Si sta come / d’autunno / sugli alberi / le foglie (G. Ungaretti, Soldati)
Havel havalim. (Qohelet)
The vanitas is a concept whose ancient origin dates back to the Ecclesiastes, a book of wisdom in the Bible (4th or 3rd century B.C.). It is the feeling of powerlessness in front of the impermanence of things; it is the fact of recognizing in death the defeat of all our earthly efforts. We slave away to obtain money, glory, success and power; we fight against injustices, in the name of a higher moral order; we search for love and affection, we work to leave some material good to our children, in the constant illusion that our passage on earth won’t be forgotten, that it means something. And yet, all this whirling of desires and this endless strain is nothing but the “breathe of breathes”, it’s “running after the wind”. All is vanity.
Maybe this apparent nihilism is actually a fertile philosophic ruse: it deals with making a clean sweep of our illusions. Only after we have intimately accepted the meaninglessness of all things, we will be able to understand what is really worth pursuing;
only if we stare into the abyss we will see our true face emerge.
This compendium for artists aims at introducing some classic iconographic forms that the concept of vanitas has exploited in order to surface in Western art. Some are rather famous, others are little known. Each of them try to take us off our daily point of view, the myopia we long and look for, to which we cling nail and tooth, and that prevents us from seeing the fearful overview: the one that empties and wipes out all our concrete efforts.
Havel havalim: the greatest vanity of all.
We all know the compositions of fruit, flowers, fish and other lifeless objects. And yet these pictorial representations always contain a warning about the transience of existence: withered flowers, slaughtered meat, fruit already parted from branches become symbols of precariousness and, although in an overly-refined and in its way “theatrical” manner, are a mise-en-scène of the end of life.
“Remember you must die”. In the end this warning is symbolized by the human skull. There is nothing more definitive than a skull, from whose dark mirror it is impossible to flee. During the centuries the representation of the skull has undergone an extremely long and complex evolution; even various kinds of jewels have been produced: two-faced heads with a face on one side and a skull on the other, skeletal Christs, et cetera. Today, Conceptual Art (just think of the diamond skull by Hirst), Pop Art and even fashion took hold of this iconography. Now skulls can be seen on T-shirts, tattoos and bags. Devoided of all meanings, aren’t they a further evidence that everything – including symbols – is nothing but vanity?
THE THREE AGES OF MAN
A child, an adult, a dying old man. We should assume a point of view that allows us to see the life of a person as a whole. It is a natural trajectory, ending with the physical decay that forebodes death. To be born, grow up and die: what is all this for?
ET IN ARCADIA EGO
Arcadia is a historical period that over time was transformed in a sort of Eden, where nobody needed to work because nature dispensed enough fruits to make a life of pleasure possible. Human beings lived side by side with the spirits of the forest. “I was in Arcadia too” reads the inscription on the grave. Who utters this sentence? The dead person utters it, meaning: “I too once enjoyed the pleasures of life, and now look at me”? Or maybe it is death itself that speaks? “Even in Arcadia, I was present”...
The art of dying was the subject of various booklets that showed the right way of ending one’s life according to Christian precepts.
The illustrations used to represent a man dying in his bed, with angels on one side and devils on the other. It’s up to us to choose between a
good or bad death.
Man is like a soap bubble, ready to burst at the least blow of the wind. We are all like children that play with bubbles, unaware in front
of our cruel destiny. The game becomes the symbol of our childish approach to the problems of life; this is why in most representations the
main subject is a teenager.
THE TRIUMPH OF DEATH
The image of death with the sickle comes from here: a widespread representation in periods of famine, death is seen as a terrifying and massive figure, often riding an afterlife horse, ready to slaughter large crowds without drawing a distinction between rich and poor, popes and princes, nobles and peasants. It is the most absurd and fantastic side of the plague that breaks in, the Kantian sublime, the sensation that we are on the edge of the abyss and we don’t have any kind of weapon at our disposal, in front of the sharp blade of the unknown.
DEATH AND THE MAIDEN
A putrid corpse kisses a beautiful half-naked girl: this matching is shocking and tragic. The vanity of physical appearances, beauty and youth is here exhibited in the bluntest way. Keep looking at yourself in the mirror, honey. Your body will soon be food for worms and larvas. And then, what is the cult of appearances for? Even earthly charms are nothing but illusions, “follow the wind”.
THE LEGEND OF THE THREE LIVING AND THE THREE DEAD
A legend that is born in France. Three living characters (normally a duke, a count and a prince) are riding horses in the country and they meet three talking corpses. The dead tell them: “Such as we were you are, and such as we are you will be. Wealth, honor and power are of no value at the hour of your death.” At the beginning the three dead were represented as skeletons; afterwards, they were shown as corpses laying each in its own coffin and at a different stage of putrefaction.
DANCE OF DEATH
The most impressive, complex and artistically intriguing representation of death is the one where some skeletons and corpses hold living men (often noble and powerful people) by their hands and drag them in a wild and feverish dance. It’s the dance of death – danse macabre in French, Totentanz in German – that sounds like a frightfully farcical summary of our lives. It is an exact figuration of the world: dead and living people, arm in arm, dance to the rhythm of the music of the spheres. There’s no distance, it’s no use thinking that we are different from those who have been here before us; we are all in the same boat, absorbed in an absurd dance. There’s nothing we can do, our only alternative is to dance. And – who knows – maybe in this surreal ring-a-ring-o’roses we could find a grain of glee, of happiness. Maybe, surrendering to the transitoriness of forms, we will discover that all that seemed to be relevant is unimportant – the meaning, the why, the reason: what counts is to let ourselves be dragged by the (tragic and beautiful) euphoria of the infinite dance of the cosmos.