Curious Trends


Vanitas - the art of death

The word ‘vanitas’ is Latin for vanity, or ‘emptiness’, and signifies the meaningless of earthly life. According to Wikipedia “vanitas is a type of symbolic work of art especially associated with Northern European still life painting in Flanders and the Netherlands, dating from the 16th and 17th centuries,” and paintings executed in the vanitas style “are meant as a reminder of the transience of life, the futility of pleasure and the certainty of death.”

Following devastating outbreaks of the Black Death in Europe, art became increasingly and almost obsessively focused upon death and decay, before its gradual transition into the still life genre. Vanitas themes originate from medieval funerary art and include symbols such as skulls, fruit, flowers and butterflies to represent death, together with the brevity and ephemeral nature of life. The sensuous depiction of the subject matter is often in conflict with the moralistic stance taken by the work of art.

Vanitas has been revived in recent years as part of a major trend that encompasses everything to do with death and dying. The focus is hardly surprising, in view of rapid, recent social change, the increasingly fast pace of modern life and the prevailing culture of materialism and disposability - which has left many of us feeling emotionally confused, lacking purpose and direction in our lives, (as documented in my 2006 book, Trends Beyond Life: In Search of Immortality).

The current trend is epitomized by Damien Hirst’s diamond studded skull memento mori, left, For the Love of God (2007), reputedly worth £50 million. (His more recent artworks include paintings of crows shot in mid flight and covered in splatters of red paint, set aginst blue skies).

Though this type of art aims to shock, the abundance of similar pieces on the market has somewhat reduced the impact of its irony. Fashion photographer David Bailey’s latest exhibiton at Hamiltons Gallery in Mayfair, for instance, which features still life arrangements of skulls and flowers to represent life and death (see right), appears curiously commonplace and uninspiring. However, the trend is far from over, and the death theme is fuelling a growing demand for skull jewellery, fashion accessories and taxidermy – with artists like Polly Morgan creating macabre sculptures from bits of dead birds and animals.

‘Butchery’ by Ruth Dupre (left), a mixed media piece in wood and glass, depicting raw meat hanging over the sides of a chopping table, was recently snapped up by a London doctor at the preview of this year’s Royal Academy Summer Exhibition. Not nearly so shocking, though, as Jana Sterbak’s ‘Vanitas: Flesh Dress for an Albino Anorectic’, made in 1987 from around fifty pounds of raw steak, stitched together and hung over a mannequin (see below).

Elsewhere, fans of morbid art and photography have contributed towards a plethora of vanitas inspired blogs, including Stephane Malingue’s Luxe et Vanites. Malingue, an art director in Paris, says that his posts are a direct reaction to the over-exposure of skulls in “cheap fashion”. He combines “spiritual text” with images to illustrate artists’ unique interpretations and visions of death. His own opinion is that life is to be enjoyed because it will end one day – to quote Oscar Wilde, “I am not afraid of death, I am afraid by the approach of death.”

Even figurative artists have jumped on the bandwagon. Daphne Todd recently courted controversy with a 'devotional' portrait of her elderly mother's body laid out at a funeral parlour. Some labelled the artist’s Last Portrait of Mother as exploitative, but Todd insisted that she’d asked her 100 year old mother’s permission at least a year before her death.

It looks as though ‘vanitas’ is set to stay with us for some time, but how will we feel about these dark and deathly works of art in years to come? Will we still want to share our houses with them, and have them adorn our walls and floors? And when will we be ready to look beyond the art of death to something entirely new?
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