factory, 1750). And a Sevres porcelain ice-cream cooler (c.1750), showing painted magnolias and lilies. From these objects it was just a small step to add jewelry. There is a delicate Dandelion Brooch by Jan Yager, American (2001). The dandelion weed that grows in the cracks of the sidewalk in Philadelphia where she lives is executed in silver and holds in the center a found object piece of autoglass as a gem.
This is a still-life. Is perhaps every object on its own a potential still-life?

Yager’s accompanying text (metaphor) of the Dandelion Brooch: “Growth and decay are inseparately interwoven. The decay of one thing provides fertile ground for another.”

The last room in the exhibition area is a small video cubicle. The creator of the artwork “Still Life” (2001), a 3-minute time-lapse photography piece, is Sam Taylor-Wood, a 60-year-old, British-born woman. The subject: a wicker plate on a table piled high with apples, pears and peaches. A plastic blue pen lies to the right in the foreground.

When the video starts the fruit looks juicy and healthy, but soon the pear in the foreground shows brown spots, a mold growth rises up over the peach, while to the right, more in the dark – one can not clearly see what is happening – a greenish mist rises. After a while, the formation begins to sag and the mist concentrates around the molding fruit, until the pile is one rotting mass. The plastic blue pen does not change.

To quote the exhibition catalog entry: “Taylor-Wood, a cancer survivor, often uses puns as titles. Like life, this video, by its nature, is anything but still.”

By Jonny Prins

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