Juan Gris: Still Life with Guitar
John Frederick Peto: Student's Materials
Paul Cézanne: Fruit and Jug on Table
As one might expect there are fruits and flowers aplenty in the large still life show currently at the North Carolina Museum of Art, and ordinarily my eyes would glaze over at the very thought. But this show is something else. Amazingly varied, it stretches the meaning of "still life" farther than I would have thought possible.
Many of the 63 pieces in the show, all pulled from the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, would, in most art histories, be labeled by other rubrics: "cubism," "abstraction," "trompe-l'oeil," "vanitas." Apparently, the curators of this assemblage, which ranges from the 17th century to the present, see most of these as "sub-genres."
As modernism came into being, cubists found still-life motifs particularly useful. Witness the late cubist paintings by Juan Gris, Still Life with Guitar (1925), and Georges Braque, Still Life with Peaches, Pears and Grapes (1921), and the earlier Jean Metzinger, Fruit and a Jug on a Table (1916).
Gris' early training in an academic's studio, we are told, made him "disgusted with good painting." Reality lay elsewhere. In his quite appealing Still Life with Guitar space twists and turns. The guitar sides undulate; without strings, the black stem seems to cut below the guitar surface into oblivion. Together with a curvaceous bottle and a compote whose outer dimensions are spatially illogical, its sides getting larger as we move back while its interior narrows, the guitar rests impossibly on an upended table. Behind all this Gris paints a frame surrounding a patch of blue (sky?) suggesting that everything we see takes place in an interior world. And yet, like other cubists, Gris emphasizes the flatness of the canvas.
Because of its range, at times the show seems to reveal unexpected parallels. The first painting we see is a 17th century "Vanitas Still Life," a trompe l'oeil experiment by Cornelis Gijbrechts that carries an array of symbols of human transience - skull, hour glass, candle, strands of dead wheat, a bubble - all set against a dark background. Gijbrechts takes his trompe l'oeil an ironic, almost surreal, step further by underlining the fact that trompe l'oeil, fooling the eye, is, after all, deliberate foolery: in the upper right the canvas seems to peel from its frame, but the peeling itself is, of course, painted on canvas.
What strikes me, however, is the powerful sense of dark silence that pervades the work. Nothing moves. Two centuries later the mood seems to emanate from a very different painting, an example of 19th century American realism. Almost everything in John Frederick Peto's Student Materials is precariously, almost impossibly, balanced. Books are worn and torn; a single candle is extinguished; a tobacco pipe lies empty. The entire painting is dark and silent.
But now what of the fruit, flowers, vases that fill most of the canvases in these rooms? Am I really that disdainful? No, because the point of the show is scarcely the simple representation of pears, apples and hollyhocks. We are made to focus on the techniques, on the paint itself. In David Bates' Magnolia (1993). swirls of thick paint rear up to form a white blossom; heavy greens and browns describe intertwining leaves and twigs; all rests on broad strokes of white paint that become white boards.
In Maurice Prendergast's sparkling Still Life (about 1910-1913), objects - apples, urn, compote, teapot - almost disappear under thick patches of brilliant color, and in fact some almost fade, apparently hovering in air and screened by background brushstrokes. As the catalogue notes, Prendergast's broken color has a mosaic-like effect. Nor are objects at all important in Henri Matisse's lucid Vase of Flowers (1924) with its series of rectangles - shutter, window, curtain - resting on an area of red and white stripes and set off by wall paper decorated by quick brushstrokes. The vase and flowers themselves are little more than dabs of paint.
But dabs of paint may, if they result in bright light and intense reflections, lure one to works like the scintillating Apples in a Tin Pail (1892) by Levi Wells Prentice and Still Life with Arum Lilies and Fruit (1932) by Stanton Macdonald-Wright. The tin pail sheds light and mirrors images of apples that themselves bounce patches of light. Almost every surface in the Macdonald-Wright work revels in light that reveals its texture and nature.
Both Pierre-August Renoir's brilliant 19th century Mixed Flowers in an Earthenware Pot and Simone del Tintore's equally brilliant 17th century Still Life with Flowers, Vegetables, and Pigeons are valuable studies in color, textures and brushstrokes that would be useful to an art student. In Renoir, tiny shining flakes of oil create one set of blossoms, while broad sweeps create others. Tintore's far more elaborate work requires feathery strokes on the pigeons, firmer strokes on a basket above them, and very different approaches for a pot of flowers at the top.
Surprisingly, beyond flowers, fruit and pots, the curators have included more than one painting that is essentially abstract: in Peter Plamondon's Quilt with Green Teapot (1975), the teapot, a milk-pitcher, and a dish of snails disappear in the midst of a sea of colorful snippets forming the quilt. Lacking anything but the slightest tints, Barnet Rubenstein's Oyster Pails #4 (1978-79), piles row on row of white cardboard containers, sans oysters, on top of one another; turned in various directions and filling almost the entire canvas, their patterns create an essentially minimalist work.
Also lacking the bright hues we see elsewhere is Antonio Lopez Garcia's Sink and Mirror (1967), but with bright light bouncing off the white tiles of a bathroom, a porcelain sink, and a mirror that reflects the tiles, we scarcely miss them. Garcia also creates a fascinating perspectival quirk: we meet the mirror and a glass shelf head on, but halfway down, the wall curves inward so that we see the sink and a bit of the floor from above. I suspect that Garcia borrowed the idea from the cubists.
The catalogue and wall notes quite rightly make much of the profound influence of Paul Cezanne, and the show has one, relatively simple, example: Fruit and a Jug on a Table (1890s). For more complex (and, I think, more satisfying) works you will want to visit Washington's National Gallery.
The rooms also contain work one would not expect to find here: a number of crafted household objects like a French bottle cooler painted with images of fruit, a French water jug with floral decorations, both 18th century; there is also a stunning 19th century Tiffany silver pitcher covered with repoussed floral carvings. Within the potpourri of paintings, we find hooked fish and game birds presented as still-lifes. I found myself taken by William Aiken Walker's bright Dollarfish and Sheepshead (1860), the two fish hanging on planks of blond unpainted wood, the striations of the wood echoing the shape of the fish.
All of Still-Life Masterpieces - fish, fowl, flowers and fruit - remains at NCMA through next January 13. For details, see the sidebar.