The Magic of Things. Still-life painging 1500-1800

Basel Kunstmuseum, from 7 September 2008 to 4 January 2009.

1. Sébastien Stoskopff (1597-1657)
Tub with Carp, Brazier with Artichoke, and Green Woodpeckers
Oil on canvas - 54.5 x 73 cm
Basel, Kunstmuseum
Photo : Kunstmuseum Basel, Martin P. Bühler

The exhibition in Basel presents several interesting problems which do not necessarily have anything to do with art history. First of all, the title, a simple marketing ploy, is misleading. This is in no way a retrospective of the genre as a whole over three centuries. In fact, the works shown here are almost exclusively Flemish, Dutch and German ; none from Italy and only three from France. The paintings by Chardin, the choice is not explained, form the conclusion to a statement which was never clearly introduced.

2. Georg Flegel (1566-1638)
The Branch of Apricots
Oil on panel - 49 x 33 cm
Darmstadt, Hessisches Landesmuseum
Photo : Wolfgang Fuhrmannek

The works come mostly from three museums, Frankfurt (the exhibition’s previous venue), Darmstadt and Basel. A few paintings from other museums or private collections round out a selection where excellent pieces (Stoskopff’s works – ill. 1) reside next to mediocre ones and suffer even more from the lack of coherent demonstration of a theme. Whereas the first room with its examples of very early still-lifes does reveal a certain interest (although Martin Schongauer’s drawings of censers and crosiers cannot really be considered in this genre), the second room is largely useless as Jan Brueghel’s landscapes are totally irrelevant.
The visit continues in the same chaotic way. One room is entirely devoted to Peter Flegel, no doubt because he is well represented in Darmstadt and Frankfurt. In passing, one of the most beautiful paintings in the exhibition is presented here (ill. 2).

3. German Master, around 1620
Still-life with Skull, Wax Jck, and Pocket Sundial
Oil on panel - 27.5 x 40.5 cm
Frankfurt, Städel Museum
Photo : Artothek

4. Harmen Steenwijk (1612-after 1656)
Skull with Books and Flute
Huile sur panneau - 20 x 26 cm
Basel, Kunstmuseum
Photo : Kunstmuseum Basel, Martin P. Bühler

The section on vanitas offers a fine work acquired recently by the Frankfurt Museum (ill. 3) by an unidentified German master, from around 1620, a Skull, Candlestick and Coins by the very little-known Johann Stumm (active in Hamburg in the mid-17th century) from a private collection and a striking Skull with Books and Flute (ill. 4) by Harmen Steenwijk, on deposit in Basel from a private collection, in which the skull, wearing a cap, illustrates even more aptly the age-old saying : “I once was what you are now, you will be what I am.” Visitors will thus come upon some beautiful (ill. 5) or unique works in walking through the rooms, adding some interest to the show. Nevertheless, as in the case of the catalogue which is very well edited but devoid of a real contribution, one wonders what the purpose of the exhibition is supposed to be.

5. Justus Juncker (1703-1767)
Peer with Insects
Oil on panel - 25.8 x 21.4 cm
Frankfurt, Städel Museum
Photo : Artothek

The real question here is whether museums need to put on exhibitions in order to show they exist. Is not the Basel museum with its countless masterpieces worthy enough of attention as is ? Does it really have to relegate part of its collections into storage to make room for a hang which one can live without ? When a retrospective is of the same high quality as the one on Holbein in 2006, a remarkable one according to all who saw it (we viewed it in London), it is of course worth the sacrifice. But this is not the case of the present pseudo-retrospective on still-lifes.

Curator : Bodo Brinkmann

Collective Work, The Magic of things. Still-life painting 1500-1800, Kunstmuseum Basel, 2008, 368 p., 59 CHF. ISBN : 9783775722070. A german edition is also available.
An addendum to the catalogue, of works added in Basel, is available online (only in german).

Visitor Information : Basel, Kunstmuseum, St. Alban-Graben 16 CH-4010 Basel. Phone : +41 (0)61 206 62 62. Open daily except Monday, 10.00 to 17.00. On Wednesday through 20.00 during this exhibition. Rates : 18 and 10 CHF.

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Didier Rykner, mardi 11 novembre 2008

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