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“Objects of Desire: The Modern Still Life”

MoMA - The Museum of Modern Art

Still life. The very term brings a furtive tear to the eye—a tear of nostalgia, perhaps, for all that has disappeared from contemporary art in the way of illusionism, pleasure, and painterly virtuosity. Or perhaps it is the melancholy evoked by the words themselves, for “still life” suggests death or death-in-life, even more literally in the French version of the term, “nature morte” or dead nature.

In traditional still life, the popular motif of the skull introduces the memento mori into the very fabric of the earthly delights on display. Seventeenth- and eighteenth-century specialists in the genre—such as Jan de Heem, Jean-Baptiste Oudry, or even Chardin—did a brisk business in canvases of blood-flecked birds, moribund rabbits, and ready-to-eat rayfish (or, in de Heem’s case, the occasional boiled lobster, as testimony to the social status of its possessor-consumer). Nobody in recent

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