The idea of a still-life painting may conjure staid images of flowers and bowls of fruit. But swing by the new exhibition at the N.C. Museum of Art, and you’ll find some variations on the theme: Leering skulls give way to cubist puzzlers, copper jewelry, gaudy pineapple cups from the ’60s – everything but the kitchen sink. Oops, wait a second. They’ve got that, too.
“Still-Life Masterpieces: A Visual Feast from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston” surveys more than 400 years of art history. Among the 70-plus works are paintings from American and European masters including Paul Cézanne, Henri Matisse, Georgia O’Keeffe and Pierre-Auguste Renoir.
Still-life painting has its origins in ancient Greek and Roman art, but it emerged as a distinct form toward the end of the 16th century in Europe. Discoveries in the New World powered a renewed interest in the natural world and scientific illustrations.
Within art schools, still lifes allowed artists to display their skills with lighting, surfaces and textures. Several items in the NCMA exhibit employ the trompe l’oeil (“trick the eye”) style of illusionism in which paintings have a nearly photographic realism. The show is a traveling exhibition sponsored by the Boston museum, and features the highlights of their still-life collection.
At a recent preview, curator Dennis Weller discussed the opening image, “Vanitas Still Life,” a rather grim painting about the transient nature of life by 17th-century Flemish artist Cornelis Notbertus Gijsbrechts.
“This one, I think, really gets to the point of what a still-life painting is about,” Weller said, indicating the trompe l’oeil detail in which a corner of the canvas seems to be peeling off the frame. “It’s emphasizing the fact that this is paint on canvas. And when you see that, you turn to the core of the subject matter which is – it’s reminder of death. You have a candle burned down, you have a skull, you have an hourglass.
“All of these elements are reminders of the bigger questions,” Weller said with a chuckle. “It’s a nice starting point.”
Compare and contrast
The Gijsbrechts’ work is paired with Georgia O’Keeffe’s “A Sunflower from Maggie,” a gloriously bright and life-affirming painting of a sunflower in full bloom. The pairing is deliberate, said curator John Coffey, and the entire exhibit is sequenced to highlight juxtapositions and spark conversation.
“These two are like the yin and yang of the exhibition,” Coffey said of the Gijsbrechts and O’Keeffe paintings. “I would like to see these two at dinner.”
“Still-Life Masterpieces” also features several case displays of assorted decorative art items, from 18th-century porcelain tableware to a set of pineapple-shaped plastic drinking cups from the 1960s. A video installation by contemporary artist Sam Taylor-Wood uses time-lapse photography to show a bowl of fruit gradually crumbling into decay.
Then there’s the kitchen sink – actually a bathroom sink – as depicted in a disconcerting optical illusion by Spanish artist Antonio Lopez Garcia.
As part of the exhibit, museum officials worked with educators at East Carolina University to produce a companion show, entirely created and curated by college students. “A Life, Still” features 21 works in a variety of media on the theme of reimagining still life. The project, promoted through the blogging site Tumblr, drew more than 180 student submissions from around the world. Twelve ECU students worked with museum curators to select the art work, assemble the installation and produce the visual narrative.
Student curator Joshua Craig, an ECU graduate student in Metal Design, said the students were all involved from beginning to end.
“It was a great experience,” Craig said. “We were free to move things around and write some of the extended labels.”
Craig said curating the show opened his eyes to the variety of disciplines involved in museum work. “I could definitely see this as something I could move into,” he said.
The still-life exhibition fills more than 9,000 square feet. Back in the main exhibit space, Coffey reflected on the historical appeal of the still-life form: “Artists were drawn to still-life paintings because you could reduce the elements to just a few, and then work variations upon them.”
He thinks visitors will find the exhibit an engaging one.
“You will not find a more pleasurable show than this one,” Coffey said. “If people are just willing to just slow down and look at the pictures, and zigzag, and make their own journey through this show, there are so many things to engage the eye and the mind at the same time.”