Luis Egidio Melendez Nature morte avec pastèques et pommes dans un paysage Museo Nacional del Prado © Museo Nacional del Prado

12 October 2022 – 23 January 2023

Seventy years after the last retrospective at the Musée de l’Orangerie in 1952, still lifes once again take centre stage in a new major exhibition in Paris. Curated by Laurence Bertrand Dorléac, the exhibition sheds new light on a genre long considered minor and whose French title, nature morte, coined in the late 17th century, has always left something to be desired. Nor does the English ‘still life’ do justice to a very dynamic genre, which is essentially an arrangement of things choreographed by an artist.

This carte blanche exhibition brings together some 170 works on loan from more than 70 of the world’s most prestigious institutions and private collections. A monumental work by the Cameroonian artist Barthélémy Toguo, The Pillar of the Missing Migrants, will also be on display under the Pyramid, as a prelude. The works are arranged into 15 chronological and thematic groups representing all artistic media (painting, video, sculpture, photography and cinema) and are in dialogue with each other, ignoring the boundaries between time and geography and going right up to the contemporary era.

Evidence of humans’ representations of things go back to early prehistoric times, offering fascinating insight into history. Artists were the first to truly take things seriously, recognising their presence and breathing new life into objects by exalting their forms, meaning, power and charm. They captured the ability of things to give concrete shape to our fears, beliefs, doubts, dreams, desires and follies.

The exhibition aims to re-establish a dialogue between this genre, which is perceived as outdated, and visitors: still life is a powerful rtistic evocation of life. Because human beings live with things and become attached to them, because things occupy a decisive place in our lives and imaginations, the genre says a lot about us and has much to teach us. It speaks of our relationship with material goods, which cannot be reduced to mere materiality since they are charged with meaning.

The last major exhibition dedicated to still life, Still Lifes from Antiquity to the 20th Century, was organised in Paris in 1952 by Charles Sterling, curator at the Louvre. The present exhibition is a tribute to this great art historian; it is not a remake but rather a new take based on current knowledge and a contemporary point of view. The exhibition integrates everything that has renewed the techniques of representation and perspectives, both in the history of ancient and contemporary art as well as in literature, poetry, philosophy, archaeology, anthropology, science and ecology.

Broadening chronological and geographical boundaries, the exhibition opens windows onto other cultures that have given things pride of place, even when they were no longer shown for their own sake in the Christian West – from the 6th to the 16th century. It revisits the still life genre, in the perspective of the eternal dialogue between artists of the present and those of the past, in a permanent renewal of the way we see the world: from prehistoric axes to Duchamp’s readymade, to the astonishing arrangements of Arcimboldo, Clara Peeters, Louise Moillon, Zurbarán, Chardin, Anne Vallayer-Coster, Manet, De Chirico, Miró, Nan Goldin, Ron Mueck and many others.

Artists’ representations of things are imbued with a wide variety of practices and ideas, beliefs and feelings, which inspire as much as they echo what is happening in the world. Within a recognised, even overused, code, the simplicity of things invites artists to unprecedented liberty of form.

The still life genre must also be reconsidered in light of the contemporary attachment to things and the new relationships that are being forged between the living and the non-living. This exhibition necessarily reflects the concerns of modern society – ecological challenges, the rights of animals and things (forests in particular) – while certain constants, such as the theme of vanitas, reveal deep truths about humankind.

The structure chosen for the exhibition has the advantage of highlighting turning points in the history of representations. It also provides the necessary connections between works from different periods. Three periods are particularly prolific in the representation of things: antiquity, the 16th–17th centuries and the 20th–21st centuries.

Exhibition curator: Laurence Bertrand Dorléac, art historian, with the collaboration of Thibault Boulvain and Dimitri Salmon.

Exhibition catalogue: Edited by Laurence Bertrand Dorléac. Copublished by Liénart / Musée du Louvre
Éditions. French, €45.

Exhibition album: Co-published by Liénart / Musée du Louvre Éditions. French, €45

With the exceptional support of the Musée d’Orsay.
The exhibition catalogue was made possible thanks to the support of the Fondation Etrillard.

Musée du Louvre