Thursday, September 19, 2013

Still Life (pt. 6)

One of the most prevalent themes became known by the Latin word "vanitas," from which we derive the English word "vanity."  A vanitas still life is an image in which all objects symbolize the theme of the transience of life.  That is a very important phrase: "the transience of life."  Life is not going to go on forever; it will end (and this bears implicit religious connotations as well—to remind viewers to live religiously in order to go to Heaven).  The objects are all placed out on display for us, but they are inanimate, robbed of life, still.  No matter how ornate, expensive, desirable, or beautiful these objects might be, they will never be moved from the eternal position in which they lay on the canvas, and we as viewers of the paintings can never remove them.  Often we see paintings of fruits and extravagant foods laid out on a table to be eaten, and yet no one is around to eat.  What a shame to leave the fruit there unattended—it will surely go bad!  "The grass withers and the flower fades," says the vanitas message of the painting, "but the Word of the Lord is forever"—the message of His truth and the inevitable reality of death are as enduring as the works of art themselves.
Even more solemnly are placed in still lifes evidences of human life that has left and left in a hurry.  This is the meaning behind the tipped glass that appears in so many artworks of this genre.  It implies that the person handling the object was suddenly called away—no one knows why.  A snuffed candle, objects in disarray, half-peeled fruit, and tablecloth that is falling off the table all show that the host or hostess left before they could finish their tasks, and that they were called away too soon by an incontrovertible call (perhaps the call of death when its time has come).  Jewelry no longer has an owner, books no longer have a reader, no matter how expensive or important.  The people in these paintings are simply gone and leave behind only remnants of things that they cannot take with them.  You'll notice many times the flowers in these paintings conceal small insects.  In a kind of post-apocalyptic tone, many painters decided to show Nature falling back unto its own after the people have gone.  The bugs are free to eat away at the fruits and flowers.  Also it was a chance for artists to demonstrate their skill in filling their subject with endlessly interesting finds that can be altogether new to the viewer even after years of owning it.  In my own experience from working at a museum, I have been allowed the distinct opportunity of getting to spend countless hours with paintings such as these.  Many times I would be called on to spend the entire day in the still life galleries.  There are often so many hidden things in a still life that only come out from long hours spent alone in a room, staring at them.  To spot the insects in the paintings became something of a game among us.

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