Cornelia Mohr’s Still Lifes –-
from the Cosmos of Imagination to the Broadening of Reality

When the birds tried to pick at Zeuxis’ deceptively realistic rendering of grapes, he was convinced he had won. He insisted on opening the drapes hiding the painting of his rival Parrhasius so that he might judge his work. But the drapes were merely painted, ensuring Parrhasius’ victory – or so it is related by Pliny. Illusion and reality had become indistinguishable.

The idea of the “still life” was not invented by the Greeks. Much earlier, in Egypt, India and China, artists had already attempted to break down the world into its individual components and render our everyday reality in an imitating as well as in an interpreting manner. The still life, which has been considered an autonomous art form since 1600 and enjoyed its heyday in the 17th and 18th century, continues to be an integral part of painting and abstract art to this day.
The wonderful, artful, technical or exotic objects housed in the cabinets of curiosities of the Renaissance were three-dimensional equivalents of still lifes. They too were arranged according to their material, colour, size and origin in order to represent a microcosm of our world, sometimes supplemented with illusionistic frames with inlayed work or still life mosaics. Their aim was to illustrate the inconceivable but nevertheless highly admired variety and diversity of our entire cosmos.

This world that was assembled and depicted in still life painting was a world of inanimate, transient objects that were divided into categories, such as flowers, fruit, other food, sea objects, vessels and sculptures, which were meant to illustrate the impermanence of nature and indeed of human existence. Representations of people were omitted – they were subordinate to nature still lifes, which were considered to be more apt at conveying the transience and beauty of the world.

And then came the still lifes of Cornelia Mohr! Her take on the still life not only includes all the categories commonly found in “traditional” still lifes, but she has broadened and enriched this genre in a temporal and figural sense as well as in terms of its themes. Her world dissolves into a lively juxtaposition of the most diverse components, playful elements and colourful tessera, which exist side by side in a relationship of tension. Collage-like texts added to the works either help or make it harder to observe and uncover the context of these relationships. Her works challenge beholders in a variety of ways, encouraging them to immerse themselves into the figural structure, to establish a connection between the text and the pictorial elements and to rejoice in the humorous but always cryptic worldview.

Among her most popular subjects that venture beyond traditional still life themes are various highly imaginative animal depictions (including dogs, elephants, bulls, lions and beetles) as well as elfish figures reminiscent of trolls, imps, aliens and statues (including archers, young women, masks, skulls and even paper planes). Together, these lively inhabitants of Mohr’s cosmos make her still lifes a veritable playground of passions and experiences! Her still lifes are no longer about depicting reality, our grey, everyday lifes, but rather about creating an enigmatic fantasy world made up of a colourful network of different relationships. The “Silent Cohabitants”, as Mohr herself calls her various figures, masks and fantasy characters, enliven this colourful but mystical everyday world and inhabit the playgrounds of secret ways of life while getting up to all sorts of mischief. With her subtle manner of painting, shot through with areas of strong colour, she creates a dense, at times seemingly three-dimensional space characterized by a powerful creativity. In it, she conveys a world of dreams and imagination that is never totally removed from our so-called reality. In her work “The Poly-Related” this ambiguity of her renderings becomes particularly apparent and is supported by a longer text: The beautiful Elvira, arisen from the foam of the sea, or rather out of a shell, is holding high the blazing torch which banishes darkness. But the African elephant holds a mirror up to her, revealing a fish’s face with fins…

Mohr’s roguishly enigmatic still lifes depict a fantasy world rich in imagery, making beholders want to delve into it so that they might take part in the mysteries, joys (?) and adventures presumably happening therein. Whether she chooses mixed technique, oil, collage or drawing – Cornelia Mohr admirably masters the art of depiction.

This part of her oeuvre is supplemented by sculptures created from metal, wood or papier-mâché, three-dimensional renderings of her pictures which elucidate the individual elements of her compositions.

The still life has a long history which has been, and still is, characterised by diverse developments and solutions. Through Cornelia Mohr’s works, it has experienced a humorous but no less profound expansion, inviting beholders to study her still lifes closely and to derive great pleasure in the process!

Prof. Dr. Wilfried Seipel
Generaldirektor i.R. Kunsthistorisches Museum
Wien 2012

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Cosmos of Imagination