National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C
May 17 - August 23, 2009
The Still Life as a genre has inspired artists for centuries. It is often overlooked by the public and yet when fortunately composed and rendered, can consist of a world of glorious forms, magical colors and harmonious rhythms of meaningful objects. Part of a brilliant series and beautifully organized examples of still lifes are on exhibit at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. by 18th Century Spanish painter Luis Melendez, from May 17 - August 23, 2009.
Although traditionally categorized as nature morte (dead life), the Artist has to communicate the living essence. If the message is not honestly revealed or even received by the viewer, then he was not successful. Objects displayed in front of the artist are easily copied, but can an artist reveal the essence of those objects profoundly and with an informed and focused sensibility? Melendez shows you quite immediately how successful he is and how wonderful is his earthy story. What a brilliant artist for studying forms - an almost lost skill in today's world of predominantly flat images. Plump oranges, real tomatoes with all their bumps, pears with nicks, and watermelons broken open to reveal their watery, drippy, and seed filled interiors beg to be tasted right there on the canvas. This successful description of form is in its adherence to large shapes where each smaller area is modeled within the greater mass and remains secondary to the importance of the larger image. Melendez painted this exalted series of 44 compositions of fruits and vegetables for the Prince of Asturias, who became King Charles IV, to hang in The New Cabinet of Natural History of the Royal Palace. The beauty of these carefully arranged objects was born from his imaginative mind and hand, making art that arrests us today. We know today what its like to pick up a pear or apple tasting it with great pleasure, and we can immediately respond to this artists' dazzling fruitful descriptions. One is astounded at his focus for complex textures and the careful individual portrait of each glorified fruit which, at the same time, takes its splendid place in the larger composition.
19th century American artist and teacher, Robert Henri said, 'It is this sense of the persistent life force back of things which make the eye see and the hand move in ways that result in true masterpieces.' That is where the master leaves the rest behind and is urgent to explore his medium for the expression of what he feels. Melendez paints a cantaloupe like no other before him, skillful in his detailed texture and yet the texture does not overwhelm the roundness and weight of the melon's shape. Light and shadow move in rhythms and our eyes never grow tired or still. He did not shy away from the intricate skin rhythms of the roughness of the cantaloupe. I can imagine it would be like feeling braille of raised paint if I could touch the surface of the canvas. The beauty and combinations in the food the 18th Century Spaniard cooked and ate, and even the simple objects that are still desired today pulls us deeper into the beauty of the Melendez world.
Today, we all look at fruit and vegetables and know that they are beautiful and that we ingest them. In The Power of Myth, Joseph Campbell refers to our own lives and journeys as symbols in a larger universal connectedness. He goes into great detail in describing religious and cultural stories from different parts and times of the world explaining that these stories reveal universally known concepts of how man relates to his world. Food comes up in many myths and can be a representative of the idea of transformation. Food is taken into our bodies for sustenance and growth, it changes form within us and transforms us. I refer to this idea because I believe we can actually experience the concept of transformation when looking at these still lifes- it is a part of our own make up and often refers to rituals in our own cultures. For me, the indescribable and emotional response to the painting can often be wrapped up in this mythical relationship to our world and our selves as an instant recognition of life itself. 'I am connected to this'.
Melendez, a contemporary of Goya, created these paintings as a group and titled them, "The Seasons of the Year" to illuminate the continuous time line of their lives, an abundance of regional food, and seasons of change: his vision. His mastery of the principles of rendering form, light and shadows, and atmosphere permits our eyes to wonder around the objects within the canvas and also reveals that he did not literally copy his subject. Melendez's personal and spiritual interpretation gives a vitality of life in the paintings that this Spanish master so well describes for us.
Many art historians like to spend much of their expertise trying to discern how, when, and under what circumstances an artist like Melendez painted each oil. As an artist who studied the principles of Italian, Dutch, and Spanish old master painters, I find these writings often full of guesswork. That's not the purpose of the artistic creation. For the viewer, our purpose is only to show up and enjoy the fruits of such masterpieces and give their messages some time to enter our own space and eternal moment. As Joseph Campbell so well put it, "concepts and ideas short circuits the transcendent experience." Luis Melendez is one Spanish master who shows us how to elevate an ordinary definition of still life to a spiritual, breathing, display of life.
Luis Melendez, Master of the Spanish Still Life, continues to:
The Los Angeles County Museum of Art Sept 23 - Jan 3, 2010
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston Jan 31, 2010 - May 9, 2010
1The Art Spirit by Robert Henri page '92
2 Masks of Eternity - The Power of Myth by Joseph Campbell audio
© Luis Melendez -The National Gallery of Art - 2009