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Vanitas – style of painting

Vanitas, found in many recent pieces, is a style of painting begun in the 17th Century by Dutch artists. Artists involved in this movement include Pieter Claesz, Domenico Fetti and Bernardo Strozzi . Using still-life as their milieu, those artists and others like them provide the viewer with ideas regarding the brevity of life. The artists are giving us a taste of the swiftness with which life can fade and death overtakes us all. Some late 20th Century examples were shown recently at the Virginia Museum of Art in Richmond, Virginia.

Among the artists represented in this show were Miroslaw Balka (Polish, b. 1958), Christian Boltanski (French, b. 1944), Leonardo Drew (American, b. 1961), Felix Gonzalez-Torres (American, b. Cuba, 1957- 1996), Jim Hodges (American, b. 1957), Anish Kapoor (British, b. India, 1954), and Jac Leirner (Brazilian, b. 1961). In the poem Vanitas Vanitatum by John Webster, we are given a clear view of this movement in the art world. ALL the flowers of the spring Meet to perfume our burying s a beautiful juxtaposition of the beauty of life and the sorrow of passing away.

Actually, any definition of this term would be overshadowed by this poem, it so clearly sums up the meaning and importance behind the word Vanitas. “Vanitas still life with portrait of a young painter ” by David Bailly includes such objects as dying flowers, a skull, a painting of musician, musical instruments (recorder, conductors baton), statuary of a young, virile man and a young child, a portrait of another young man, and a clean palette hanging on the wall.

The meaning behind these articles can be manifold, depending upon ones point of view, but I think they are all important symbols of the passing nature of vitality and life itself. The flowers, once brilliant and lovely, are now withering in their vase. Music, represented by a man playing a lute in a portrait on the wall and by numerous music related items (a recorder, a conductors baton) is itself transient and elusive. Obviously a skull can represent death, but it can just as easily be a reminder of what remains behind.

The clean palette hanging on the wall is evocative of a clear start, a new beginning, the option available to us all to begin again, before its too late! In Wheel of Fortune, by Audrey Flack, many objects illustrate the transient nature of this fragile life. Again, a skull is present, both in reality and in the mirrors reflection. A candle melts almost to the end, a die is cast, because in the end is fate anything more than a roll of the dice? A tarot card reveals the very human need to see the future, and the hourglass gives us a reminder of the passage of time, always marching on.

Even the lipsticks and jewels, though new and shiny in this moment, are apt to become muted and dull as years pass on. This piece seems to be about the passage of beauty in women, what we use to keep up the appearance of youth, and what is truly fading just under the surface. We can lacquer up and bedeck ourselves in jewels and flowers, but in the end, the sands still drop through the hourglass, and the candle still melts away, and we still come closer and closer to the inevitable.

A Vanitas still life to represent my life would have to include perhaps booties from my childrens babyhood and their hospital photos taken right after birth. Several of the broken and discarded watches we have kept for God knows what reason might illustrate the stoppage of time and the bananas that always seem to rot on the kitchen counter at my house would show how quickly things fade if we are not careful to use them while we can! In that vein, some photos of myself from my performance years would call to mind my youthful dreams.

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