The North Carolina Museum of Art’s current exhibition, Still-Life Masterpieces: A Visual Feast from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, offers a perspective of still-life art which is quite different than any I’ve previously experienced. While I am usually quick to write off still-life works as boring and without depth, imagining the classic 16th century Flemish or Dutch fruit bowl or flower vase, this exhibition brought the classic genre into a new light. The artworks on display range from the Renaissance era to modern times, have made their way to NC from all over the globe, and are the work of such noteworthy masters as Georgia O’Keefe, Braque, Franz Kline, John Singleton Copley, Matisse, Manet, Cezanne, Giorgia Morandi, Corbet and Renoir. The show offers viewers a chance to ponder the art of observation and the pleasure of simply looking at something in a way that is unhurried, mindful and attentive to detail. Still-life paintings force you to rethink the way you go through daily life by allowing prolonged scrutiny of minute details and the beauty of simple, everyday objects.
Throughout the gallery viewers will find bowls of scrumptious fruit adorning the walls, some intensely realistic, others post-impressionistic feats of distorted form and evident brushstroke. The close-up view of objects allows one to notice the beauty of the mundane in the light, color and form. The exhibition also expands the traditional notion of still-life art by including silverware, table dishes, jewelry and vases.
Many of the show’s pieces are centered around the most traditional of still-life subject matter -- bowls of fruit, vases of flowers, bottles arranged on a table -- but the ones I found most intriguing were the pieces categorized as “vanitas” still-lifes. I recall this term from my art history studies, and it was a genre that was slightly morbid while also impossibly interesting. Vanitas paintings include certain objects -- maybe a floating bubble, burning candle or skull -- which reminds us of the transient nature of earthly life and pursuits. The vanitas theme is strong in a variety of works ranging from 16th century realist paintings by Cornelis Gijsbrechts to a modern depiction of Chinese takeout boxes by Barnett Newman which teeters toward abstraction.
Perhaps my favorite piece in the entire exhibition is one entitled Cabbages, painted by Polly Thayer in 1936. Cabbages is a zoom-in of a bunch of cabbage heads, rendered in intensely vivid blues, greens and purples, and is proof that something so un-glamorous and banal as a cabbage can provide major impact.
Still-Life Masterpieces: A Visual Feast from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, will make NCMA its home until January 13, 2013.
Written by Creative Genius, Katie.