In the Presence of Things. Four Centuries of European Still-Life Painting

Authors : Collective work under the supervision of João Carvalho Dias

The exhibition which just closed at the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation in Lisbon and which we unfortunately could not see reflects the very dynamic policy of this institution, esteemed for its rich collections as well as its organization of notable events which is precisely the case for this ambitious project highlighting the history of Still-lifes over four centuries. A first instalment took place in 2010 (from 12 February to 2 May) which covered the 17th and 18th centuries ; the second (from 21 October 2011 to 8 January 2012) featured the 19th and the first half of the 20th century. There are hence two catalogues which group together the presentations designed by the ad hoc curators (Peter Cherry for the first and Neil Cox for the second), with the internal curating in care of Maria Rosa Figueiredo, chief curator of the Gulbenkian Foundation.

While the vastness of the subject might seem surprising, we should commend this ambitious approach, open to a large public due to the field in question and the quality of the works displayed, and the scholarly character of the exhibition theme as shown by the selection made by the curators, Dr. Peter Cherry, of Trinity College in Dublin, a specialist of the subject in 17th century Spanish art for the first volume, and Professor Neil Cox of the University of Essex, a specialist of 20th century art and Phenomenology for the second volume. In fact, these publications are finely presented, that is they combine very enlightening essays on artistic questions concerning the subject, and an actual catalog well endowed with real entries on the works, an obviously delectable offering. Several other researchers were invited and provide texts on specific points, particularly in the first volume ; we should mention that the original project included only one exhibition, thus only one very long catalog, which was tranformed into two tomes by the technical questions, therefore extending the duration of the exhibition as well. The first volume concentrates more on the essays of the researchers which complement the work carried out by the curators as for example John Loughman’s text devoted to 17th century Dutch still-life and Lesley Stevenson’s essay on France and definitions of genre and reception entitled : "The still life in France : tradition and equivocation."
Overall, the texts thus treat questions of terminology, genre, status, models, the practice of still-life, without losing sight of the works themselves and the artists. The catalog itself includes no less than 71 numbers from 1600 to 1808, with works from major institutions as well as private collections by all the most outstanding artists ; to mention just a few of the works reproduced and documented here, there are for instance Louise Moillon (a superb painting held at the Karlsruhe), Zurbarán and Goya, many other first-rate Spanish, Italian and Flemish painters, two remarkable works by Willem Kalf, including the one residing at the Musée de Tessé in Le Mans (ill. 1) as well as Largillière, Oudry, Desportes and also one of his students, Roland de la Porte (a magnificent painting held at the Musée Boijmans in Rotterdam) and two Chardins. The quality of the works assembled form an enlightening "illustration" of the exhibition theme : an ensemble of high quality works is worth more than a "thousand words", no matter how convincing, and it is the case here.

1. Willem Kalf (1619-1693)
Arms and Armours, c.1643 or 1645
Oil on Canvas - 200 x 170 cm
Le Mans, musée de Tessé
Photo : C2RMF

The second volume, corresponding to the exhibition which just closed, presents a shorter introduction which gives us the context of the still-life genre and its evolution in modernity. Although the message fails to avoid a character of "conformity" to a teleological history of art so as not to raise any questions, it excels by its clarity and excellent overview. The still-life in relation to the object and reality is presented here and the works exhibited are divided into thematic sections : reinventing the genre with Paul Cézanne, its relationship to tradition (illustrated with paintings by Philippe Rousseau, Bonvin, Manet, Fantin-Latour, André Derain), the still-life as form and the Impressionist legacy (Bazille, Renoir, Monet, Cézanne, Van Gogh, Vuillard, Bonnard and a painting by the Scot, Samuel Peploe), and also the question of structure and space (with works by Cézanne, Picasso, Juan Gris, Braque as well as two pieces by Giorgio Morandi from 1943 and 1955). Another section groups together works linked by the notion of exile, primitivism, "elsewhere" (Van Gogh, Gauguin, Henri Rousseau, Matisse, Larionov, Nolde, Ensor and Max Beckmann). The status of the object represented in its uncertainty or its immaterialism is brought into question by the presence of Braque, Boccioni, a few Russians and also a still-life by Lipchitz lent by the Centre Pompidou. A restricted but striking choice illustrates the question of the representation of modern life and machinery (with Fernand Léger, Paolozzi, Le Corbusier, Théo van Doesburg, Améde Ozenfant and the very beautiful Deconstruction of the Planes of a Lamp by Ardengo Soffici held at the Estorick collection in London). The attraction of Parisian modernism on international art is evoked by Picasso, Alberto Magnelli, Severini and the Georgian artist, Véra Pagava’s Nocturne. A chapter devoted to still-life photography and its relationship to pictorial art covers a large part of the history of this medium as it presents a modern printing after Hippolyte Bayard’s Still-life with Plaster Casts (1839) from the Comte de Chambord’s collection (Paris, Musée d’Orsay) as well as a Heinrich Kühn print from 1909. Entitled "Object Crisis : Dreams and Nightmares", a section looks at the Avant-garde movements and Surrealism with Marcel Duchamp (the Bottle Rack from 1914, 1964 version), three films (Hans Richter, Man Ray and Fernand Léger’s Mechanical Ballet), Ernst, Dali, Magritte. The final episode, "From the hunt to horror" shows various (doubly) still-lifes as these are hunting trophies or other cooking scenes, ranging from the admirable Eel and Red Mullet by Manet (ill. 2) to Mackerel by William Scott (1947, National Galleries of Scotland), including also Dominique Rozier’s Still-life with Game (1886, Lille, Palais des Beaux-Arts), Renoir, Picasso and Soutine (Still-life with a Piece of Raw Meat, 1926, Troyes, Musée d’art moderne).

2. Edouard Manet (1832-1883)
Eel and Red Mullet, 1864
Oil on Canvas - 38 x 46.5 cm
Paris, musée d’Orsay
Photo : Rmn/H. Lewandowski

Behind this fastidious enumeration of works, there lies in fact a selection of outstanding works, prestigious loans and a theme which does not content itself with aligning the paintings but also presents a coherent idea. There is no doubt that the very high quality of the works assembled here must have struck visitors to this exposition and renewed the very idea of the genre, often perceived as boring, and yet so diverse, so inviting of pictorial experimentations. As in the first volume, each painting is accompanied by a thorough entry focused on the object but which also analyzes it in light of the section where it appears, reinforcing the logic of the ensemble. These two perfectly edited volumes which present a bibliography and respective index, are not only beautiful publications and no doubt a faithful reflection of the exhibitions they accompany, but also represent a scholarly instrument to help in approaching the subject and each of the works exhibited. The events featured at the Gulbenkian Foundation are not covered frequently enough in the French publishing world. Publications such as these however show the fine quality of the work being done in Lisbon.

Under the supervision of João Carvalho Dias, In the Presence of Things. Four Centuries of European Still-Life Painting, Lisbon, Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, Volume I, 17th - 18th Centuries, 2010, 271 p. ISBN : 9789728884870. Volume II, 19th - 20th Centuries, 2011, 248 p., ISBN : 978972884822.

Version française

Jean-David Jumeau-Lafond, mercredi 25 janvier 2012

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