Sometimes, a painting of a garland of flowers is just that — a realistic depiction of a circle of roses, tulips, carnations and narcissi with blue bows. Beautiful to look at, without too much deep meaning.
Other times, a painting of a garland of flowers is really a commentary on the Jesuit Counterreformation movement of the 17th century.
Either way, artists have used still life for centuries to play with light or color or line — or to express their opinions on religion, society, culture and lifestyle. An exhibition now open at the Portland Museum of Art looks at the variety of still life through the eyes of dozens of different artists, including some of the most famous in the history of art.
“Objects of Wonder: Four Centuries of Still Life from the Norton Museum of Art,” which closes June 6, is a collection of more than 50 works of art in various media, including 3-D objects, from the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach, Fla. The exhibit is supplemented by works from PMA’s own collection as well as private lenders.
PMA is the first stop — and the only one in New England — for the traveling show, which will later move on to the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts in Alabama.
The exhibition includes work from masters such as Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Georgia O’Keeffe, Andy Warhol, Marc Chagall, Max Beckmann, Bernard Buffet, Edward Steichen, Robert Mapplethorpe, Gustave Courbet, Charles DeMuth, Roy Lichtenstein, Marsden Hartley and Claes Oldenburg.
The Portland museum’s contributions include work from Georges Braque, Alex Katz and Man Ray.
“We were excited about bringing more European art here, and it’s chock-full of really wonderful works by European masters, and it’s just a really diverse and different show,” said Margaret Burgess, PMA’s associate curator for modern and European art.
The still life genre generally refers to depictions of arranged elements, sometimes placed on a table or hanging on a wall. Flowers are popular subjects, as are food items, dishware, hunting trophies or anything else displayed. The genre was practiced in ancient art and the Renaissance, but became popular in the 16th and 17th centuries with artists in northern Europe lands, such as Holland, Germany and Flanders, which is part of Belgium.
“[Still life] has been this genre that artists that can continuously be inspired by and experiment in,” Burgess said. “It’s such a traditional genre, yet you can really transform it however you like. In the 18th century the still life was considered the common foot soldier in the army of art, in terms of hierarchy it was very low. But some painters embraced it and saw it as an opportunity to show their prowess. It’s something that artists of all continents and time periods gravitated towards.”
The PMA show includes a Ming Dynasty-era model of a table that may date as far back as the 14th century, but “Objects of Wonder” is not entirely organized in a chronological manner. The works are displayed by subject, such as flowers or tabletop displays, which allows the viewer to compare and contrast the way artists’ treatments of each subject.
Take, for example, depictions of tabletop displays from two different artists in different eras.
Dutch painter Christiaen Striep’s still life from about 1665 is an example of the kind of ostentatious still life seen from that era. Striep uses light to call attention to a peeled lemon, a glass and a cloth — highlighting the refined luxury of such items.
In fact, this particular Dutch table is laden with items that would have been considered luxurious, such as a lemon, an apricot, which would likely have been costly imported items, and a porcelain dish. The items, and the lush way in which they’re treated in the painting, can be read as a show of riches and power.
However, Lilo Raymond’s 1984 print “Peony,” is just that, a small flower in a glass vase on a white table next to a white chair, with natural light illuminating the scene. The flower is the important element; everything else disappears. The single flower could represent the path of a more simple life, or the beauty of a simple image.
The work also ranges from realism to the abstract. Gustave Courbet, a staunch 19th century French realist, depicts the everyday dirt and rot in an 1871 painting of a bowl of fruit. On the other end, photographer Edward Weston’s 1930 “Pepper” highlights the abstract elements of an organic form.
Other still lifes seem to exist to show the technical prowess of the artist. With a few carefully placed strokes of shadow, a segment of the exhibition’s wall space is transformed into a kind of hunter’s cabin, with a hen and kingfisher hanging from the wall, in a Jacobus Biltius trompe l’oeil (which is French for “fool the eye”) painting from the 1670s.
And as in the garland of flowers, still life images of seemingly simple, everyday items, can have much deeper meanings. Daniel Seghers, a Flemish artist of the 17th century who painted the garland of pink roses with other flowers and blue bows, was said to have been part of the Jesuit Counterreformation order.
Seghers’ detailed representation of the different flowers, in different stages of bloom, was said to have been on the same level as the religious contemplation of his order.
“It’s also a reminder of the ephermerality of life, and that art lasts long and outlives these flowers,” Burgess said. “Certainly, flowers took on different meanings.”
In addition to looking at the still life works, the PMA is inviting visitors to create their own still life drawings. The museum built rows of shelves — a kind of cabinet of curiosities with items from the museum’s collection — and set up some spots for people to sketch the pieces and come up with their own definition of a still life.
The Portland Museum of Art is open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday, Sunday and 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Friday. For more information call 775-6148 or go www.portlandmuseum.org.