Is there still life in still life?
Slowly at first things change as one moves forward in time to the next rooms. Flowers and fruit change into violins, guns, and once again dead animals. This time they are not posed as live as in Audubon but really dead and in 3D. Trump 'oil takes over…and the the flowers that remain are getting flatter and flatter. Subtle light disappears and is exchanged for a certain sameness of tone. What happened to the mysterious darks I wonder and crisp highlights?
The show at the Philadelphia Museum of Art does not set out to ask that question but, if we are to believe what we see there, the answer I’m afraid would be no.
Audubon is the first painter represented, an ironic choice, as his paintings are not what one would usually consider to be still life, but paintings of animals and birds pictured in action. They were painted while stuffed so were actually quite dead. I guess that’s where the “still” comes in. They are beautiful works so who can complain. The rest of the next several rooms of the exhibit are filled with ravishingly beautiful paintings of fruit, vegetables and flowers with the occasional human holding them. There is an especially luscious painting of a woman slicing an onion amidst an array of vegetables whose eye is just about to spill a beautifully painted tear. Ah the detail, the loving caress of paintbrush here and delicate application of light there. These are paintings to die for. If you owned one you would never tire of taking it in.
I loved the delicacy of the lighting and the way the compositions were carefully put together. These are not real fruit, or flowers, they are an ideal feeling of fruit and flowers caught in their most perfect form forever. Here are some clips from the Museum’s web site.
Suddenly we are confronted with a room full of paintings whose relationship to the ripeness and sensuousness of the older paintings is gone. Although in the past I would have said I enjoyed Georgia Okeefe’s Lillies I found them rather disappointing after so much careful attention to sensuous detail and light. In this room only the painting of Grant Wood’s mother and the water color of Demuth held up for me. The rest were worth a glance and out the door. Warhol’s Brillo boxes? No life there folks, just a chuckle.
But it did not have to be that way. I see the intent of the curators. Art does change and taste for art changes but what is considered “art” by the art critics and taste makers may not be what is actually happening in the world of “seeing” and art making. There are exciting still life paintings from the 20th century. They were not however represented in this show. Here are a few possible inclusions that would have rounded things out nicely for me. This is a very small sample assembled in an afternoon. Imagine what else is out there.
Iris and Fruit
STILL LIFE WITH REFLECTION
STILL LIFE WITH SUN
(this lovely painting by Philadelphia native Elizabeth Osborne is actually in the museum collection but not in this show)
PAPAYA AND WATER GLASS
Sydney Bella Sparrow
From the 21st century several times a week I get lovely small works in my email from people who are still concentrating on an arrangement of items and examining them carefully to create a lasting image in paint. These works are notable as beautiful art, because they are for the most part sold on line not through galleries. Is this the wave of the future? Their small size also makes them affordable for the average person!!!
PEAR IN LATE AFTERNOON SUN
and last but by no means least our local talent Abbey Ryan whose work could be from the last century with its careful observation of texture, color and light.
This show really got me thinking about what I am doing and reawakened my respect and delight in seeing what is really there. Take your eyes to the Museum, leave the head phones on the rack and see what you think before it is too late. I recommend taking your reading glasses and getting up close. You only have 2 days to go!
Thanks for reading. Let me know if you have any fabulous finds in still life to add to this so incomplete list.