“There is still life in still lifes”
Musée du Louvre Paris is hosting an exceptional exhibition, “Les choses, une histoire de la nature morte” or “Things, a history of still life”. Still life, the exhibition argues, is not about “nature morte” which is the French expression for still life and literally translates to “dead nature”, but about a living form of art, animated by the heart and mind of the artist, the viewer and their surroundings. The French expression “nature morte” is implying that, in order to capture the richness of the natural world around us, it needs to be fixed and robbed of life. The Louvre exhibition changes this view. The “things” on the exhibition encourage to look at “still lifes” in a fresh way and to think and dream together with the artist. To contemplate the world of “things” as if they were indeed alive. The Louvre proves there is still life in still lifes.
Hereunder a personal selection, starting in 1964 and backwards to the 15th Century. I will try to emphasise the “life” in these still lifes.
Casserole and Closed Mussels (1965) by Marcel Broodthaers is a work that uses empty mussel shells as both subject and medium. The mussel shells were obtained from a restaurant that he frequented in Brussels. The cooking pot belonged to the Broodthaers’s family and was used right up until the time that the work was created. The mussel shell can be read as symbolizing the artist’s native Belgium, mussels being a popular national dish. Broodthaers’s use of mussels also refers to the representation of shellfish in Flemish 17th Century still life painting, where the empty shell became a symbol of vanity and the futility of luxury.
This Natura Morta is exemplary of Giorgio Morandi‘s art of translating the mystery and poetry of simple things. He would depict the same familiar bottles and vases again and again in paintings notable for their simplicity of execution. Morandi chose these ordinary objects and staged the pots and vases in an ever different manner, against a neutral background, and painted in soft whitish colors. They seem frozen in time, silent and secret. Morandi has thus immortalized these things and made them present to the world, in a way that exceeds their function and simplicity. Morandi made over 1000 paintings and created his own recognizable style. The artist lived his whole life in Bologna, Italy, where the Morandi Museum contains a major collection of his work. The Casa Morandi, where he lived with his sisters and where he had his workshop can be seen in its original form, including the cupboards with the simple pots, bottles and vases he used for his many still lifes.
Joan Miró painted Still Life with Old Shoe in 1937, being exiled to Paris in the midst of the Spanish Civil War. Over a few months he created Still Life with Old Shoe, which was his first painting with recognisable objects after a decade of abstract work. Miró said: “The composition is realistic because I was paralysed by the feeling of terror and almost unable to paint at all… We are living through a terrible drama, everything happening in Spain is terrifying in a way you could never imagine.” Miró painted in his words “something very serious”, a “tragedy of things, a miserable piece of bread, an old shoe, an apple pierced by a cruel fork and a bottle, like a flaming house that spread the fire over the whole surface”. The whole painting seems to be set against the backdrop of a burning, hellish landscape. The apple is brownish-yellow, which suggests rotting. Miró himself stated “The fork attacks the apple as if it were a bayonet. The apple is Spain.” This painting is Miró’s traumatised reaction to the Spanish Civil War.
The “things” on the Kitchen Table by Cézanne are assembled by the painter’s mind, not by putting the objects on a table and copying that image on a canvas. For Cézanne, it’s not about showing reality. The ginger-pot, which appears in 12 of Cézanne’s paintings, has no surface to sit on, and neither has the large basket at the back. None of the table, cupboard and chair are holding any probable perspective. And yet, Cézanne creates a harmonious and lively ensemble. It’s not a static still life or “nature morte”; it’s a kitchen table that comes to life. Cézanne’s painting represents more truth than ever can be made visible on a real-life kitchen table. Cézanne creates the predecessor of VR, Virtual Reality. In his lifetime, Cézanne was ridiculed for lack of conventional artistic skill; he did not paint like the others. But Cézanne said: “I shall astonish Paris with an apple”, what he does in this painting with apples, pears and melons.
Le Citron by Manet, painted three years before his death, is in its seemingly simplicity one of the painter’s most powerful still lifes. Manet isolates this yellow fruit on a sober black ceramic saucer, making the fruit an important “thing”, with such bright colour and touching structure of the skin. Manet proves that less is more. Le Citron is a main character in the big world of Impressionist and Modern Art Painting.
Luis Egidio Meléndez put his Watermelons against the backdrop of a stormy sky. Majestic, they dominate their environment. This still life was painted for the natural history cabinet of Charles de Bourbon, the Prince of Asturias and heir to the throne of Spain. The melons show such attractive freshness and a perfectionist realism that extends to even the smallest details like the fallen seeds, drops of juice and tiny bits of watermelon flesh. This painting is used for the poster of the Louvre exhibition “Things, a history of still life”. But is this a still life, is this nature morte? I dare to answer “no” and declare this painting a portrait, a portrait of two real life watermelons.
Sébastien Stoskopff painted Basket with Glasses and Pâté, as if it’s the end of a meal when, according to German custom, the dishes are collected in a basket. The simplicity of the composition, the dark and empty background, accentuate the presence of all the things: glasses, the crust of the pâté, and the letter. The painting encourages reflection on the relationship between reality and appearance, on what art can do and how painters of everyday life made the materiality of things tangible.
Stoskopff was an painter from the Alsace, where German and French influences blend. He is one of the most important German still life painters, specializing in portraying goblets, cups and especially glasses. His works were only rediscovered after 1930 and can now be seen in some of the world’s most important art museums (MET, Louvre, KHM, Gemäldegalerie). His chief works hang in his hometown of Strasbourg.
Louise Moillon, one of the most talented female painters of the 17th century, affirms her virtuoso here with this Bowl with Cherries, Plums and Melon. It’s perhaps Moillon’s most famous painting. The intense red of the cherries bursts against the dark green of the leaves, the blue touches of the plums and the orange-yellow of the melon. In this orderly and balanced composition, the painting invites us to calmly meditate on the simple beauty of things. We know of around twenty paintings by Moillon, three of which are kept in the Louvre. Louise married when she was 30, and basically did not paint anymore after her marriage. She became 86 years old.
This panel, a Trompe l’Oeil with Books and Bottles, is divided into two parts: a niche, where various objects are placed, and an upper part with two doors, one locked, the other ajar. The niche with bottles and books is like a rebus. The things represent clues about the owner of this work, and it all refers to the medical world: the books and the small ink bottle hanging above the red book refer to reading and writing, a bottle whose label reads “fur zanwe” (“for toothache”) shows that it contains medicine for toothache, a pot with ointments, a glass urinal, the medicine box, all indicate that the owner was a doctor or a barber. He commissioned this work to embed it as a panel in a piece of furniture in his interior in northern Germany. This “trompe-l’oeil”, a highly realistic optical illusion of three-dimensional space and objects on a two-dimensional surface, makes the things look real. The owner of this panel was most likely very pleased to use these “things” to trick the eye of his visitors.
Musée du Louvre, Paris, “Les choses — une histoire de la nature morte” or “Things — a history of still life”. Until January 23, 2023.
The texts above are loosely based on the exhibition labels.