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Still much life in Meléndez's works

October 15, 2009|CHRISTOPHER KNIGHT | ART CRITIC

In Spain, a heightened style of Realist painting and sculpture has been around for centuries. Had it turned up first in our digital age, we probably would have appended the prefix "hyper."

Hyper-realism would convey the almost fanatical underpinnings to miracle-driven visions of much Spanish religious art, from the grim era of the Inquisition to the jokey Modern diversions of Salvador Dali. It would also incorporate more mundane (but nonetheless obsessive) efforts of 17th century Baroque art, such as the acute portrait miniatures of dignitaries and family popular among the aristocracy, long before the camera erased any such need.

An exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art adds another dimension to Iberian hyper-realism. "Luis Melendez: Master of the Spanish Still Life" brings together 27 paintings of fruits, vegetables, kitchen crockery, breads and other familiar tabletop items, mostly from the early 1770s.

The paintings, together with a 1746 self-portrait painted when Melendez was 30 or 31, are installed in two galleries of the Ahmanson Building. They're hung a bit too high on walls that have been plastered in rather corny off-white imitation of Old Madrid.

Here's an accolade you don't expect to hear: Among the paintings is an exquisite depiction of a head of cauliflower, perhaps the most remarkable cauliflower in all of Western art.

Yet essentially the show attempts to put the best possible light on an artist of great promise ultimately unfulfilled. Melendez could claim prodigious technical skill, but as an artist he was stuck in first gear.

He came from a family of painters. His father, Francisco Antonio Melendez, was his first teacher, employing him to assist in painting portrait miniatures.

Soon he progressed to full-scale pictures, assisting the rather dry French portraitist Louis-Michel van Loo, court painter to Philip V in Madrid. Following a sojourn in Naples, then part of Spain's empire, Melendez returned to the capital to help his father with a big commission for full-page miniatures painted in choir books, destined for a new royal chapel. The project took more than five years.

What happened to trip up Melendez? Preening arrogance, apparently.

He was among the first students admitted to Madrid's new academy of fine arts -- his father was its honorary director -- a school that would train painters and sculptors who could expect to gain royal appointments. That would allow Melendez to stretch himself into the public arena of religious subjects and history paintings. But several nasty administrative squabbles ended badly, and both Francisco and his son were expelled.

Luis' self-portrait, on loan from the Louvre Museum, was painted at the academy. It's the show's most commanding work. Hand confidently placed on hip and staring straight at a viewer, Melendez presents a chalk drawing of a classical male nude.

"I'm good," the self-portrait in effect says, "and I know it."

He is good too. The painting is signed at the lower edge of the depicted drawing, tacitly fusing art and artist. Melendez wields a brass chalk-holder, echoing the hidden weapon the muscular drawing subject grasps by its handle. The sheet of paper curls, casting a subtle external shadow that compounds the drawing's internal handling of light and shade. The curl also performs a compositional minuet with the flourish of white ruffles on the artist's shirt-front and sleeve.

The most remarkable gesture comes in the hand holding up the drawing for our perusal. Masterfully foreshortened, his fingers grasp the sheet directly on the drawn head. Placing his fingers on the chalk rendering seems incautious, if not reckless. What if he smudges the labored handiwork he proudly shows off? Soon it dawns that the effect is sly -- an audacious yet eloquent declaration of artistic authority. Melendez asserts the consummate creative power of his hand.

Would that the still lifes made 25 years later lived up to that early bravado.

The show, organized by Washington's National Gallery of Art, reaches for an exceptional distinction: Melendez, we are solemnly told, was the greatest still life painter in 18th century Spain -- which might be true, although there was little competition. And Francisco Goya, born the year of Melendez's self-portrait, was by then beginning his designs for the royal tapestry workshop. Goya, the era's genius, was on the move.

Melendez certainly brought great skill to these hyper-real pictures, mostly painted for private patrons. Sometimes he had trouble with effects, as in a depiction of figs and bread in which a dramatically foreshortened knife protruding off a tabletop feels insubstantial and weightless, rather than firmly held down by gravity. Elsewhere, the roughly textured skin of a cantaloupe is a lacy tour de force of webbed light.

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