The North Carolina Museum of Art's current exhibition, Still Life Masterpieces: A Visual Feast from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, got me thinking about the myriad connections between art and gardening. Of course no gardens were on view; the show is about still life, so only inanimate (or once-but-no-longer-animate) objects make an appearance. It's beautiful to look at and just plain fun, especially the sidebar display by members of the North Carolina Garden Club. And it was surprisingly full of wisdom for the garden.
Lesson One: Composition is king. Cézanne meticulously arranged his still life compositions in a quest for perfect balance and harmony. If he was dissatisfied with one arrangement of peaches and lemons, he would try another until he got it just right.
A little of Cezanne's discipline would do me a world of good. The sad truth is, my garden has no governing principle. It began haphazardly and expanded opportunistically. Eight years later, my design philosophy is, "Where does this fit?" Time to grab a shovel and rearrange those peaches.
Lesson Two: Focus. In this famous O'Keeffe, it all boils down to one gigantic sunflower. And isn't this exactly how we experience a sunflower? It's so overwhelming that it's all we see. Our minds edit out everything around it.
I need to remember this painting the next time I visit a nursery. I have a bad habit of wanting every plant I come across, especially the ostentatious ones. Then I wind up with sensory overload. From now on, it's one focal point at a time.
Lesson Three: The classics never go out of style. It's true for Renoir (despite the scoffing of art-world snobs), and it's true for these simple flowers. Honestly, are the latest zinnia and sunflower cultivars an improvement over the 1869 varieties? Let me put this another way. Is Echinacea "Double Decker" really necessary?
Lesson Four: Adjust. Courbet painted these hollyhocks while in jail for revolutionary activities. Legend has it that he was hoping to paint landscapes from the prison roof but was denied permission. So he had his sister bring flowers and vases for still lifes instead.
"When life gives you lemons" may be an oddly cheery take-away from the funereal Hollyhocks in a Copper Bowl. But gardeners train themselves to look on the bright side. Besides, I can appreciate great painting even as it reminds me that hollyhocks do poorly in central North Carolina, and that you're better off with something that doesn't mind heat and humidity. Work with what you have. Courbet did.
Lesson Five: We are an infinitesimal speck in the universe, and don't you forget it. This may seem self-evident, but Gijsbrechts thought we needed reminding. Hence the skull, hourglass, burning candle, and other symbols of the transience of life, all pointing to the futility of human endeavors in the grand scheme of things. Gardeners know this well.
“Luau” pitcher and set of eight cups, Minerware, Inc., New York, 1950-65, plastic (polyethylene), pitcher and lid: 9 ¼ x 7 ¼ x 5 ½ in., cup: 3 ¾ x 3 ½ in., Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Pitcher: Gift of Barbara McLean Ward and Gerald W. R. Ward, Cups: Gift of Brett Angell, Photograph © 2012 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Lesson Six: That being the case, enjoy life while you can still haul those compost bags, and don't take yourself too seriously.
Still Life Masterpieces is on view through January 13.
The Galloping Horse Gardener is a native New Yorker who packed it in in 2005 to live under the radar in Cary, North Carolina. In 2014, she removed to a new secure location somewhere in Raleigh.
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