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Brevity of Life & Transience
Vain ambition of Kings
Who seek by trophies and dead things
To leave a living name behind,
And weave but nets to catch the wind.
Excerpt from 'Vanitas Vanitatum'
by John Webster -
The Devil's Law-Case (1623)
Vanitas art is a fascinating genre which features objects rich in morbid symbolism such as skulls, rotting food, and fading flowers in order to produce in the viewer's mind an acute awareness of the brevity of life and the inevitability of death. The origins of the term date back to the latin biblical aphorism: vanitas vanitatum omnia vanitas (Ecclesiates 1:2) [Vanity of vanities; all is vanity.]
This intriguing, albeit macabre, genre of still life rose to prominence in the 16th and 17th century. It flourished primarily in Flanders, the Netherlands and, to some extent, in France. Though it lost much of its popularity around 1650, its influence remains clearly visible in many modern works of art, such as Paul Cezanne's Pyramid of Skulls and Pablo Picasso's Still Life with Skull.
Vanitas paintings of the Baroque period and the Golden Age of Dutch Art usually contain elaborate pictorial messages with moral undertones that urge the viewer to relinquish earthly pleasures and pursue a meaningful spiritual life. However, with the passage of time, the genre has evolved considerably and has shed much of its religiosity. Some vanitas pieces could be understood as an exhortation to seize the day and to drink, eat, and be merry for tomorrow we may die. Others endorse a nihilistic vision of the world that stresses the utter futility of existence and the absurdity of all human endeavors.
The artist's still life collection draws from the various philosophical strands associated with Vanitas art. It uses classic themes and symbolic objects from the vast repertoire developed by the vanitas masters of the Baroque period, and applies them to the modern age of globalization. In so doing, it ties the horrors of the past with the horrors of the present, suggesting in the process that perhaps the only truly enduring values of civilization are man's infinite capacity for corruption, greed, jingoism and warfare.