Still fascinating

24th October 1997 at 01:00
OBJECTS OF DESIRE: THE MODERN STILL LIFE, Hayward Gallery, until January 4

Mundane objects acquire symbolic significance in a new exhibition, says Michael Clarke.

This fascinating exhibition will very likely prove to be a richly rewarding occasion for schools and colleges. Introducing young people to the history of 20th-century art can be a daunting responsibility, but what more readily accessible way could be found than through the still life?

In terms of subject matter, materials, structures and techniques, the category has been greatly expanded during this period, but it has inevitably remained anchored in the use of the most familiar objects.

Bowls, jugs, fruits and vegetables recur throughout the show, whether they appear in a still-relatively conventional oil-painting such as Derain's 1912 Pears and Bananas in a Bowl, as edibly real as the cabbages, cauliflowers and carrots in Mario Merz's 1982 Spiral Table or monumentally enlarged in Robert Therrien's 1994 free-standing Untitled (Stacked Plates).

Ever since its emergence as an independent genre in the 17th century, the traditional still life has represented ordinary domestic things, yet in both the circumstances of their assembly and the mode of representation, their commonplace functions have been transcended.

The selection and arrangement of things, as we very well know from shop-window displays or magazine styling, already endows these items with special significance.

Placing them in a gallery or interpreting them through any number of media and modes takes these objects even further away from their familiar contexts. Mundane things are transformed into images of their era.

Parallels might be drawn between putting together a still life and the selection, sequence and grouping of artifacts in this exhibition - and many of these are suggested by the curator, Margit Rowell, in a very frank and lucid video made by the education officer, Amanda Hogg.

Via a more than usually determined route, the visitor will easily recognise how the drawing-room apparatus of Cezanne's 1890-94 Still Life with Ginger Jar and Egg Plants gives way to the bottles and glasses of the street cafe in Cubist paintings by Picasso and Braque. Then, with the introduction of collaged and constructed elements like newspapers and bobble fringe, the way is open for Duchamp brusquely to bring together domestic and public worlds by simply attaching a bicycle wheel to a kitchen stool.

Catching sight of Mondrian's 1912 Still Life with Ginger Pot II as you turn away from the Cezanne highlights the importance of ways of representation. Standing Boccioni's 1912 bronze Development of a Bottle in Space next to Gris's Still Life with Oil Lamp of the same year lets their common spiralling motion demonstrate the affinities between Futurism and Cubism in a more immediate way than any words can do.

Elsewhere, equally revealing, even revelatory, juxtapositions and series are made. The coincidence of Alberto Magnelli's 1914 Still Life with Apples and Matisse's 1915-16 Gourds is sufficient in itself to cause anyone to reconsider standard accounts of modern art, but in the same room half a dozen pictures by Picasso, Morandi, Ozenfant and others provide evidence of the most unexpected correspondences between Neo-classical, Metaphysical and Machine aesthetics.

There is no want of instant appeal to both primary and secondary school visitors in this exhibition. Given the recurrent assurance of familiar items, it is not only sensational pieces like Meret Oppenheim's 1936 fur-covered tea-cup, saucer and spoon, Object, or pop-culture icons like the sneakers in Lichtenstein's 1961 comic-strip Keds that will attract attention.

Very small children, for whom scale is always an issue, are sure to respond to Oldenburg's enormous 1962 Floor Cake or willingly identify the corrugated card, can and nails from which Picasso built his 1951 Goat, Skull and Bottle.

Almost all will be stimulated to assemble or reinterpret their own selection of things but if further encouragement or enlightenment are wanted, there is the usual information pack, open evening and workshops for teachers, gallery talks and workshops aimed directly at children and, a Hayward education first, a three-page, coloured, fold-out sheet written by novelist, Kate Pullinger. All are free.

For information about the educational programme, telephone 0171 401 2664

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