Cow Kidney

Still Life Studies: Apples and Dead Flesh by Neal Auch


Beneath it all, desire of oblivion runs:

Despite the artful tensions of the calendar,

The life insurance, the tabled fertility rites,

The costly aversion of the eyes from death—

Beneath it all, desire of oblivion runs. —Philip Larkin

This new series of still life compositions continue in my efforts to reinterpret 17th century vanitas still life through the lens of a more contemporary (and secular) worldview. Images of this genre have historically emphasized the transience of life, the futility of pleasure, and the certainty of death. I do not know if the term “vanitas“ as it is used in association with these works is a reference to the famous quotation “All is vanity!“ from the opening lines of Ecclesiastes, but the analogy is certainly fitting and I believe that any sensible reading of that text will yield interesting resonances with the history of still life painting.

As in all still life compositions the fruit, meat, and flowers are intended as reminders of mortality. The (largely Christian) 17th century audience of the “golden age” Dutch paintings that serve as my primary inspiration would have understood these items as reminders that all is transient because, like us, these food items will soon rot and decay. However, to make the underlying memento mori message of such works resonate with a modern audience I believe that one must adopt a rather more macabre and confrontational aesthetic. Otherwise one runs the risk of producing imagery that appears trite and quaint which is, after all, how I believe that most modern viewers think about classical still life art.

Both of the images in this series incorporate rotting apples. These are usually understood as a metaphor for temptation and sin, due to the association of the apple with the biblical narrative of Adam and Eve. Interestingly, the “forbidden fruit“ of the book of Genesis isn’t actually named in the bible; the popular tradition of putting an apple in this role comes from artists’ renderings. Of course the distinction is immaterial for my work, since I’m drawing off the artistic and cultural meaning of such symbols; I have no investment whatsoever in theological accuracy.


While both images in this series show the apples in a rather decrepit state, for the second image the fruit is completely destroyed and spilling out over the table. I mixed some rancid pig bowels in with the rotting fruit to emphasize the decay. I also hid a teeny tiny dead baby mouse in the broken apple. I feel like this resonates well with the themes of temptation associated to the apple because mice have historically been used in still life painting as a sexual metaphor. (The extraordinary fertility of mice means that they are often interpreted as symbols of lechery and destruction.) It’s a bit hard to see this detail in the online version of this image but it will be very clear in a large format print, so I think of this kind of thing as a sort of Easter egg for customers.


Still Life Studies: Apples with Tipped Cup by Neal Auch


“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.)