The Dixon Gallery and Gardens' "Objects of Wonder: Four Centuries of Still Life" from the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach, Florida, is a remarkable exhibition filled with work by classical, modern, and contemporary masters. Some of the show's highlights include The Banquet of Holofernes by the 17th-century Flemish master Kaspar van der Hoecke, Max Beckmann's German Expressionist Still Life with Blue Irises, and Georgia O'Keeffe's iconic Pelvis with the Moon — New Mexico. Particularly expressive is Marsden Hartley's Flounders and Blue Fish, a painting that works as still life, as evocative surface, as semi-abstraction, and as drama as Hartley's scraped, scumbled, and stylized stark-white flounders appear to devour the small blue fish to their right.
The 50-plus paintings, photographs, and sculptures on view are not only technically accomplished but also represent pivotal moments in the history of art. Noted as the Father of Realism as well as a consummately skilled painter, Gustave Courbet insisted that art depict the everyday and the underbelly of life as well as its opulence. While imprisoned for espousing socialist causes, Courbet painted a small pile of fruit titled Still Life. Some of the fruit looks hard and green (perhaps plucked too soon from its branches). The pink blush of other pieces promises melt-in-your-mouth ripeness, while small holes and crevices on the surface of pears pressing into the pulpy flesh of other pears suggest the edge of rot where insects and worms have beaten the prisoners to some of the fruit inside.
A small gallery to the right of the Dixon's main exhibition hall contains still lifes by some of the 20th century's most noted photographers: Edward Weston, Edward Steichen, Robert Mapplethorpe, and Ralph Steiner. The long supple stem and bushy head of Mapplethorpe's gelatin silver print Carnation looks as sensual and statuesque as his iconic portraits of celebrities and nudes.
Steiner's stunning layout in Ham and Eggs helps us see the chicken egg anew. His brightly lit gelatin silver print accentuates the beauty of the eggs' off-white opalescence as well as the seemingly infinite shades of gray created as their oval shells curve away from the light. There is humor here as well. The artist heightens our sense of an unbroken egg's perfection (promise of new life, new possibility) by cracking three of the eggs, overcooking their whites, and slapping their pitted and rubbery surfaces onto slices of ham. Steiner's inclusion of dozens of small unbroken eggs in his layout is a mesmerizing reminder that their sheer numbers and ubiquitous presence inure us to their beauty.
Around 1907, in one of art history's most dramatic breaks with precedent, Pablo Picasso began removing guitars from the expressive hands of his Blue Period figures, taking the instruments apart, and reassembling them into shapes and colors that get at their essence. In his 1917 painting La Guitare, all that remains are a semi-abstracted burnt-umber fretboard, bright-yellow rectangles, small stark-white shapes outlined in red, and a soft-blue background back-dropped by a still softer pink. Though the figure is absent from this cubist work, we can still feel the musician leaning into his instrument as he plays his sometimes sonorous, sometimes strident, sometimes soothing notes.
"Objects of Wonder" is an endlessly inventive and expressive exploration of what a still life can be. To the left of La Guitare is a felt suit on a wooden hanger. The suit's crisply tailored lines suggest a uniform with all its insignia and medals stripped away. Filzanzug (felt suit) is a recurring motif in Joseph Beuys' conceptual/political/activist (and highly influential) art and pays homage to a group of nomads who saved the artist's life during World War II when Beuys flew a bomber for the German Luftwaffe. After his plane was shot down, Tatar nomads found him nearly frozen to death in the Crimea and wrapped him in fur and felt. Not technologically advanced but possessing a finely honed sense of compassion, the Tatars stand in striking contrast to the Nazis who advocated the extermination of anyone who failed to measure up to their corrupt and rigid ideas regarding superiority.
Master artists like Hartley, Courbet, Picasso, and Beuys demonstrate again and again the expressive power of paint and ideas. Rather than feeling inert or passive or lifeless, their still lifes continue to inspire us decades (even centuries) after their creation.
"Objects of Wonder" at The Dixon Gallery and Gardens through January 9th
[In print edition] MARSDEN HARTLEY (American, 1877–1943): Flounders and Blue Fish, 1942. Oil on rag board, 16 3/4 x 22 3/8 in. Norton Museum of Art. Bequest of R.H. Norton, 53.76. Courtesy of the Norton Museum of Art.
GUSTAVE COURBET (French, 1819–1877): Still Life, 1871. Oil on canvas, 20 x 24 in. Norton Museum of Art. Gift of Elizabeth C. Norton, 41.12. Courtesy of the Norton Museum of Art.
RALPH STEINER (American, 1899–1986): Ham and Eggs, 1930. Gelatin silver print, 9 1/2 x 7 1/2 in. Norton Museum of Art. Gift of Baroness Jeane von Oppenheim, 98.577. Courtesy of the Norton Museum of Art.