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Norton Simon Museum presents Significant Objects. The Spell of Still Life

Norton Simon Museum presents Significant Objects: The Spell of Still Life, an exhibition on view through Jan. 21, 2013.

Drawing on the spectacular resources of the Norton Simon collections, as well as a few select loans, the exhibition features approximately 70 artworks, including paintings, sculpture, collage, assemblage, prints and photographs, spanning five centuries. Among these are stellar examples by the genre’s greatest practitioners, including Jan Brueghel, Rembrandt van Rijn, Francisco de Zurbarán, Paul Cézanne, Jean-Baptiste Siméon Chardin, Gustave Courbet, Henri Fantin-Latour, Vincent van Gogh, Pablo Picasso, Richard Diebenkorn, Imogen Cunningham, Edward Weston and George Herms.

An Arrangement of Flowers, c. 1620 Jan Brueghel the Younger Flemish, 1601-1678 Oil on panel 21-15/16 x 16-7/8 in. (55.7 x 42.9 cm) The Norton Simon Foundation

The classical definition of a still life—a work of art depicting inanimate, typically commonplace objects that are either natural (food, flowers or game) or man-made (glasses, books, vases and other collectibles)—conveys little about the rich associations inherent to this genre. In the academic tradition of Western art, still life occupied the lowest position in the hierarchy of the arts, which recognized history painting, portraiture and landscape painting as superior. It was disparaged critically and theoretically as mere copying that lacked artistic imagination and placed no intellectual demands on the viewer. “Significant Objects: The Spell of Still Life” suggests that nothing could be urther from the truth. Indeed, the exhibition explores the wealth of aesthetic and conceptual artistic strategies that challenge the shortsighted view of still life as simply an art of imitation. It also underscores why the still life continues to be an important vehicle of expression.

“Significant Objects: The Spell of Still Life” examines the genre from four perspectives. The first section, Depiction & Desire, looks at the still life as a barometer of wonder and of the impulse to collect and display. Exacting portrayals of individual flowers or cubist abstractions that seize on the sensual elements of color, texture and weight are illustrative of the passion to capture, document and celebrate material pleasures and possessions through the counterfeit of the visual image. Virtuosity considers the exercise of skill and the mastery of technique as a means to create illusion and objects of imaginative, complex beauty. Still lifes rendered in oil, pastel, wood and various printing processes invite scrutiny as to how artists make the difficult look easy and where the boundaries lie between technical expertise and artistry. Decoding the Still Life approaches these arrangements as coded with meaning and allegory. From the popular and moralizing symbols embedded in 17th-century fruit and flower paintings to the political and personal meanings insinuated by 19th- and 20th-century artists, these implied secrets bring a mysterious resonance to the compositions and underscore their capacity to communicate intellectual insights. Finally, Still Life off the Table takes a liberal view of the genre, looking at radical variations that can be considered still-life related. Abstractions, assemblage and the deconstruction of the tabletop arrangement show how the genre stretches beyond the conventions of its historically conservative nature and is malleable enough to remain a vital instrument for provocative, contemporary innovations.

“Significant Objects: The Spell of Still Life” is organized by Curator Gloria Williams Sander and is on view at the Norton Simon Museum from July 20, 2012, through Jan. 21, 2013. A series of free events are organized in conjunction with the exhibition. For more information, please call (626) 449- 6840 or visit