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The Futility of All; An Introduction to Vanitas Art

Written by Katla.
Adriaen van Utrecht | Vanitas Still-Life with a Bouquet and a Skull

Adriaen van Utrecht | Vanitas Still-Life with a Bouquet and a Skull

“Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity.”
-Ecclesiastes 1:2

“Vanitas”, latin for “vanity”.

The history of art is full of strange, fantastic (and sometimes off-putting) examples of any given era’s society. My personal interest towards Vanitas Art budded at a quite young age when I started collecting pictures of skull and skeleton motifs. Very soon I began to see a repeating pattern in my vastly growing collection — still life paintings with a human skull as a central point of focus, often surrounded by luxurious items such as pearls, rotting fruit or seafood and other expensive playthings.

The story and strict symbolism of these images escaped me at the time, young as I was and mostly interested because of the skulls. Eventually I forgot about Vanitas as new and wonderful art experiences took their place and my horizon widened. It was only quite recently, when I dragged myself up the stairs of Statens Museum to Kunst (Copenhagen) where I had traveled to see a Matisse exhibition, that Vanitas re-entered my life. Dusty and exhausted from some ten hours of small-talk in a bus with strangers, I sought a moment of peace and quiet in the less crowded parts of the museum. There, by chance, I came upon an example of an old oil painting with a skull motif. I came to realize that I had no in-depth idea why this kind of phenomenon had existed and scowled at my previous light-hearted approach to the paintings.

As it turned out, my way of looking at them had, in some ironic way, been exactly correct. A style of still life painting known as Vanitas that flourished in Flanders and Netherlands in the 16th and 17th century was, in its later forms, hypocritical to the extreme. The word “vanitas” comes from Latin and means vanity, or as used in its older form, futility. What had started off as solemn pictures with very few objects and a skull evolved into more chaotic and colorful styles. This later form of Vanitas was an excuse to paint beautiful and expensive objects that not everyone could afford or see in their daily lives, such as books or fine jewelry. The justification for this was a kind of Memento Mori –– the central piece of the composition would always be a human skull. In this way, the art would not be shallow but would serve to remind the viewer of the futility of life, where nothing but death was to be taken for granted and, in the end, all is dust. A further purpose was to enforce rigid moral behavior. In a twisted way, these lavish paintings were supposed to serve a higher purpose. Yet, these still lives lack the morbid and terrifying effect that is clear in some other styles that seemingly stem from similar philosophy:  the fragility of all life. A good example of this is the earlier movement known as Danse Macabre, a particular branch of (often church-related) art that emerged when famines and Bubonic Plague, more commonly known as Black Death, reaped the lives of millions in Europe.

Bernt Notke | Danse Macabre

Bernt Notke | Danse Macabre

In Danse Macabre art, the basic idea is quite simple. As the plague mercilessly claimed lives from all pockets of society, a panic naturally began to spread. The fight for survival was desperate, and one was bound to seek answers as to why these disasters were happening. Why are children taken from their mothers and whole families swept away?  Why were parents abandoning their offspring in a selfish leap to save their own necks? Many believed the pandemonium was God’s punishment, or caused by minority groups that then were persecuted. On church walls, paintings of dancing skeletons started to appear as a reminder and a warning. A poem that accompanies these images describes how death shall dance with everyone, from emperor to priest, nun, doctor, mother, and child. The bottom line was this: no one is spared. What is interesting is that even in the face of death, a sense of hierarchy is maintained. In a famous Danse Macabre poem, Death approaches the ruling class first and from there moves on to less fortunate members of society. In a seeming equality in the face of death, in this poem a paradox remains. The poor do not mingle with their king. Further difference between Vanitas and Danse Macabre is that in Vanitas, death is impersonal, whereas the reaper in the danse of death most certainly is a character. A more modern example of Danse Macabre is The Seventh Seal, a film by Ingmar Bergman where in the final scene, Death leads all to a dance.

The terror of impending death is more distant and dream-like in later forms of art that speak of the same basic idea that was introduced with the rise of the plague. In the still fife world of Vanitas, everything is calculated. Everything becomes symbolic and even a little romantic, though quite morbidly so. Lemons and seafood underline the bitter taste of death. Books, as tools of learning remind us that knowledge in the end turns to dust. Pearls and shiny things are examples of human vanity, and soap bubbles that often float around the still life are as fragile as the breath of life. Rotting fruit and hourglasses are sort of obvious and oysters (of all things!) in the golden era of oil painting in Netherlands symbolized sexuality. Musical instruments echo that pleasure can not last, perhaps even suggesting that art too is futile. In the middle of all this elaborate symbolism a human skull is painted, grinning its pearly smile forever more. One thing is for sure; these images are rather pleasant and undisturbing to look at. In Danse Macabre, there is a strange feeling of deliverance that I am unable to find in Vanitas Art. An empty perfection and cold calm rises from these images, with the exception of more recent works such as Cézanne‘s paintings.

In a way, Vanitas Art is actually more terrifying than Danse Macabre. Whereas the latter is a product of despair, Vanitas was a well-planned plaything, an excuse to hang images of pretty items on one’s wall without having to think of the uncomfortable idea that it would make one seem vain or superficial. In Vanitas, death becomes shrouded in expensive things, losing some of its most powerful idea of being sometimes sudden, random and inevitable. I would say that Vanitas as a style of art might actually encourage hedonistic behavior rather than reduce it, but in a sense this might be true to Danse Macabre too.

In his book Narcissus and Goldmund, Hermann Hesse focuses on describing the journey of an artist. Like all of Hesse’s books, this too is a description of spiritual growth, or finding one’s self. Goldmund is an archetypal artist character, a wanderer and conqueror of women who stumbles upon plague-ridden cities in his travels. In this, Hesse describes human reactions to the closeness of death as the desperate will to survive and how it affects the society. Some individuals engage in wild orgies and gluttony, dancing on the footsteps of death like it would be a mere Summer’s wedding, whereas others revolt in total anarchy, superstition, or seek sanctuary from religion. Goldmund experiences all of this while observing and gathering all of the emotions and memories in his mind’s vault, and because of this he survives, and in the end, is able to create his greatest sculptures. In Werner Herzog‘s Phantom der Nacht (1979), similar themes re-surface. When the empty market square fills up with coffins and escaped livestock and rats scurry on the streets, a group of people enjoy a steady meal, wanting to suck up the last drops of life. In a way, they become the film’s monster Nosferatu, uncaring for the outcome, clinging desperately to earthy pleasures.

The same kind of greedy need to enjoy beauty is at the very core of Vanitas Art. The skull was an excuse to look at “sinful” objects in the same way that religious or otherwise socially acceptable themes in art were sometimes used as an excuse to own or create nude paintings. I believe that, from the birth and evolution of Vanitas, a new kind of attitude can be observed as beginning to emerge slowly in western society. As humanity shielded itself with vastly growing cities and science, the church slowly but surely began to lose its grip over the minds of men. This coin has two sides. As nature became distant as a mere resource, and the existence of soul was but a symbol, human kind grew more greedy for control over everything.

Damien Hirst | For the Love of God

Damien Hirst | For the Love of God

The Skull of Smoking Mirror, also known as the Mosaic Mask of Tezcatlipoca (15th-16th Century AD)

The Skull of Smoking Mirror, also known as the Mosaic Mask of Tezcatlipoca (15th-16th Century AD)

In 2007, Damien Hirst, a British artist, created a platinum cast skull entitled For the Love of God using over 8000 flawless diamonds that he modeled over a real human skull. One can see the similarity between this artwork and the ancient mask Skull of the Smoking Mirror, but the core of Hirst’s piece of art is similar to Vanitas, whereas the purpose of the Mexica skull was a religious one. Unsurprisingly, the production cost of For the Love of God was a whopping 14 million pounds; that certainly puts the work of art out of reach for most people. This sense of luxury is essential to Vanitas. The sculpture has turned into the word’s very definition:  a skull surrounded by expensive things.

Inevitably, death has become a taboo in our society, now perhaps more than ever before. It has turned into something alien and repulsive. It is an enemy, and therefore it must be hidden. An absurd quest to search for physical immortality through earthy delights and to eliminate all signs of old age is running rampant in the society. No wonder the skulls in the old paintings are grinning so widely. It occurs to me as I write this that, ironically enough, our whole society is turning into a Vanitas. Smartphones, iPads and other clever little objects replace books, soap bubbles and seafood but they speak of the same thing. Whereas some hundreds of years ago it was seemingly enough to look at an image with these fascinating objects in it, in the world of today one must own them. All of them. It seems that to own expensive, useless items is a basic civil right.

In the center of this Vanitas composition of a society the skull persists, and it is showing every single one of those pearly whites. Wrapped in luxury items, death is still laughing.

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