Of Beauty and Death: The State Art Gallery of Karlsruhe, Germany

Visitors look at a dead game still life with wolf, dogs and hunter from 1702 by Dutch painter Jan Weenix at the state art gallery of Karlsruhe, Germany. It forms part of the exhibition ‘Von Schoenheit und Tod. Tierstillleben von der Renaissance bis zur Moderne’ (Of Beauty and Death. Still Life from the Renaissance to the Modern) which runs from 19 November 2011 to 19 February 2012. EPA/ULI DECK.

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KARLSRUHE.- On 19 November, the Staatliche Kunsthalle Karlsruhe unveiled a new major exhibition that will, for the first time ever, cast the spotlight on the rich history of the genre of the animal still life, spanning from the 16th to the 20th century. Over 120 paintings, watercolours and reliefs by such famous artists as Dürer, Rubens, Weenix, Chardin, Goya, Manet, Ensor, Kokoschka and Beckmann form a testimony of the subject’s importance. Besides works from our own collection, around 90 exquisite loans from renowned museums in Amsterdam, Antwerp, Brussels, Lisbon, London, Madrid, Munich, Paris, Stockholm, Vienna and Zurich provide insights into this fascinating pictorial world.

In its conception, the exhibition is based on the Kunsthalle’s own collection—a collection rich in animal paintings that dates back to the margraves and grand dukes of Baden, and which features works by Jan Fyt, Willem van Aelst, Jan Weenix, Nicolas de Largillierre, Jean Siméon Chardin and others. These works can now be viewed in a wider context thanks to the many loaned works also on display. The catalogue contains scholarly commentaries to all exhibits and sheds light on their art historical and cultural contexts.

The exhibition not only illustrates how the function and visual symbolism of the animal still life changed over the course of centuries, but also shows how the artists’ perception of the recurring motifs changed too. Alongside the enormous range in styles in their compositions, the images themselves are expressions of widely differing things: at once a symbol of aristocratic hunting pleasure, metaphors for human suffering and an expression of sensual experience.

The Renaissance saw the creation of works commissioned by rulers who had a passion for hunting. These works amount to the first independent depictions of slain beasts, their beauty captured even in death. One such ruler, Frederick the Wise, Elector of Saxony, commissioned his court painter, Lucas Cranach the Elder, to create decorations featuring game birds for his hunting residences. The painted trophies were supposed to attest his hunting successes. At the same time, depictions of animals crept into Cranach’s history paintings, where they were imbued with a complex metaphorical significance. With scientific scrutiny, Dürer, by contrast, took up the depiction of animals in his early study of a slaughtered duck, faithfully rendering the creature’s plumage to the very last detail.

Following on from such pioneers as Cranach, in the late 16th century the animal still life evolved as a genre in its own right, first flourishing in Flanders, before being adopted by the Dutch in their ‘Golden Age’ in the 17th century and undergoing some striking changes in the process. Works by artists from the southern and northern Netherlands form two important focal points in the show. The exhibition also highlights works by French painters of the 18th century, the shift towards modernism around 1800, as well as the animal still lifes of the Impressionists and Expressionists in the 19th and 20th century.

The themed exhibition, conceived to give visitors a comprehensive overview of the genre, makes it clear how much the artists’ handling of the traditional motifs has changed over time. That said, however, the show also reveals the clear affinities between the works that cross centuries. Courbet, for instance, showed that he was influenced by the naturalistic technique and art of composition of a Jan Weenix. And in his depiction of a dead eagle owl, we see Manet’s response not just to Chardin but to the trompe-l’oeil in general, to which artists have repeatedly turned their hand in creating visual illusions since antiquity. Soutine’s pictures, meanwhile, reveal a close affinity with Goya’s works. In the hands of both artists, slaughtered animals become metaphors for human life.

Beyond their possible meanings, the genre of the animal still life presented artists of all epochs with a challenge of skill. The genre demanded painterly virtuosity, irrespective of whether they used the means of naturalistic optical illusion or free expression. Only by uniting the pictures from various epochs under one roof do the painterly affinities between the works become evident here today.


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