New Vanitas Compositions / by Neal Auch


“He blossoms like a flower, then withers; he flees like a shadow and does not last. ”  -- Job 14:2

I’ve completed 3 new still life composition. These images, like the 17th century “golden age“ Dutch still lifes that serve as my primary inspiration, are intended to provoke meditation on the inevitability of death and the transience of all things.

The first image in this series is a kind of floral arrangement. This image blends dying pink roses with my own somewhat macabre interpretation of plant life, constructed from various dead animal organs. (In particular, I employed chicken foot “flowers,“ cow trachea “stems,“ and pig ear “leaves“ in this arrangement.) Flower paintings of the 17th century often presented bouquets that would have been impossible to realize outside the confines of the canvas; often flowers that bloom in different seasons and derive from disparate geographical regions were depicted side-by-side. Such paintings, though often stunning in their apparent realism, were very much the products of the artists’ imaginations and were based on botanical illustrations rather than real live flowers. In an era of year-round produce and global imports we take for granted that almost any kind of flower or fruit can be purchased at the local supermarket at any time of year. Here, in an effort to reclaim some of the unreality of classical still life, I have constructed my own imaginary flowers of decaying flesh. This choice also serves to drive home the underlying memento mori themes of the piece. (Of course all floral still life compositions contain, to some extent, a lament about death. But those old images of flowers and fruit tend to look quaint and trite to contemporary audiences; I believe that one must adopt a more confrontational approach in order for the underlying metaphors to make sense in a modern context.)


Photography tutorials emphasizes a few basic “rules“ of composition (like the rule of thirds, etc). But the Dutch masters employed a whole slew of interesting compositional techniques that are seldom found in more contemporary works. The second image in this series is based off one such approach. Here the organizing principle of the composition is a sense of instability; the duck, tipped cup, and chicken feet have been arranged to guide the eye towards the edge of the table and down into the void of negative space beyond. This kind of precarious placement of objects in still life is usually understood as a reminder of the fragility of life. Here this sense of instability is broken only by the etinguished candle in the background, perhaps a reminder that death is the only certainty of life.


The last image of this series incorporates a few of my favourite bits of imagery. One is the “foot candelabrum“ idea that has surfaced many times before in my still life work. The other item of note is the tipped over cup, that is usually understood as a metaphor for the fragility of life. Here, and elsewhere, I like to pair this motif with some pig bowels spilling out over the table.