Exhibition: “Bouquets,” French Still-Life Painting from Chardin to Matisse

“Bouquets” runs from October 26, 2014 to February 8, 2015 at the Dallas Museum of Art.

1. That morning, the job interview did not happen. I was misled, to say the least.

I walked to Starbucks. While there, I tried to read. To my credit, there was poetry. There was history. There was also the loud self-praise – I’m sorry, “conversation” – a nearby douchebag directed at a lawyer. D-bag was a graduate of a very fine school, afterwards serving in the military in a leadership role. “Oozing charm from every pore, he oiled his way across the floor:” sure, you love Bogart movies, especially when you’re talking to an older, established gentleman who dresses like he’s from The Maltese Falcon. Sure, you love the South, especially when talking to someone who’s lived here his whole life. Etc.

I thought my stop at the Dallas Museum of Art would be brief. I did want to spend a day downtown, I didn’t want to waste being dressed up on my day off. But I imagined I’d be outdoors more, walking to various cafes, sampling food and coffee, burning through money I don’t have.

Bouquets was $8 admission. You’d think that since I’m reading a book on Van Gogh, that alone would prompt me to go see his work. Truth is, as soon as the attendant at the museum said they had floral still life on display, I paid. I know nothing about still life: Why would artists ever feel the need to paint a bunch of flowers?

It’s almost a ridiculous question. To try and answer it is to enter an entirely different world. To talk about memento mori paintings or the symbolism various flowers have is to scratch the surface. The use of symbols, or even confronting death, does not make sense without trying to imagine the mind housing such concerns.

2. An ancient painter is said to have depicted grapes so lifelike that birds couldn’t help but peck at them. One might be dismissive of such artistry, finding it more of an attempt to grasp power rather than meaning. In such a vein, you could look at Gerard van Spaendonck’s “Basket of Flowers on an Alabaster Pedestal” (1785) as decadent. The flowers are so varied, of so many colors, lines, and textures, that it is quite a feat he keeps every form meticulously distinct. All around, birds, butterflies, and insects try to make a home of the display. They can’t. On the pedestal itself, a relief where someone seems to be placing a bouquet to honor something divine. There may be more to the story – a Cupid and Psyche reference? – but I wonder if the theme could be how inadequate our attempts to be stewards of nature are. Our artifice is beautiful, whether well-wrought containers or well-placed flowers. The painting seems to know it is more style than substance.

Adele Riche’s “Flowers with Green and Red Grapes” (1831) I think far smarter. The prominence of the backs of the flower heads, the leaves not just marginalized for the bloom. My eye felt drawn to the fruit, as if it were entirely continuous with the large, vivid blossoms. The fruit reveals itself to be very much a flowering.

There are painters utterly in love with their technique, painters who skillfully use artifice, and virtuosi who maybe understand too deeply how their techniques work. Baudelaire, I learned in the exhibit, was utterly dismissive of a school of painting from Lyon. He called it the “penitentiary of painting – that part of the known world where they manage the infinitely small details best.” To that end, consider Antoine Berjon’s “Fruit and Flowers in a Wicker Basket” (1810). He groups what he paints so as to both enhance the image and reveal his ability to manipulate our eyes. The coarse leaves are next to coarser gourds; lustrous white wicker stands near a lustrous pinecone, while various grapes display different colors but a similar sheen. Flowers in the basket, again, are organized by color, sometimes forming lines of pinks and whites, other times fields of blue and purple, orange and peach.

Berjon does not show any subtlety about the surfaces of things. Indeed, I think he unwittingly made a comment about philosophy. All the surfaces prod one to ask what is inside. The wicker basket is both open and closed. In either case, it is filled with stems. That might be Berjon’s answer to what we get in life beyond images: only groupings of them. I can’t say he’s wrong. I can say, in this case, there’s a cynicism at work Baudelaire was right to deride.

3. Delacroix’s “Still Life with Dahlias” (1833) is one of the unsung gems of this exhibition, but perfectly placed. After seeing so many paintings too carefully planned, too well-made, one witnesses an organic unity that impresses the eye, compels a movement.

Degas’ “Portrait of Estelle Musson Degas” (1872)
also has an unfinished feel to it. There is considerable debate about whether it was simply left undone or meant to be completed later. It’s hard to describe its power. Her features emerge from the blocky, half-painted canvas. Their emergence coincides with her action of putting the bouquet together. The flowers themselves look a lot less defined than her face and hands, but I think they’re more defined by their color, their vibrance. Their form not so important as what they are.

Manet’s “Flowers in a Crystal Vase” (1882) must be seen to be believed. From a room away, the impression is of real flowers in a crystal vase. Up close, he’s used so few brushstrokes that the nearly bare canvas constitutes part of the crystal. The painting is one of his last, and one wonders about the scope of a vision where mastery of technique serves to make us think it purely a function of the mind’s eye.

Similarly, the Van Gogh paintings are a pilgrimage unto themselves. He does not waste a millimeter of canvas. I have plenty of notes in my journal about them. There will be many more. I don’t know that I’m going to be teaching any time soon. I do know what I will be doing in the meantime.