“Better on your arse than your feet, flat on your back than either, dead than the lot.” -- Samuel Beckett
There’s a story that a Roman general who returned victorious from battle would be accompanied in his procession of glory through the streets by a slave whose job it was to whisper “remember that you will die” in the general’s ear. I wouldn’t be tempted to weigh in on the verisimilitude of this claim — such questions are well above my pay grade — but the story nevertheless encapsulates the meaning of memento mori art pieces, from medieval paintings through to my own contributions to the genre.
These two new still life arrangements are both composed in the style of vanitas still life painting, which seek to remind the viewer of the transience of life and the futility of pleasure. Here, as elsewhere, I incorporate the motifs of 17th century Dutch still life painting in the context of my own visual aesthetic. The meat, fruit, and flowers in such compositions encode messages about death and mortality; while those old paintings of fruit baskets in the museum might look quaint to a contemporary audience, viewers at the time would have understood these images as a reminder of inevitable decay.
Apples feature prominently in still life compositions and I’ve made use of this bit of iconography in both images of this series. Apples have a particular resonance in still life because of the role that fruit plays in the myth of the garden of Eden, and they are often interpreted as symbols of temptation, sin, and the fall of man. In both of these images I wanted to accompany the apples with organ meat (pig heart in the first image, cow kidney in the second) which might evoke the Biblical narrative about creation of Eve from Adam’s flesh.
The above image is now available for purchase in my Etsy store.
Both of these images also include a tipped cup, one of my favourite visual metaphors for the fragility of life. I usually pair this motif with some gore spilling out of the cup that might suggest wine, or perhaps blood. I often also like to enhance this interpretation of the tipped cup by placing it precariously close to the edge of the table. (Here and elsewhere I follow the popular Dutch approach to still life where one corner of the table is visible in lower quadrant of the frame.) In the second shot I also added in the extinguish candle, another common bit of iconography, that is usually interpreted as a metaphor for death.
Of course, at the end of the day I’m a visual artist, not a philosopher, and hence these compositions are also guided in large part by aesthetic considerations. I love the colour palate created by the wilting red roses, the blood red pig bowels, the deep purple kidney, and the apples. (The latter were, I believe, Red Delicious, in case anybody out there cares about such trivia.)