Guilty pleasures run deep at show of out-of-vogue artFor decades, still-life paintings were considered one of the lowliest forms in the hierarchy of fine art, sometimes derided as the least creative genre. Though they have sometimes sold at insanely high prices ― Cezanne’s still-life of a pewter pitcher went for ?8.1 million (16.7 billion won, or $14 million) at a London auction in 1999 ― it’s been at least 20 years since still lifes were treated as serious collectibles among prominent art museums.
The loss of public interest in still lifes is partly derived from segments of the art world who espouse the view that treating art as a commodity is like prostituting your values. But more importantly, still-life paintings failed as a medium to provide the mystery, blurring the line between fakery and reality, that people looked for in art. The repeated cliches of still life ― the flickering flame of a candle, a draped tablecloth, the angled fruits ― looked nice on the wall, but that was about it. They offered nothing deeper.
Yet, like landscape paintings and portraiture, still life has begun attempting to change ― radically. “Should Not Say All Still Life,” an exhibition chronicling a century of still-life paintings from Renoir to Damien Hirst at Gana Art Gallery, attempts to move away from the conventional modes of still life we know and to show that these paintings, too, have something valid to say.
Curators for the show have carefully delved into works by artists who “stage” their objects to address topics larger than just a bowl of fruit.
A notable artist who fits the bill is Son Ung-Sung, a post-Korean War painter, who employs a hyperrealistic approach in his lustrous presentation of fruit trays to depict what many art historians describe as “psychological density.” Son gives his food a sense of impossible liveliness. His works are intriguing in the way he uses things like fruits, books or lavish jewelry boxes as objects of desire and indulgence, both material and intellectual.
For some artists, still life was an exploration of fantasy and impossible beauty. Chagall, a noted Surrealist, depicts a dreamy couple floating amid a cloud of flowers in his typical story-telling style in his “Bouquet de Fleurs.” Nicolas de Stael creates a sketchy tray of fruits with a few rough brushstrokes in his “Untitled” still-life series. Salvador Dali mixes his painting of a flower vase with a landscape and portrait in the same piece, exemplifying his method in which a figure becomes a landscape, a landscape a still life and vice versa. Ross Bleckner brings a personal interpretation to still life in his “White Flower Painting” and abstracts his object.
In addition to traditional still lifes, the other side of the exhibition features works by contemporary artists who use still life to mimic Western artistic practices. Displayed is a notorious painting by Damien Hirst, often dubbed the enfant terrible of British art, peppered with dead butterflies on the canvas. Bahn Seok-ghi manages to capture the essence of still life by creating a sense of invisibility and stillness in his objects. In his “Play of Perspectives,” Bahn escapes from a two-dimensional plane and creates a three-dimensional architectural model of a table and other objects attached to the gallery wall.
While the latter part of the show serves a clear purpose in the context of this exhibition, it almost seems that the section was an excuse to feature art that fit the title of the show. Despite the jarring criticisms about the tradition of still life by the organizers of the show, the more traditional works by Renoir and George Braque seem to fit much better spacially on the white walls of the Gana Art Gallery than the other works do.
There is also a guilty pleasure in seeing a familiar, traditional art form in a modern gallery. It is tempting to reminisce about the elaborate decorations on the golden frames. Anyone is free to call it anachronistic, but pleasure weighs more than theory in art, and that is all that matters.
by Park Soo-mee