Luis Meléndez: Master of the Spanish Still Life
Los Angeles County Museum of Art
LACMA’s current exhibition: Luis Meléndez: Master of the Spanish Still Life (on view until January 3) has traveled from the National Gallery of Art in D.C. and is currently on view in LACMA’s European painting and sculpture galleries (which are currently closed for reinstallation). The exhibition was originally organized by the National Gallery to celebrate its new acquisition of Meléndez’s work. Works from the 18th century Spanish master are on loan from many collections, including the Prado, the Louvre, the North Carolina Museum of Art, the Kimbell Art Museum, and a few private collections. The show at LACMA features 26 still lifes, one self portrait and an odd collection of kitchen artifacts.
Because I knew the shorter route to the two galleries the show occupies I initially missed the introductory wall text, so I went back to the front entrance to go through the show the direction in which the curators wanted me to. The introductory wall text was set on a slab of a wall (on the back of which was hung Meléndez’s self portrait). A nice gold title seemed fitting for an old master exhibition. The wall text mostly sang the praises of Meléndez as a mostly-ignored master overshadowed by the formidable Goya. This show it seems is a way of rediscovering a forgotten master.
The first thing I noticed about the galleries was the hideous treatment of the walls. Christopher Knight of the LA Times gave his opinion, as have other bloggers. And I am not alone in thinking that the walls are only ugly but also out of place in these galleries. The odd plaster treatment (which LACMA’s Unframed blog claims makes “new walls look old”) are distracting and look like a project on a reality television home improvement show.
Once I was able to get away from the odd walls, I was able to focus on the numerous still lifes. What I noticed immediately was that most of the paintings had the exact same frames, gold with a pilaster-look and circles in the four corners. This frame was used on works from the various collections the exhibition was culled from. This made me think that most of these works came originally from the same place.
Something that made me aware that these paintings were not all from the same place was the wire partition set in front of only some of the paintings. The paintings that were “special” enough to warrant the ugly wire partition (same wire from Your Bright Future) were the works from the Prado Museum. The segments of wire were obnoxious—I felt that if any of the paintings were valuable enough to justify the wire partition they all should have had a partition, just run a wire all around the galleries. I wasn’t the only one curious about the wire, another visitor asked a gallery guard about it.
The only painting that wasn’t a still life was Meléndez’s self portrait. The portrait was an amazing addition to the now seemingly generic still lifes. The self portrait was painted by Meléndez while he was still in school. It is hung in a way that makes it a real centerpiece of the show, behind the wall with the exhibition title and intro text. The portrait shows all the skill and technique required of a master painter, and the portrait shows Meléndez’s ambition and genius, which the exhibition claims were never fully realized.
The first room of the exhibition features mostly smaller works, and then the second contained both smaller and more extravagant tableaus of apples, grapes, watermelons, cantaloupes, etc. I did have an issue with the order that one wall was hung. Two works from the Prado museum, which a wall text clearly said “are probably pendants” were hung at opposite ends of the wall, with two large artichoke works dividing them. Formally the two works: Still Life with Pomegranates, Apples, Azaroles, and Grapes in a Landscape and Still Life with Watermelons and Apples in a Landscape look like pendants, and I was confused why the curators did not hang the works directly next to each other, there seemed to be no reason why the weren’t.
At the end of the second room are two display cases set into the walls of the galleries. Inside the two cases were objects like wine coolers, chocolate pots, and other vessels which can be seen in the still lifes of Meléndez.
Through some research I discovered that the addition of these objects was not LACMA’s idea, the curators at the National Gallery are responsible for the inclusion of the objects (however I still don’t forgive LACMA for the walls). I understand that the objects are there to illustrate the skill required of Meléndez to depict such objects in such a high degree of realism.
This display made me think; well if they’ve included the kitchen objects why not also include fruit from the still lifes in these cases. This is ridiculous I know, but I think included these objects is just as ridiculous. A visitor can see that the still lifes in this exhibition are extremely realistic, almost photographic.
The skill of Meléndez and this show as a tribute to a forgotten master seems unrealized in the size of this exhibition. While the collection of paintings from many collections is an impressive feat on its own, I thought that some editing was in order. Not all of the works in the show were Meléndez’s finest; the show could have been edited down to maybe half the size, with only the best of the works. Featuring only the best of Meléndez’s work would have done Meléndez more justice, especially when trying to convince an audience that Meléndez is an underappreciated and mostly ignored artist.
As a final note, when exiting the Meléndez show one is confronted with LACMA’s Christ in Limbo. The work, while Spanish, has nothing in common with the Meléndez show. Christ in Limbo and two other painting remain in the chamber right after the Meléndez exhibition, they are remnants of the reinstallation of LACMA’s European galleries, but no other works are still on view, the curators should really remove the three works as they are out of place and starkly alone.
And please, please LACMA curators do not use the weird plaster technique on the walls in the European galleries once they are reinstalled as you have hinted at, save your money.