Luis Meléndez was an incredible painter. It takes about two seconds to register that. It’s only when you spend a bit of time with his mesmerizing still lifes that your admiration for his virtuosity starts to float away and mutate into a very different, dangerously unstable feeling.
It’s a feeling that’s wholly out of tune with most people’s preconceptions about 18th-century art - closer, in fact, to the effects the Surrealists began trying to cultivate in the 1920s and ’30s.
Meléndez painted still lifes - that is to say, arrangements of fruit and vegetables, meat and game, bread, cooking equipment, and cutlery on plain wooden tables against dark backgrounds (and occasionally landscapes).
It all sounds pretty prosaic. But Meléndez - like his Spanish successors, Salvador Dalí and Luis Buñuel, two centuries later - grasped that intense scrutiny could produce an effect of hair-raising weirdness. His pictures have a hothouse intensity that turns visual truth into a kind of glittering mirage. You could think of them as still lifes on steroids, without the detrimental side-effects.
I can’t imagine anyone being bored by this exhibition, which has come to the Museum of Fine Arts from the National Gallery of Art in Washington via the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. It pairs still lifes in American collections (including two from the collection of Teresa Heinz and two from the MFA) with related paintings from Europe, most notably the Prado in Madrid. Under the guidance of the MFA’s Ronni Baer, the show’s 30 paintings have been beautifully installed here in a single, uncluttered room with filtered light.
Meléndez was a show-off. Thanks largely to his father, a noted painter whose temper tantrums torpedoed both his own and his son’s potential for an official career at Spain’s royal court, he had an ill-starred and unhappy career. But for a demonstration of vaunting self-confidence, just take a look at the picture that opens the show (and the only one that is not a still life). It’s a self-portrait from the Louvre, painted when the artist was 30 or 31.
The young Meléndez, blessed with smooth but smoldering good looks, stares out at us with dark, unflappable eyes. His right hand holds a gold-plated chalk holder, and the delicately painted fingers of his left display a large sheet of paper with a black chalk study of a male nude.
Clearly, the whole point of the picture was for Meléndez to advertise his precocity. Two things stand out. Firstly, the painter’s superb handling of the kinds of details others might subordinate to the face and hands: the buttons, for instance, of his white silk waistcoat, and the trompe l’oeil precision of the paper itself, on which we can see practice squiggles, a horizontal fold, the artist’s signature, and an uneven edge that catches the light and casts a shadow.
But don’t forget to notice, too, the beautiful yet understated coloration - the way the painter’s billowing blue velvet cloak matches the blue of his headscarf and chimes with his green jacket and olive skin. Again and again in the still lifes, Meléndez contrives similarly restrained yet ineffably lovely color combinations. It’s an aspect of his work that’s rarely remarked upon by commentators, who - understandably - obsess over his virtuosity with texture and light.
After this, it’s all bread, fruit, and vegetables.
In his heyday, Meléndez had no serious rival as a still life painter and was eventually able to win royal commissions in the genre. But still life was not a genre in which an 18th-century painter in Spain could expect to find fame and fortune, and he spent his entire life pushing for the kind of sustained patronage that would allow him to tackle loftier tasks.
It didn’t happen.
One of the remarkable things about the still lifes is that Meléndez seemed to hatch fully formed. Stylistically, they don’t really develop. They start out brilliant and stay that way.
There are no surviving drawings for them, either: Meléndez seems to have painted straight onto the canvas - often, as X-rays reveal, over earlier compositions (including, in one case, a royal portrait that failed to sell, and in another case, a painting by someone else).
A bit like the 20th-century’s leading still life painter, Giorgio Morandi, who painted the same vessels in endlessly shifting combinations, Meléndez frequently reused the same objects in different paintings.
He painted bread more than anything else - although not always as convincingly as his fruits, fowl, vegetables, and vessels. Bread is earthy and substantial. Meléndez’s insistently optical approach, attending to surface effects over mass and heft, is the source of his work’s uncanniness. But just occasionally, it can leave his loaves looking like cardboard cut-outs.
Never mind. The odd sense of isolated items superimposed on each other to surreal effect is part of what I love about Meléndez, and it’s amplified by his distinctive compositions: Instead of arranging his still lifes in the traditional manner, with the smaller objects out in front and the larger ones in back, Meléndez routinely placed large objects front and center.
A cantaloupe, a cauliflower, a pair of pigeons: These were the difficult-to-paint objects he wanted by the footlights. He would render them first, with all the prowess he could muster, and relegate the rest of the items to secondary and tertiary positions. These items are often huddled so claustrophobically behind the foreground objects - a heap of oranges or a hunk of cheese - that the latter are almost squeezed out of the canvas and into the gallery. Yet the level of attention remains even across the entire canvas. The result is a kind of visual “pop’’ that is Meléndez’s trademark.
Just like the ingredients and implements Meléndez depicted, the paintings themselves seem to jostle and compete for our approval. Everyone will have a favorite.
The cauliflower in “Still Life With Cauliflower and Basket of Fish, Eggs, and Leeks’’ is such a tour de force that it might easily win the popular vote. Then again, the subject matter of “Still Life With Chocolate Service, Bread Rolls, and Biscuits’’ has an inherent appeal that’s hard to discount. (Notice the contrast between the warmth of the colors in this painting, which depicts the perfect treat for a winter’s day, and the much cooler color scheme in a nearby still life showing summer ingredients: It’s classic Meléndez.)
The ripe, corporeal melon in “Still Life with Melon, Jug, and Bread’’ is the most stupendously painted object in the show. And the complex interplay between geometric forms and textural variation in “Still Life with Bream, Oranges, Garlic, Condiments, and Kitchen Utensils’’ is scintillating.
But I could not go past “Still Life With Game,’’ a simple arrangement of two amorously intertwined white pigeons with orange beaks and feet, propped against an overturned ceramic bowl. The white, velvety plumage of the birds is rendered with tremendous aplomb. The dimpled pith of the lemon at left contrasts with the smooth glossy skin of the tomato at right, and these two patches of bright local color are harmonized by the warm tones of a large copper cauldron.
It is everything a still life can and should be: It dwells on the promise of pleasure without failing to remind us of death. It resounds with formal rhymes and harmonies as well as contrasts of texture, color, and shape. It is at once bright and somber. And, like so much else in this show, it is astonishingly beautiful.