Dusti Bongé still life

Still life painting has never been my favorite genre. I favor landscapes or abstraction. I recognize, however, still life painting is an essential form of practice for anyone whose ever picked up a brush, including Dusti Bongé, Mississippi’s first artist to work in an exclusively Modern style.

This week’s artwork as part of SeeGreatArt’s partnership with the Dusti Bongé Art Foundation features a still life sketch. Analysis, as always, comes from Foundation Executive Director Ligia M. Römer.

Dusti Bongé, National Surety Corporation Diary 1941 – January 2​ & January 3, 1941, Pencil on paper, 2 x (8” x 5”)

This week some down-to-earth work from Dusti Bongé’s early period. These sketches were quite likely done in her own kitchen.

From a 1941 datebook, or “diary,” with well over 100 sketches in it, here we have a two-page spread with several iterations of the same still life composition of fruits and vegetables. Some of them are clearly identifiable despite having been reduced to their barest, essential, visual attributes, like the pineapple and the bananas.

Others are less easily classified, like the long stalks, which could be celery stalks, or a bundle of carrots, or perhaps an unlikely, and very un-southern, vegetable like rhubarb. Then there those that are even less trackable, such as the various oval and round shapes hinting at a range of possible staples like onions, apples, oranges, potatoes, tomatoes, radishes, lemons and so on. 

What’s interesting about this spread with five sketches is that they show how Dusti worked not only to represent what she saw, but how she saw it. With each iteration of the still life barely changing, you get a sense that she is aiming at capturing a moment rather than a carefully staged static display.

Dusti’s fruits and vegetables are not presented with any hints of symbolism, or allusions to vitality or abundance. They are representations of moments in her immediate surroundings. In fact, the loose compositional arrangement of the produce suggests the still life will not remain still for very long. Any moment now one of those onions may go under the knife.

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