(Roughly) Daily

“All is vanity”*…

Cecily Brown, All Is Vanity (after Gilbert), 2006 [see here for Charles Allan Gilbert drawing that inspired it]

A growing number of modern artists would have us reflect on our lives and their meanings. Charlotte Jansen offers an example…

Oysters, lobsters, Louboutins—and death. At Cecily Brown’s current exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum Museum of Art, “Death and the Maid” (through December 3rd), the trappings of capitalist society seem to slip into oblivion under her lively, vigorous brushwork and lucid tableaus. Skulls, mirrors, and references to paintings of the past remind us of the madness of materialism and the certainty of death, recasting the classic theme of vanitas for the contemporary age.

Historically, the aim of a vanitas painting was to point out the vain pursuits of our mortal existence. Evolving out of a distaste for decadence and wealth, fueled by Calvinist attitudes in 16th-century Europe, these paintings imparted a clear moral message. The burgeoning middle classes had suddenly been able to afford jewels, quills, luxurious fabrics, sheet music, and books. But, these paintings warned, no matter how much pleasure those material possessions may bring, all is futile in the face of death. In these still-life compositions, the transience of life was commonly represented in depictions of skulls, burning candles, flowers, and soap bubbles.

Unlike memento mori—another genre of painting designed to remind the viewer of their mortality—vanitas works can be distinguished for their inclusion of displays of luxury and collections of items alluding to pleasure. It’s perhaps no surprise that vanitas is making its way into the works of contemporary artists—especially in bodies of work produced during the pandemic that are now being seen in public for the first time…

The human condition: “Contemporary Artists Are Reviving Vanitas, Reflecting on Death and Decadence,” in @artsy.

* Ecclesiastes 2:2


As we muse on mortality, we might send authentic birthday greetings to Hermann Hesse; he was born on this date in 1877. A book seller, poet, and painter, he is best known as a novelist– especially for  DemianSteppenwolfSiddhartha, and The Glass Bead Game, all of which are animated by a search for meaning and self-knowledge (that’s thematically related to the Vanitas painters to the past and today). In 1946, he received the Nobel Prize in Literature.

You can find many of his paintings here.


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