Still lifes/memento mori/vanitas

Seeing as ‘still’ is a a word that can refer to a body that was living but is no longer, the words still life intrigue me.

I have been reading a book called Objects of Desire – The Modern Still Life by Margit Rowell which is very interesting. She talks about a still life as being ‘a system of objects’ where a system is ‘a set or arrangement of things so related or connected as to form a unity or organic whole.  The system inherent to still life painting can be defined as both visual and signifying.  It is based essentially on a choice of objects and a manner of organizing them in a spatial field.’  She talks aboout Duchamps Bicycle wheel as being a still life, because of the way it has been changed, ie attached to a stool and no longer serving its normal function.  She also describes his Bottlerack as not being a still life as it is completely unchanged.. I am not sure her views on this are uncontroversial.

Learning about ‘vanitas’ motifs, vanitas is Latin for emptiness and in the traditional setting of stil lifes was used to refer to the emptiness of earthly life.  Also reading about ‘memento mori’, which is latin, translates as ‘remember you will die’ and is descriptive of a whole genre of art aimed at reminding people of their own mortality.

I have just been reading about and exhibition in 2000 called Vanitas: Meditations on Life and Death in Contemporary Art which included this photograph and description:


Zoe Leonard (American, b. 1961) has created for the exhibition a new installation of sewn fruit, the idea for which grew out of a meditation on the death of a friend. The installation features peels carefully sewn together after the fruit has been removed. The result evokes the human body as a fragile container and suggests both loss and repair, Ravenal says. Leonard herself says, “This act of fixing something broken, repairing the skin after the fruit is gone, strikes me as both pathetic and beautiful – at any rate, as intensely human.”

In the section on Wikipedia about ‘vanitas’ is this contemporary still life painting from 1978 by Phillippe Derome called Cherry Tart Vanitas.



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