Exhibition

Things: The Idea of Still Life in Photography and Painting

June 17 – October 10, 2015

Things: The Idea of Still Life in Photography and Painting will be on view at the Museu Fundación Juan March in Palma from June 17 through October 10, 2015. This exhibition brings together forty-three photographic prints from the Siegert Collection in Munich, Germany created between 1885 and 1975 and seven seventeenth-century oil paintings by Willem Heda, Pieter Claesz., Juan van der Hamen and Pier Francesco Cittadini loaned by private collections.

Barón Adolphe de Meyer, "Still Life", 1908. Dietmar Siegert Collection
Barón Adolphe de Meyer, Still Life, 1908. Dietmar Siegert Collection

In taking a conceptual leap across the nearly three centuries separating painting and the photography included in this exhibition as well as the span of more than a century within which these photographs were produced, this exhibition sets up a surprising and meaningful dialogue between these two very distinct moments in time. All the works chosen for this exhibition share the common denominator of being a still life and represent one of three important facets of the development of this enduring artistic genre that has occasionally been given confusing labels: its invention by seventeenth-century Flemish painters and adoption by artists working in other countries such as Italy and Spain, its perennial popularity amongst both the exponents of pictorialism and the pioneers of photography and, finally, its presence and metamorphosis in the hands of avant-garde photographers active from the 1920s through the 1950s.

Whereas the German and English words Stillleben and "still life" faithfully convey the concept behind the original Dutch term stilleven, the Spanish equivalent naturaleza muerta (often used as an alternative to the equally curious designation bodegón) quite literally means "dead nature". Stilleven was coined in seventeenth century Netherlands and Flanders to describe a new type of painting that focused on what could best be summed up by that vague but broadly encompassing word "things": objects such as those depicted by Willem Heda and Pieter Claesz. (c. 1640–43 and 1643), two of the most important exponents of this genre, who painted tables groaning under the weight of all types of items that not only included foodstuffs and household goods but also decorative objects, cups and glasses, not to mention bouquets of flowers in vases or swags and other types of floral arrangements. These paintings also depicted jumbled assortments of pitchers, bowls and fruits, vegetables and sweets, at times crawling with insects, and a variety of animals – alive in the case of hunting still lifes – or brought back dead from a recent hunt.


In taking a conceptual leap across the nearly three centuries separating painting and the photography included in this exhibition as well as the span of more than a century within which these photographs were produced, this exhibition sets up a surprising and meaningful dialogue between these two very distinct moments in time

Since its invention, photography – described as the new "pencil of nature" by William Henry Fox Talbot – has not only become a substitute for painting but has also shared its role as the imitator of real and imagined space and frequently mimicked its pictorial strategies. It is therefore possible to classify the photographs included in this exhibition, whether attributable to recognised masters, unknown individuals or documentary photographers, within one or another of the recognised categories of still life painting: the representation of floral arrangements lives on in the pictorialism of Baron de Meyer (1908) and tabletop compositions featuring objects have been a recurrent motif throughout the history of photography, the only distinction being their novel inclusion of objects not yet invented in the seventeenth century or abstract effects achieved through selective framing or zoom techniques.

Some depictions of dead animals are literal, as in the photograph by Camille Silvy Still Life with The Times (c. 1859), whereas others involve the use of experimental techniques. Yet others convey the concept of still life in terms of a life interrupted, as is the case of Madame d'Ora's graphic compositions of the corpses of animals observed in Parisian slaughterhouses.


Willem Heda, "Still Life with a Roemer, Bread and a Lemon", c 1640-43. Private Collection
Willem Heda, Still Life with a Roemer, Bread and a Lemon, c 1640-43. Private Collection

This exhibition not only includes numerous pictorialist still lifes focusing on flowers, but also fine examples of the work of avant-garde artists such as Josef Sudek and Marianne Brandt (1940–54 and c. 1930) or imaginative surrealist compositions depicting assemblages of strange objects or featuring anomalous juxtapositions. The similarities between twentieth-century avant-garde photography and paintings executed three centuries earlier are striking. One can observe the influence of the latter in early experimental photographs made without conventional cameras using techniques first introduced by László Moholy-Nagy and well represented here by Man Ray's photogram and a truly extraordinary "schadograph" by Christian Schad.

As the anonymous Weltbild Agency photograph taken titled Still Life of Arms and Legs Waiting for Bodies attests, despite the spatial and temporal gap between them, one can detect surprising but nonetheless clear resonances between vintage documentary photographs and still lifes painted centuries before. Grouping paintings and photographs created in different historical and geographical contexts side by side in the same space brings their common aesthetic characteristics into sharp relief and allows viewers to discover the underlying relationships between them. The exhibition Things: The Idea of Still Life in Photography and Painting aims to offer viewers a unique space in which to contemplate and compare the works on display and develop their own personal interpretations.