Significant Objects: The Spell of Still Life at the Norton Simon Museum


The words “still life” and “family-friendly” don’t often find themselves in the same sentence, however the cleverly-curated show at the Norton Simon Museum might change your notion of what kids find intriguing. With bugs and butterflies, Breugel and Picasso and mouth-watering images of fruits and vegetables, this little show offers up a fun way to look at art with kids.

Significant Objects: The Spell of Still Life, open from now until January 21, 2013, is laid out in a cozy two-room gallery space at the Pasadena institution, and organized into four neat sections. At first, these organizational divisions seem a bit unnecessary – like so much clever copy offered up for those who want to brush up their art-history. I mean, we’re just looking at pretty pictures of flowers and food, artfully arranged on tables, right?

Right… and wrong. The arrangements are artful indeed, and the painted fruit, veggies and vases that made it to the Norton Simon are indubitably beautiful.  Kids wil get a kick out of  discovering bugs, butterflies and snakes, crawfish and all manner of dead fish and rabbits (politely known as “game”) scattered around the canvases. But by listening to the headsets or reading a bit of the copy on the walls, another picture emerges. Turns out still-life painting was not positively viewed through history, a kind-of bottom rung practice in the hierarchy of the arts. This little show nobly restores the art form to a place of status by arranging paintings from the museum’s copious collection in a stunning microcosm of the history of art.

 Don’t come hungry – the cherries and fruit arrangements are so lifelike, our stomach grumbled. But, then again, dead fish splayed on platters and lovely hanging lapins might keep your appetite at bay!

At first, still life painters did their best to represent all the wondrous items found in the world – in order to share these wonders with others. Remember kids, no Instagram in those days but the impulse of “wow, you’ve gotta see this” is primal. Next, painters took to arranging these items in a really cool fashion and set about showing off their excellent skills with the paint and canvas. We were particularly impressed with two carved wooden panels depicting flowers and bugs, snakes and birds. In the third phase, painters used all the symbolism of literature to tell a story – objects represented ideals and messages and the viewer was expected to interpret the symbols of the paintings. And finally, in the modern age, painters did their best to undo the symbolism and staid tradition of art by pushing the boundaries of form and meaning. See what Picasso does with a still life, and the journey is complete.

IDEA: If your kids are Insta-friendly, why not have them shoot a bunch of still life photographs in the next few weeks. Arrange items – food, flowers, toys, candy – and take pictures with your phone. Send them our way and maybe we’ll even share them with our friends at the Norton Simon. Who knows what might spark your child’s artistic spirit?

So, take a few moments and duck into one of our favorite museums in LA – be sure to visit Degas’ dancers on the way in and the gift shop on the way out. This little show will help you take your junior curators from staid and perfectly gorgeous renderings of flowers, to Cezanne’s lovely, drunken tulips to a gigantic wild photograph of a flower arrangement being blown up!

FAMILY ART NIGHT: Arranging a Still Life  Friday, August 10, 6:30–7:30 p.m.
Expand the definition of the still life by exploring the Museum’s collection and then designing your own work in this genre. Draw fruits, flowers and other curious objects.

GUIDED TOUR: Significant Objects: The Spell of Still Life Friday, September 7, 6:00–7:00 p.m. and 7:00–8:00 p.m.