Jan Davidsz. de Heem, Fruits et riche vaisselle sur une table (Un dessert) (A Table of Desserts), 1640, oil on canvas, 58 5⁄8 × 78 7⁄8".

Jan Davidsz. de Heem, Fruits et riche vaisselle sur une table (Un dessert) (A Table of Desserts), 1640, oil on canvas, 58 5⁄8 × 78 7⁄8".

“Les Choses”

Jan Davidsz. de Heem, Fruits et riche vaisselle sur une table (Un dessert) (A Table of Desserts), 1640, oil on canvas, 58 5⁄8 × 78 7⁄8".

Curated by Laurence Bertrand Dorléac

LES CHOSES (Things) is nothing if not ambitious. Curated by art historian Laurence Bertrand Dorléac, it arrives on the seventieth anniversary of a landmark exhibition at the nearby Musée de l’Orangerie, Charles Sterling’s “La nature morte: de l’antiquité au XXè siècle” (Still Life Painting: From Antiquity to the Twentieth Century), and like Sterling’s show, it includes a blockbuster selection of still-life paintings in the European tradition, from northern market scenes and Spanish bodegónes to Post-Impressionist bouquets. Yet the present exhibition is less a remake than a comprehensive reimagining of its 1952 precursor, and the labor of revision begins with its deliberately banal title. A still life, Bertrand Dorléac tells us, is essentially “an arrangement of things assembled in a certain order,” and things, in turn, are at once ubiquitous and inherently relational; in speaking of things, we are always already speaking of beings.

This will be a familiar claim to the eminent scholar’s readers, one already at the heart of her 2020 monograph Pour en finir avec la nature morte (To Have Done with Still Life). There, we learn, her quarrel is not with the genre typically known under that designation but with what she would have us see as the misleading premises of the label itself, on the grounds that “things and beings have never been one without the other, and nature is necessarily alive.” The show at once resumes and builds upon that work: Its nearly 170 objects from prehistory to the present include many addressed in the volume’s pages, even as the expansive catalogue draws in more than two hundred additional authors from a broad array of disciplines and theoretical perspectives. 

Henri Matisse, Nature morte d’après “Fruits et riche vaisselle sur une table” de Jan Davidsz. de Heem (Still Life after Jan Davidsz. de Heem’s “La Desserte”), 1915, oil on canvas, 71 1⁄4 × 86 7⁄8". © Succession H. Matisse/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Taken as a whole, the show, the catalogue, and the earlier book tell a provocative and often compelling story. The representation of things begins not in antiquity, as Sterling averred, but as early as 3500 BCE; nor does it lapse entirely in the millennium separating the sixth and sixteenth centuries, even if it is subordinated—at least in Christian Europe—to the depiction of religious figures. Beginning in the early 1500s, two phenomena appear inextricably entangled. On the one hand, Bertrand Dorléac argues, things are progressively “emancipated” from their prior subjection. No longer mere adjuncts to Christian myth, objects both ordinary and extraordinary begin to appear worthy of description in all their material variety and quiddity: books and keys and unguent jars, chessboards and precious ewers and conch shells, asparagus stalks and ginger pots, the modest contents of a bedroom interior in Arles. On the other, the steady rise of things, so tightly bound up with the history of capitalism, is also the ascent of thingification (chosification), of reification and commodification. The wages are manifold: the blurring of being and having, dehumanization and the immense suffering inflicted upon nonhuman animals, ecological disaster and mass extinction—to name just a few of the themes stressed in the scholarly apparatus.

The issues, then, are at once urgent and complex, and a key question for “Les Choses” is how well it narrates this history through the artworks on view. It must be said up front that the show’s scenography does it no favors. The arrangement of movable walls in the underground Hall Napoléon is clearly intended to keep viewers moving, with much of the exhibition laid out in a long, winding corridor suggesting an overcrowded aisle in a labyrinthine megastore. One result is the regrettable flattening of what should, by rights, be moments of high drama. Consider the direct juxtaposition early on, of Jan Davidsz. de Heem’s Fruits et riche vaisselle sur une table (Un dessert) (A Table of Desserts), 1640, and Henri Matisse’s Still Life After Jan Davidsz. de Heem’s “La Desserte, 1915. Held by different museums on opposing sides of the Atlantic—the former at the Louvre, the latter at the Museum of Modern Art in New York—the large compositions form a knockout pairing. But that pairing demands a viewing distance wholly unobtainable within the constricted passage. It is perhaps the central irony of “Les Choses” that an exhibition that implores us to reflect meaningfully on our relation to things so often hurries us past pivotal objects.

Andrei Tarkovsky, Stalker, 1979, 35 mm, color, sound, 163 minutes. Monkey (Natasha Abramova)

Given the venue, however, perhaps the most immediately striking aspect of “Les Choses” is the sheer number of artworks from the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries: More than fifty originated during the period following World War II. Throughout the preponderance of the show, which is arranged both chronologically and thematically, selected recent creations are deployed in a manner consistent with the broader turn to the contemporary on the part of institutions like the Louvre: as a means of activating and illuminating historical objects. So, for example, we find an excerpt from Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1979 film Stalker playing adjacent to Georges de la Tour’s La Madeleine à la veilleuse (Magdalene with the Smoking Flame), ca. 1642–44; Andres Serrano’s excruciating large-format photograph Cabeza de vaca (Cow’s Head), 1984, in a dimly lit alcove alongside Still Life with Goat’s Head, ca. 1646–50, attributed to José de Ribera; Gerhard Richter’s absorbing Schädel (Skull), 1983, near seventeenth-century vanitas paintings by Franciscus Gijsbrechts and Sébastien Bonnecroy. A few of the juxtapositions feel superficial, hinging solely on perceived similarity in content or morphology, but many are effective.

A particularly successful grouping occurs at a critical juncture, the outset of a long section devoted to “Accumulation, échange, marché, pillage” (Accumulation, Exchange, Trade, Looting). Here, in a reversal of the earlier Christian European framework, which put objects wholly in the service of religious personae, things begin to crowd out figures. Secular individuals appear swamped by foodstuffs in three paintings by Joachim Beuckelaer—The Butcher’s Shop, 1568; Fish Market, 1570; and Kitchen Scene, with Jesus in the House of Martha and Mary in the Background, 1589—whereas in Frans Snyder’s Still Life with Vegetables, ca. 1610, lavishly painted heads of lettuce, chard, and cauliflower, among other freshly harvested crops, have fully usurped center stage, banishing a pair of diminutive peasants to the middle distance. Positioned immediately across from the Snyder, Erró’s 1964 Foodscape—a vast, over-life-size depiction of a dizzying array of packaged and prepared foods receding toward a distant horizon—draws a direct line from the sixteenth-century Flemish food stall to the post–World War II society of consumption. Here, human faces and figures appear only by way of the highly mediated and profoundly nostalgic images of modern advertising, whether as the floating head of the Blue Bonnet margarine mascot or the cheerily striding Morton Salt Girl. Untethered from human hands, levitating, tipped-over Hunt’s tomato sauce cans pour out their viscous contents of their own accord. The Icelandic artist’s processed lunch meats, precooked sausages, and uniformly sliced hams appear a logical end point for Beuckelaer’s visceral, fleshy hocks, Erró’s ready-to-serve crudité platters a contemporary version of the earlier painter’s produce-laden baskets and bowls. For once, the cramped, aisle-like space between the artworks proves ironically apt. 

Jim Dine, Nancy and I at Ithaca (Green Hand), 1966, fabric, wood, 83 7⁄8 × 38 5⁄8 ×  8 1⁄8". © Jim Dine/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Throughout the historical sections of “Les Choses,” the things in question are nearly always the objects, not the vehicles, of depiction. This fairly exclusive focus feels like a missed opportunity in the face of the materially diverse artworks, which include—among other items—a ca. 1330–40 devotional book with painted-ivory pages; a bronze ceremonial bell produced in Benin between the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries; and a painting of coins, quills, and playing cards executed in oil on calfskin atop an Empire-style pedestal table (Louis Léopold Boilly’s Trompe-l’oeil aux pièces de monnaie, sur le plateau d’un guéridon [Trompe-l’oeil with Coins on the Top of a Pedestal Table], ca. 1808–14). In one particularly suggestive sequence, visitors encounter three wall-hung artworks—a painting in oil on oak from ca. 1530 (the anonymous Still Life with Bottles and Books) and two marquetry panels from between 1520 and 1523—that depict cupboards stocked with various items. In each, the illusionistic image of the cabinet is exactly coterminous with the support, appearing an operative trope for the picture itself: a wooden thing that contains other things. More curatorial attention could have been paid throughout the show to the incessant interplay between physical being and representational tropes. (Here as elsewhere, a stronger authorial framing might have helped matters: The three objects are grouped in the show but not in the catalogue, where painting and panels are divided among different writers.)

Yet it is in the exhibition’s final—considerably weaker—section, on late-modern and contemporary art, that one feels most keenly the inadequacy of the prevailing emphasis on representation. To be sure, as the show makes abundantly clear, artists continue to produce still-life paintings, as well as videos, photographs, and so forth that may be meaningfully classed within the genre. But for an exhibition seeking to trouble precisely those generic limits, “Les Choses” is ill-equipped, at this late stage, to tackle the manifold transformations of thingliness in the age and wake of pictorial abstraction, the Duchampian readymade, Minimalist objecthood, and Conceptual dematerialization, to say nothing of the digital turn.

Joachim Beuckelaer, The Butcher’s Shop, 1568, oil on canvas, 57 5⁄8 × 80 5⁄8".

And so, lacking clear criteria, it is here that the selection of objects appears most arbitrary. Ron Mueck’s 2009 Still Life, a massively outsize but otherwise hyperrealist sculpture of a single plucked chicken, suspended upside down with bound feet worthy of a Grünewald altarpiece, ties in clearly enough with earlier depictions of trussed fowl. By contrast, the presence of Jim Dine’s Nancy and I at Ithaca (Green Hand), 1966, a giant wooden appendage gloved in emerald fabric, left me mystified. Other juxtapositions and groupings appear to have been determined on the thinnest of formal grounds. Glenn Brown’s 2008 Burlesque, a heroically scaled painting of moldering apples, contains livid shades of green reminiscent of those in Picasso’s immediately adjacent Grande nature morte au guéridon (Large Still Life with Pedestal Table), 1931, while Jean-Jacques Lebel’s Vénus endormie de Giorgione rêvant de B.H. (Bernard Heidsieck) et de F.D. (François Dufrêne) (Giorgione’s Sleeping Venus Dreaming of B.H. [Bernard Heidsieck] and F.D. [François Dufrêne]), 1970–80—a spotlighted tangle of leather belts and assorted straps—has browns like those of Miró’s stupendous Nature morte au vieux soulier (Still Life with Old Shoe), 1937, and is held aloft by hooks like Mueck’s lifeless bird. But one is hard-pressed to draw out deeper connections. 

Despite the abundance of contemporary objects in the historical galleries, then, the exhibition is surprisingly flat-footed in its final stretch. Lacking the coordinates necessary for a fuller accounting of the vicissitudes of literalness in recent art, the featured works register essentially as so many uneasy leftovers of prior representational traditions. Could one imagine a version of this show, at once more focused and more aerated, centered on a tighter constellation of questions about the perennially shifting relations among objects and images, representation and physical being—in short, the thingliness of art itself? Sometimes, as the history of still life makes clear, less really is more.

“Les Choses” is on view through January 23.

Molly Warnock is the author of Simon Hantaï and the Reserves of Painting (Penn State University Press, 2020).