Thought-Pourri: Living Edition

It has been a very busy week at the Fortress of Solitude, even with the holiday thrown in on Monday that gave me a bit of time to get some much-needed matters squared away. Between work, research on upcoming travels, and keeping on top of art research and writing projects, among other things, it has not been a dull February. As the month of March nears, warmer temperatures return, and new life starts bursting forth here in the capital, there are always new things to see and think about, so here are a few for you to ponder from the world of art news.


Still Life

Should you happen to find yourself in Belgium or Italy in the coming months, you’ll want to check out “Spanish Still Life”, a simply-titled but object-rich exhibition of 80 works covering the development of still life painting in Spain between 1600 and the present. A joint effort by the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels (BOZAR), and the Musei Reali de Torino, the comprehensive show brings together paintings belonging to a number of private and public collections in Spain and around the world, and features works by big names such as Velázquez, Picasso, Goya, and Dalí, as well as masters of the genre who are lesser-known outside of specialist circles, but whose works have been prized by collectors for centuries, including Juan Sánchez Cotán (1560-1627) and my personal favorite, Luis Meléndez (1716-1780). Among the more unusual pieces in the show is this 1937 work by Catalan Surrealist Joan Miró (1893-1983): the artist gives these everyday objects an almost metallic quality, as if they were reflected in an oil slick. “Spanish Still Life” opens at BOZAR tomorrow, and runs through May 27th, before heading to Turin for the summer.


Low Life

While as a general rule, anything that makes the oppressive government of the People’s Republic of China unhappy makes me very happy, an exception to this rule may be found when it comes to the preservation of cultural artifacts. Some of the famous terracotta warriors from the tomb of the first Emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang (259 BC-210 BC) have been on loan since Christmas to the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, as part of an exhibition that runs through March 4th. It seems that a Millennial (natch) guest at a party held at the museum and some of his friends decided to sneak into the exhibition, which was closed during the festivities, and have a look at the objects on display. After his friends departed, this individual (allegedly) decided to throw his arm around one of the statues to take a selfie – WHICH I HAVE WARNED YOU ABOUT BEFORE – and then (allegedly) broke off the left thumb of one of the warriors, taking it home with him as a souvenir. As is to be expected, this imbecile apparently forgot that museums have security cameras. Good luck with your court case, brah.


Lush Life

If you’ve ever dreamed of staying at the legendary Hôtel Ritz in Paris, now’s your chance to own a part of its history. From April 17-21, Artcurial in Paris will be auctioning off nearly 3,500 objects from the hotel, which recently underwent a major renovation and restoration. Items include everything from beds, bathtubs, and bar stools, to plush carpets and bronze lamps, as well as highly unusual objects such as a Louis XV style dog bed for a particularly pampered pooch. Some of the objects come from suites in the hotel that were habitually used by celebrities, including the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Marcel Proust and Coco Chanel. No word on whether they will playing “Fascination” – the recurring theme music in “Love In The Afternoon”, the classic 1957 Billy Wilder film starring Audrey Hepburn, Gary Cooper, and Maurice Chevalier which was shot at and centers around The Ritz – on an endless loop during the sale.


Beauty In The Banal: Spanish Still Life Painting

A reader recently contacted me regarding what she should try to look at, when she visits The Prado during a one-day stop in Madrid. Naturally I pointed out some must-see paintings in the museum’s collection, including “Las Meninas” by Velazquez, “The Descent from the Cross” by Rogier van der Weyden, etc. I also strongly urged her to seek out a genre of Spanish painting called a “bodegón”, which I think you will agree is particularly appropriate, now that we are entering harvest season, and the year begins to slide toward its close.

For our purposes, a bodegón refers to a type of picture that became particularly popular in Spain during the 17th and 18th centuries, and has continued to influence art in that country (and indeed around the world) up to the present. Spanish artists in this period tended to focus on simple, everyday food and domestic objects, displayed in a very stark, almost minimalist way. Usually the objects selected by the painter are shown resting on a rather plain surface in the foreground, usually a stone slab, while the background is just a black void. This creates an almost photo-realistic picture, centuries before the invention of photography.

An example by one of the greatest of these artists, Juan Sánchez Cotán, “Still Life with Game, Vegetables, and Fruit” (1602), is one which my traveling reader may end up viewing in Madrid. You can see how the incredibly realistic details of the fruit, vegetables, and birds are made all the more stark by placing them in a minimalist setting, with the end result that the pictures looks almost Surrealistic. I particularly love the detail of the lemons, and have a large reproduction of this portion of the painting hanging in my kitchen:


One of the later masters of this genre was Luis Meléndez (1716-1780), as we can see in the example below from the MFA in Boston. “Still Life with Bread, Ham, Cheese, and Vegetables” (c. 1772) shows a large hunk of the famous cured Spanish ham known as “jamón serrano”, which is like prosciutto but better, resting in a bowl along with some herbs and vegetables. Surrounding it are: a ceramic pitcher holding a wooden spoon peeping out from under a pottery shard lid (a “tapa”) placed on top to keep the flies out of whatever is inside; a wedge of Manchego cheese; a selection of bread, garlic, and beefsteak tomatoes; etc. Far in the back, we can see the top of a bottle of wine. What’s particularly interesting about this composition is that you can go into a tapas bar today, and have essentially the same meal set out before you.


The Spanish bodegón picture has several artistic relatives, particularly in Flemish and Dutch painting, as well as in Southern Italian painting. This is not a surprise, since these areas were, for many years, part of the Spanish Empire. However an often overlooked ancestor of all of these paintings comes from Ancient Rome.

Fresco painting in the early Roman Empire is usually divided into four periods, or styles, which sometimes overlap one another. The 3rd style often depicted a single object or a group of objects against a black or flat-colored background, often on a small scale, so that the effect was one of a painting hanging on a wall. The 4th style was more concerned with a return to a type of realism that had been present in the earlier, 2nd style, but still had characteristics of creating the illusion of small paintings. Here are three examples from a house in the city of Herculaneum, showing peaches, a metal roasting pan with garlic and figs, and so on.


What separates Spanish still life painters from their ancient and contemporary fellow artists however, is their ability to turn a beautiful work of art into something even more profound than what one would imagine possible from a still life painting. Francisco de Zurbarán (1598-1664) is best known as a painter of religious subjects, such as his 13 life-sized paintings of Jacob and his 12 sons, which are currently visiting the Meadows Museum in Dallas, and will later be heading to The Frick in New York. [N.B. And oh yes, I do plan to go to New York in January to see them – more anon.] However he also produced some lovely bodegón paintings, such as this one, which my reader might also see at The Prado.

Yet without question, the greatest bodegón ever painted by Zurbarán was one which is also in The Prado. Unlike the many still life images of foods and kitchen objects, I specifically told my reader to seek this one out. While it bears all the hallmarks of a Spanish still life painting – the stark setting, the detailed observation of the object, the black background, the borderline surrealism – if you’re a Christian, you’ll realize that it represents something much more than a tour de force of painterly skill.


Simply titled, “Agnus Dei”, this picture was painted sometime between 1635-1640. It shows an unblemished, male lamb, its feet bound, resting on a slab and ready to be sacrificed. It does not struggle, but patiently awaits its fate. It represents, in paint, the sacrifice of Christ’s death on the Cross, and also the hymn sung by Catholics the world over during the Mass, before receiving Holy Communion: “Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis” (Lamb of God, Who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy on us).

While the “Angus Dei” is in a class by itself, fortunately for my American readers, many museums around the U.S. have Spanish bodegón paintings that are worth seeking out, even if you can’t make it to see the best in The Prado. I think you’ll find yourself not only mesmerized by the incredible skill involved in creating these pictures, but you’ll also come to appreciate how there is symbolism to be read into all of them. Though none are as overtly spiritual as the “Agnus Dei”, all of them do give us an excuse to pause, to reflect, and to think, particularly on the gift of life that we have been given, and what we ought to be doing with it.