Organized by the Norton (which is in West Palm Beach, Fla., and where Hyde director David Setford once worked), this touring show both fulfills expectations and challenges them. Part of the strategy involves subthemes that allow for a free flow of groupings and interactions among the works. For example, in the section titled From the Garden: Fruits and Vegetables, tabletop still lifes mingle with figurative interiors and landscape-ish exteriors.
Here, the staff of the Hyde has excelled in clever arrangements and juxtapositions that make the whole enterprise much more lively than the topic natura morta ought to promise. But, then again, just look at what they had to work with. The selection of 51 pieces (including three-dimensional works and several functional or decorative objects) bristles with creative brilliance.
Making a list of standouts, I ran out of room on my notepad: Matisse, Picasso, Chagall, Courbet, O’Keeffe, Demuth, Lichtenstein, Avery, and Severini number among the 20th-century painters with significant pieces here. Photography is also well represented, most importantly by two Edwards (Steichen and Weston), along with important predecessors, contemporaries, and followers – including Baron Adolph De Meyer, Ralph Steiner, Dorothy Norman, Robert Mapplethorpe, and Lilo Raymond.
The sculptural surprises include an oversized felt suit by Joseph Beuys, a miniature townhouse by the British Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare, and a marvelously wrought wooden skeleton of a grouper fish by Fumio Yoshimura. This is not your Dutch uncle’s still life – but, don’t worry, there are enough Flemish paintings here to satisfy him, too. In fact, these provide some of the show’s nicest moments, such as the Jesuit painter Daniel Seghers’ undated oil on canvas depicting a luminescent garland of flowers (explained on the label as representing painting as a form of religious contemplation), and the nicely conjured trio of William Harnett’s Bachelor’s Table (1880), Christiaen Striep’s classic still life (about 1665), and a Chinese Imperial carved wood panel from the Qing dynasty (1736-1795).
But, ultimately, Objects of Wonder & Delight really earns its stripes through individual masterpieces. Starting with a large Robert Delaunay from 1916, its objects radiating colorfully striped auras, the show grabs you by the eyes and never lets go. The O’Keeffe, a white cow’s pelvis floating in a brilliant blue sky above a low Southwestern landscape, is gorgeous; one of the Matisses is also arguably a landscape - a fabulous seaside one featuring two beached rays; and a 17th-century trompe l’oeil by Jacobus Biltius is a masterful and darkly humorous example of the genre.
Almost mirroring the Matisse is a Surrealist-tinged painting from 1945 that also features rotting fish, by the Japanese-American Yasuo Kuniyoshi – fortunately, though they’re not hung together, it’s possible to view them simultaneously from a certain vantage point. Another treasure, the Courbet, shows that great art can be made while languishing in prison – and by contrasting the temptations of accessible fruits with those of an inaccessible forest.
Among all this glory, my favorite picture in the show is a relatively small and unassuming one by the German Expressionist Max Beckmann – probably not an artist you think of as painting still life at all. But here is his signature black-outline style gracing a two-foot-square canvas with a spray of irises and a few unlit candlesticks. The painting was made just a couple of years before his death, and you feel that he senses it coming, but you also feel in the colors how fiercely he defies it. Still alive!
Rating: Must See