We tend to think of the still life genre (when we think of it at all) as a lesser part of the arts canon. Those works that fit in the still life category are the sort of works that set the rules that “we have to learn before we can break them.” In short, they bore us.
At first glance, a new exhibit at the Norton Simon, Significant Objects : The Spell of Still Life, seems to follow this definition to a tee. A banner, flapping from the museum’s Heath Ceramic-clad exterior wall, displays Gustave Courbet’s Apples, Pears and Primroses on a Table (1871-72), a pretty little oil painting of, well, apples, pears, and primroses. After all, the Norton Simon is known for its respected conservative collection–all those priceless Impressionist and Renaissance works–not as a vanguard for new art and daring concepts.
But that’s precisely what Significant Objects is–absolutely daring. It’s sole purpose to break with traditional perceptions of an often overlooked genre. Says the Norton Simon:
“In the academic tradition of Western art, still life occupied the lowest position in the hierarchy of the arts…it was disparaged critically and theoretically as mere copying…Significant Objects: The Spell of Still Life posits that nothing could be further from the truth for this category of art, which hovers between mimesis and symbolism…”
The exhibit spans centuries from the Renaissance to the Pop Art Movement, and artists as diverse as Rembrandt van Rijn, Paul Cezanne, Edward Weston, Imogen Cunningham, Andy Warhol, and Tom Wesselmann. That’s its chief success: diversity that leads to a sense of continual play. In one section called “Depiction and Desire”, Imogen Cunnigham’s flora photographs intermix with various Flemish oil paintings of flowers. The contrast between Cunningham’s minimalist style and the meticulous detail of the oils resonates. It underscores Cunningham’s commentary on form, freedom, and sexuality and elevates them to a new significance…
But it’s in the section, “Still Life off the Table” where the exhibit really gets interesting. In it, featured contemporary artists offer works that reference a rich tradition of still life and bend the genre to suit their needs. An assemblage by George Herms, The Librarian stands in one corner. The work, an homage to a librarian from Herms’ hometown, features various found objects–mainly books–that threaten to topple to the floor. Nearby an installation by Marcel Duchamp, offers an autobiographical exploration. The room exudes a palpable vitality.
Suddenly, still lifes import active lives. The exhibit defies expectations, offering an atypical look at artists’ lesser known works (we don’t, after all, think of Picasso or Richard Diebenkorn’s still lifes first). Significant Objects shatters our snobbery, offers us a fresh perspective, and renews the conversation regarding a marginalized art. But perhaps a final image from the show sums up the experience best: Ori Gersht’s Blow Up: Untitled 4.