I have spent some time looking at historical Vanitas art, and it’s relation to my work. I find the symbolism particularly interesting and realise that either subconsciously or naturally I have used some of the ideas and symbols myself.

Vanitas art is a movement of art that was particularity prevalent during the early 17th century in The Netherlands. It addresses the vanity of lifetime achievement and attempts to ground the viewer with a reminder of the inevitability of every ones death, that no one is exempt. Vanitas paintings almost always consist purely of still life compositions made up of abandoned reminders of life as well as often incorporating a skull.

  • Wine glasses remind us of earthly pleasure
  • Clocks, candles, soap bubbles and flowers remind us of the transience of our life.
  • Often items from working life would be added if the painting is a reminder to or of someone particular.

The empty vessel is of particular interest and is included as a metaphor for no longer being present see Pieter Claesz Vanitas Still Life (1630). Within this painting are many references but I find the tipped glass particularly relevant to my work. It is placed at such an angle that there can no longer be anything contained within it, it isn’t broken so doesn’t offer us an image of dramatic departure but more a simple quiet leaving.

Many contemporary artist have been inspired by Vanitas art and have taken elements from it. Damian Hurst immediately springs to mind but also Joel Peter Witkin. Haunting still life photography that seems to directly reference the Old Masters and Vanitas paintings, but have an eerie fantasy like quality. Witkin often uses actual body parts within his still life photography obtained from medical schools, morgues and asylums. One of the images that has a sense of trational vanitas painting is Still Life, Marseilles (1992) A head is placed amongst flowers, fruit and vegetables, a reminder of life and death alternatively see Anna Akhmatova 2003 another still life that uses a severed arm draped over a clock reminding us the time passing us by.

Sam Taylor Wood has also referenced Vanitas art within her video work. Still Life (2001) shows a time lapse film of a bowl of fruit decaying over a period of time with a modern ball point pen in the foreground as a reminder of the the transience of biological life also Little Death (2002).

The desire to explore the process of death and to remind oneself of our impermanence is what I feel I am attempting to explore as well within my work, though in a less confrontational way.





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