Sunday, March 22, 2009

Food for the Eye: Zurbarán's Still Life With Lemons, Oranges and a Rose

While I was visiting New York last week, for the first time in several years I spent a morning at the Frick, which might be my idea of the perfect art museum. Virtually all the paintings there are worth spending at least a few minutes with and the collection is just the right size for my attention span; as much as I love the Metropolitan Museum and the Prado and the Louvre, they have so many artworks that after a few hours, diminishing returns set in and I find myself looking at paintings and sculptures without seeing them.

One reason I decided to revisit the Frick was a visiting exhibition from the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena which included Zurbarán's Still Life With Lemons, Oranges and a Rose. I love this painting, but I'd never seen it before in person, only in reproductions. Why is it that seeing an original painting in person feels like such a unique experience? We don't insist on reading Don Quijote only in the first edition, much less Cervantes's original manuscript, but studying even a perfect copy of a painting somehow falls short of the authentic experience.

I think one reason I love this painting is that it was the first still life I studied which didn't have dead pheasants or peacocks or rabbits stretched out on a table or hanging from hooks! Not that I'm vegetarian or even anti-hunting (as long as you eat what you hunt), but the dead game in a still life painting is usually the most explicit symbol of the artwork as a "memento mori", a reminder of the inevitability of death. Zurbarán's painting (at least as I see it) doesn't aim at reminding viewers of the fact that their bodies will die and decay, but rather at illuminating what's transcendental and sublime in the ordinary.

And while iridescent peacock feathers allow other artists to show off their flashiest techniques, I see a very different art in the way Zurbarán gives these superficially simple-looking fruits a subdued glow in the light streaming in from the left and in the way he gives the peels of the lemons (or citrons) and the oranges those vivid textures your fingertips can almost feel when you look at them. I think it's most likely harder to paint a great orange than it is to paint a great peacock!

Also, it's fascinating to see Zurbarán turn from his overtly religious subjects, especially all those paintings of martyrs and of the Virgin Mary, to a still life. Many experts consider this another kind of religious painting and attribute symbolism to the various objects, seeing them as offerings on an altar - in this interpretation, the lemons, oranges, orange blossoms, rose, and water all represent aspects of the Virgin's purity, piety, and motherhood, offered up to God. If that's indeed what Zurbarán meant to do, then surely endowing ordinary objects with that kind of allegorical aura is even more impressive than painting dramatic scenes of the Virgin's Assumption or the Immaculate Conception. And if it's not what he meant to do (and who knows for sure?!), then giving fruits and flowers their own innate radiance is just as marvelous.

Of course, eating lemons and oranges is much more healthful and lower-calorie than wolfing down plates full of pheasant and rabbit with all the trimmings, too! So perhaps Zurbarán also painted a still life for dieters without even knowing it ...

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