A Visual Feast: Still-lifes, beautifully arranged at the NC Museum of Art

Gustave Courbet, Hollyhocks in a Copper Bowl, 1872, oil on canvas, 23 5/8 x 19 1/4 in., Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Bequest of John T. Spaulding, Photograph © 2012 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

You could eat some of the paintings with a spoon–preferably a silver spoon, or, even better, a silver-gilt spoon. The North Carolina Museum of Art is opening an eye-gratifying exhibition of great paintings and luxe objects this weekend in STILL-LIFE MASTERPIECES:  A VISUAL FEAST FROM THE MUSEUM OF FINE ARTS, BOSTON. It will remain on view through Jan. 13, 2013, but don’t wait. You will probably want second helpings. I was going to show you some pictures–including one of the perfect spoon–but my photos have been disallowed.

The NCMA’s fine curator John Coffey eschewed a chronological arrangement of the work, which at the press preview he called “often the most boring way you can arrange pictures.” He and the other curators instead looked for “conversations” and “correspondences” between works and across time and geography.

“We wanted to declare our eclecticism right up front,” said Coffey, pointing to a 16th century painting of the Vanitas type that opens the show–right next to a Georgia O’Keefe sunflower head in brilliant yellows. The two paintings elucidate still-life painting’s long and wandering road through history, as do many other juxtapositions in the exhibition. Unless it was making a sermon (vanity, all is vanity…death comes in the end), for centuries, still-life just got no respect.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Mixed Flowers in an Earthenware Pot, circa 1869, oil on paperboard mounted on canvas, 25 1/2 x
21 3/8 in., Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Bequest of John T. Spaulding, Photograph © 2012 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Cezanne changed that, and there is one fine Cezanne to look at here, well-positioned next to a glowing Stanton MacDonald-Wright (can’t show you that, either). Suddenly still-life was about art–about composition, color, design, geometry. It didn’t have to be pretty–witness the Braque–but sometimes it was not only pretty but downright beautiful, like the wonderful, exuberant Renoir. You can feel the softness of those asters over the leathery zinnias, and what a play of color!

The exhibition also includes a remarkable Franz Kline from 1946 that will knock your socks off. I wanted to show you, but you’ll have to go if you want to see his energy not in bold black but in clear oranges and yellows. I loved looking from this to David Bates’ 1993 Magnolia, with its fecund energy and sensuous thick oil paint (look into the central area, and you’ll find the detail I wanted to show you). It is also neat to look at it with a fancy Tiffany silver pitcher in the foreground, its elegant arching handle echoing some of Bates’ curves (yep, had a photo).

Some of my personal favorites are two lovely Fantin-Latours, one of peaches, one of roses. If you want to see how a painter works this kind of magic, study these closely (no, I can’t show you those exquisite brush strokes). Look at the peach and its shadow, and the knife beside it; then look across to the video of fruit decomposing. Remarkably similar! There are no hard edges on Fantin-Latour’s convincing objects.

The show winds up with a large William Sharp that curator Coffey called “the still-life equivalent of Albert Bierstadt’s Yosemite,” across from a small picture curator Dennis Weller called “a perfect painting.” He tried to backtrack on that, but his heart wasn’t in it. It is perfect, a little 17th century jewel of careful placement and absorbed observation of light’s interaction with shape and surface.

There are valid legal and contractual issues regarding the reproduction of images, even in a review. It is not quite like quoting text. But what a shame. If I saw the luscious bits I was planning to post here, I’d be off to the NCMA like a shot.

This is a ticketed exhibition, in the old building; you get a better deal if you buy a double ticket, and take in the really excellent Munch print exhibition at the same time. If you know when you want to go, especially around a holiday, purchasing tickets in advance would be smart.

Jan Jansz. van de Velde, Still Life with Goblet and Fruit, 1656, oil on canvas, 14 3/4 x 13 3/4 in., Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Anonymous gift, by exchange, Photograph © 2012 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

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