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20th Century Still Lifes from the Permanent Collection

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Permanent Collection
5/18/2018 - 8/12/2018
Organizing institution: The Fralin Museum of Art at the University of Virginia
The still life genre is characterized by an artist’s selection, arrangement, and representation of objects—be they flowers, fruit, tableware, or other items—upon the flat surface of a canvas or other support. With its roots in antiquity, still life has remained an important site for formal, aesthetic, and conceptual experimentation for artists over the centuries.

The understanding of still life painting as an exercise in mimesis and illusion gained particular traction among Dutch artists during the 17th century, who painted highly naturalistic tabletop arrangements of feasts including fish, fruit, and fowl. These sumptuous works were not only a testament to the artist’s skill at rendering different materials and textures, they also suggested deeper underlying messages through subtle symbolism. The decaying pear or wilted flower amidst an image of abundance served to remind the viewer of the fleeting and ephemeral nature of life.

During the 20th century, the still life was reinvigorated and reimagined by artists who sought to both access its long history and to subvert the conventions by which it had come to be recognized. Artists like Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso took further steps towards abstraction, deconstructing their still lifes with collage techniques that sometimes incorporated literal objects or pieces of detritus into the painted surface. This impulse towards elevating the commonplace, commercial, and even abject objects that surround us was pursued by artists at mid-century like Roy Lichtenstein and his fellow pop artists, who appropriated both the subjects and modes of representation associated with popular culture. Other artists like Carrie Mae Weems saw the still life genre as a fruitful site for unpacking the complex cultural associations that have been imbued in everyday things.

This exhibition showcases the rich variety of artistic responses to the still life that occurred during the 20th century. Drawn from the museum’s permanent collection, the artworks featured speak to the genre’s continued potency as a locus for artists to demonstrate technical skill, to experiment with modern styles and themes, and to comment on the nature of everyday objects and their place within art.

The Fralin Museum of Art’s programming is generously supported by The Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation. We also wish to thank our in-kind donors: WTJU 91.1 FM and Ivy Publications LLC’s Charlottesville Welcome Book.

Exhibition Objects (16)

Exhibition Images (13)

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