Beautiful Still Life—Beautiful Life
Updated: Apr 21, 2019
Art has been my focus recently, for both happy and sad reasons. Last Wednesday, I attended the first of a series of art history classes taught by Pitt professors at the Carnegie Museum of Art. That Friday, I attended the funeral of a friend and talented artist with whom I collaborated on editorial projects for more than 20 years. I can’t stop thinking about either event—and making connections between them.
In college, I took art history “5th century B.C. to the Renaissance,” but I foolishly did not take the second half of the course,“ Renaissance to the present.” What a shame, for I have viewed magnificent art in famous museums—The Metropolitan, MOMA, the Guggenheim, the Art Institute of Chicago, the National Gallery, The Getty and others in America, as well as the British Museum and National Gallery, the Louvre and the Musee D’Orsay, the Rijksmuseum, the Belvedere, the Vatican Museums and Sistine Chapel and the Galleria dell’ Accademia. Unfortunately, I often didn’t know much about what I was looking at.
The Carnegie Museum of Art session was on the Baroque period, which followed the Renaissance and is represented by painters such as Rubens, Caravaggio and Rembrandt. Using slides, the professor defined the characteristics of Baroque art (realism, a sense of “being in the moment,” dramatic contrasting light, engaging of the viewer and promoting spirituality). She also gave a fascinating account of how the church influenced art during the Roman Catholic counter reformation and the Protestant reformation and how art in turn influenced the church.
In 17th and 18th century Protestant Holland, where the churches were not decorated with religious art as in Roman Catholic countries, painters began specializing and competing for business because wealthy people wanted art in their homes. The still life, one of my favorite genres, thrived. As the professor explained, still life paintings are not overtly religious but the items depicted are intended as subtle reminders that we will die—we can’t take our treasured material objects with us, and we will be judged on our moral character not our wealth. The charming tableau of a Delft pitcher, a floral bouquet, a sparkling glass of wine (and maybe a skull) was meant to be more than a pretty picture
The irony is that these “morality and mortality” paintings, have long outlived their creators. Which brings me back to my late friend, Helen. As an artist, she created and collected many beautiful things. But it was always clear that the things she truly cherished were family, friends, good work and spirituality. In another ironic twist, the church where her funeral mass was held was not beautiful. Aside from 60s-era geometric stained glass windows, the only art, mounted high above the altar, resembled an oversized paint-by-numbers portrait of Jesus. Helen would not have minded. She knew that issues other than art are defining and dividing today’s churches.
When Helen retired two years ago, I asked if I could buy one of her limited edition prints, which she had loaned to “beautify” our spare office. “Homestead Roof,” a linear, abstract Pittsburgh rendering, now hangs in my family room. I am sorry I did not ask her more about the print—perhaps, like a still life, it has a hidden message. No matter, I like having her creation among my worldly goods, and I hope her art will live for another century or two.