Giorgio de Chirico’s work represents an unexpected form of classicism in early avant-garde painting. The Philosopher’s Conquest (1913 – 14), one of six in a series, combines a Mediterranean cityscape with familiar still-life objects that appear in many of the artists’s paintings, including a classical arcade, a cannon and cannonballs, a clock, chimney and a train. The stage set is an Italian piazza, virtually deserted except for the menacing, shadowy figures outside the edge of the scene. Rendered with a matter-of-fact — though intentionally crude — precision, de Chirico’s paintings seem rife with meaning but are resolutely enigmatic. Indeed, by juxtaposing incongruous objects, he sought to produce a metaphysical art, one that “resembles . . . the restlessness of myth.”
Georgia O’Keeffe (1887 – 1986) was fascinated by the animal bones, weathered and worn, that she found in the desert in New Mexico. In Red and Pink Rocks and Teeth she presented a jawbone alongside two stacked rocks that appear both monumental and indeterminate. The smooth, rounded forms of the red and pinks rocks appear in enigmatic relation to one another, as the red pebble seems to recede from the picture plane even though it must be perched on top of the pink stone. Their abstracted forms and warm colors contrast sharply with the bleached, angular teeth and hard, cracked appearance of the jawbone and together construct a tromp l’ceil that questions the nature or representation and perception.
A native of Vitebsk, Mikhail Kunin (1897 – 1972) received artist training from Yuri (Yehuda) Pen and then attended the People’s Art School from 1919 to 1921, taking classes with Marc Chagall and then Kazimir Malevich. Kunin painted this still life, with its colorful objects during Chagall’s class. Its title, Art of the Commune (1919), is inscribed on the lower left, along with the Russian words for ‘Futurists’ and ‘Leap into the future.’ Ambitious and involved, Kunin was a member of the School’s student executive committee and its Communist Counsel. Although he studied under Malevich, he continued to work in a figurative style, not hesitating to criticize Suprematism and its practitioners, notably for what he said were their nihilism and their tendency to destroy painterly culture.
Hailed as “the perfect painter” by avant-garde writer Gertrude Stein, Juan Gris developed his signature approach to Cubism beginning in 1911. Using classic café subject matter — such as the newspaper, seltzer bottle, and glass seen here — Gris made subtle adjustments to the conventions of picture making that render ordinary objects both familiar and newly intriguing. For example, in The Checkerboard (1915) and its bird’s-eye view of a tabletop, a cunning reorganization of pictorial space places objects that should have volume into a single compressed plane. With a nod to play, Gris shows us a fragmented checkerboard, an emblem of the strategy and gamesmanship at the center of his art.
The enormous sandwich and pack of cigarettes in Still Life Number 36 (1964) reflect Tom Wesselmann’s nonhierarchical approach to subject matter and technique. He believed that anything could be art, including the ordinary consumer items that fill our pockets and kitchen cabinets. In 1962, Wesselmann began a series of large-scale still lifes that incorporated fragments of discarded commercial billboards, which he initially scavenged from trash cans but later procured in new, pristine condition directly from advertising agencies. The larger-than-life proportions of the objects in Still Life Number 36 at first seem to celebrate the surfeit of commercial goods in America’s postwar consumer culture. Yet the layers of collage and painted areas bring together incongruent depictions of reality, creating tensions in the composition that Wesselmann described as “reverberation.
Still Life With Cake (1818), a typical still life by Raphaelle Peale (1774 – 1825), the son of Charles Willson Peale, may have been the picture exhibited in 1819 at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts as Still Life—Wine, Cakes, Grapes, &c. A similar picture dating from the same year is in the Detroit Institute of Arts. Peale’s tightly-grouped still lifes are often permeated with a delicate melancholy akin to that which characterized the life of the artist; he was an alcoholic who suffered the effects of arsenic and mercury poisoning caused by his work as a taxidermist in his father’s museum. His spare, essential style may have been influenced by the Spanish still lifes he studied in Mexico and by the works of Juan Sanchez Cotan, exhibited at the Pennsylvania Academy in 1818.
Photographed in The Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC.
French painter Eugène Delacroix (1798–1863) was one of the greatest creative figures of the nineteenth century. Coming of age after the fall of Napoleon, he reconnected the present to the past on his own terms. Delacroix produced an extraordinarily vibrant body of work, setting into motion a cascade of innovations that changed the course of art.
In September of 1848, social and political unrest in Paris led Delacroix to retreat to his country house in Champrosay. There, he undertook this flower paining and four others, which he intended to exhibit at the next year’s Salon. The present example, Basket of Flowers (1848-49) is a rare hybrid in Delacroix’s work of still life and pure landscape. Falling from the basket are dahlias, rudbeckias, daisies, nasturtiums and roses. The arch is a typical white morning glory or moonflower, which appears to be invading a shrub with flowers arranged incense, fat clusters, possibly elderberry. On the left are elephant head amaranth, with a variety of Centaurea (perhaps cornflowers) beneath.
Photographed as part of the Exhibit, Delacroix, on View Through January 6th, 2019 at the Metropolitan Museum Art in NYC.