February 26, 2010

Flawed 'Still Life' still stirs the senses

DANIEL KANY

— By

According to Roman historian Pliny the Elder, the first Super Bowl of art was between painters Zeuxis and Parrhasius. Zeuxis unveiled a still life with grapes so realistic and luscious that birds flew down to peck at them. Confident of victory, he called for the curtain to be pulled away from his competitor's work -- only for Parrhasius to reveal the curtain itself was the painting. Humbled and grumbling, Zeuxis conceded the contest.

Some 2,400 years later, still life remains one of the most popular genres of painting, along with landscape, portraiture and a few others. Still lifes usually depict objects set in domestic interiors -- very often food, game, meal settings or tabletop decorations such as flowers in a vase.

''Objects of Wonder: Four Centuries of Still Life from the Norton Museum of Art'' is an exciting exhibition that brings many strong paintings to Maine for the first time.

It makes sense for museums to present topics in an expansive manner that questions boundaries. ''Objects of Wonder,'' however, stretches ''still life'' past the breaking point. While I love Joseph Beuys' ''Felt Suit,'' for example, it is simply not a still life. Kaspar van den Hoecke's ''The Banquet of Holofernes'' will undoubtedly be a crowd favorite (we don't see many Baroque-era Dutch paintings in Maine), but does having a dinner table in the scene really make it a still life? And why are Yinka Shonibare's dollhouses there at all?

As part of the show, the PMA also set up a cabinet of curiosities -- a Renaissance practice dedicating mansion rooms to far-ranging collections of objects of natural history and distant cultures with an eye to the bizarre -- even though a cabinet of curiosities has nothing to do with still life. In fairness, the cabinet is interesting and fun: Viewers are challenged to set up and draw a still life and mount it there in a frame. (Kids of all ages will love that).

''Objects of Wonder'' is a mixed show in some ways, but has at least 20 fantastic works.

These range from an exquisite little Matisse (''The Rose'') to Max Beckmann's powerful ''Blue Iris,'' which is settled between a pair of handsome Chagalls -- one of which (''Anniversary Flowers'') was painted in 1947 in memory of the artist's wife and immediately purchased by Norton, who had lost his own wife. The painting underscores still life's ability to appreciate meditations on beauty and memory -- the bittersweet.

''Anniversary Flowers'' is moving, but Yasuo Kuniyoshi delivers genuine heartbreak. Kuniyoshi lived much of his life in Maine, but even though he married an American woman in Ogunquit in 1919, the Japan native was labeled an ''enemy alien,'' taken from his wife and sent to a concentration camp in 1941.

His ''Rotting on the Shore'' is a metaphorically brilliant view from a confining window of a rotting salmon, a dragonfly captured in amber and a dead tree, all on a beach. It has the dream power of Surrealism and unusual allegorical intensity. It is brutally spare and agonizingly powerful.

Considering his internment, Kuniyoshi needed still life's metaphorical ability to express such poignant allegorical content. Yet this underscores a general difference between older still lifes and modernist painting (so often art about art): Rather than focusing on a place (landscape), a person (portraiture) or a story (history painting), still life is very specific to visual art -- which makes it a perfect vehicle for modernism's insistence on art about art. Part of my disappointment with this show's broken definition of still life is that it obscures this point.

Cubism is often considered modernism's most insightful work about representation. Early Cubism sought the edge of legibility before inverting itself to explore the possibilities of representation. Because of its specificity to painting, still life was Cubism's preferred genre. Works in the show by Picasso, Braque and Gino Severini make a strong case about this. Severini's ''Playing Cards and Flask'' is a brilliant painting that proves the Italian Futurists absolutely understood the representational possibilities indicated by late Cubism.

Seeing Cubist paintings near works by William Harnett and John Peto not only reveals the debt of Picasso and Braque to American trompe l'oeil painting, but also helps the viewer see the play of wit and puzzle in both styles.

Photography has a solid presence in ''Objects of Wonder'' -- notably Robert Mapplethorpe's ''Carnation'' and Edward Weston's ''Pepper'' -- but the emulation of painting makes it clear that still life truly belongs to painting. To be sure, there are paintings in the show that disappoint -- such as Courbet's morbidly obese fruit and Joseph Nicolettis' flaccidly student-style studio still life. But there are far more that satisfy, from a deliciously mystical Bruckman to the hilariously colored bread work of Antoni Miralda or the fishes of Warhol and Hartley. I could spend two hours just with Christiaen Striep's quiet 1665 still life with peeled lemon.

''Objects of Wonder'' is a deeply flawed show, but it is also exciting, fun and loaded with great and unfamiliar works.

Freelance writer Daniel Kany is an art historian who lives in Cumberland. He can be contacted at:

dankany@gmail.com

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