Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Snags, Skulls and Vanitas, oh my!

Backwater, 8x10, acrylic on Canson Board, copyright 2011 Jan Blencowe

Having 3 acres which includes a beaver pond, a wetlands area and a stream really helps if you like to paint outside!  Other than a few quick watercolor sketches done several weeks ago this is my first painting of our new property. 

It's very interesting getting to know the character of the land here. The beaver pond long ago flooded this area so there are many snags, (dead trees) some of which I have included in this painting. There are cat tails and lily pads along with a number of other aquatic type plants growing in and around the water that I haven't identified yet. 

But back to those dead trees. They give the wetlands a very distinct feel. 

It's somewhat lonely, forlorn, and a little uneasy. This uneasiness is perhaps because they are dead and therefore are stark reminders of death and decay even as the rise from verdant green marsh grass.  They have their own macabre, austere beauty though. They remind me of the skulls that always make their appearance in 16th and 17th century still lives, reminders of our own mortality and a warning to contemplate our lives and our eternal future.

These kinds of still lives are usually called vanitas, here's a bit from the wikipedia article...

In the arts, vanitas is a type of symbolic work of art especially associated with Northern European still life painting in Flanders and the Netherlands in the 16th and 17th centuries, though also common in other places and periods. The word is Latin, meaning "emptiness" and loosely translated corresponds to the meaninglessness of earthly life and the transient nature of vanity. Ecclesiastes 1:2 from the Bible is often quoted in conjunction with this term.

The Vulgate (Latin translation of the Bible) renders the verse as Vanitas vanitatum omnia vanitas. The verse is translated as Vanity of vanities; all is vanity by the King James Version of the Bible, and Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless by the New International Version of the Bible.

Vanitas themes were common in medieval funerary art, with most surviving examples in sculpture. By the 15th century these could be extremely morbid and explicit, reflecting an increased obsession with death and decay also seen in the Ars moriendi, Danse Macabre and the overlapping motif of the Memento mori.

From the Renaissance such motifs gradually became more indirect, and as the still-life genre became popular, found a home there. Paintings executed in the vanitas style are meant as a reminder of the transience of life, the futility of pleasure, and the certainty of death. They also provided a moral justification for many paintings of attractive objects.

Common vanitas symbols include skulls, which are a reminder of the certainty of death; rotten fruit, which symbolizes decay like aging; bubbles, which symbolize the brevity of life and suddenness of death; smoke, watches, and hourglasses, which symbolize the brevity of life; and musical instruments, which symbolize brevity and the ephemeral nature of life. 

Fruit, flowers and butterflies can be interpreted in the same way, and a peeled lemon, as well as accompanying seafood was, like life, attractive to look at, but bitter to taste. There is debate among art historians as to how much, and how seriously, the vanitas theme is implied in still lifes without explicit imagery such as a skull. 

Still Life with a Skull and a Writing Quill, 1628
Pieter Claesz (Dutch, 1596/97–1660)
Oil on wood

Leiden master, ca. 1635, Vanitas still life with skull
Hamburg, Kunsthalle


OK so this has gotten a little heavy for a discussion on plein air painting, I guess. But it is true that when you spend a great deal of time outside observing nature you begin to realize that death, however sad, is indeed part of life and that life seems to go on in spite of death, with the decay of plants and animals even nourishing the vitality of the earth. Human death seems to retain more of a sting yet even the very earliest peoples all over the globe seem to have anticipated a life beyond this life, and that I believe is reason enough to hope and be hopeful that the cycles of life and death we see in nature speak of a greater cycle of life after death for all creation.

So my little painting may be just a pleasant landscape scene with some water and dead trees to some but it certainly made me stop and consider a very deep question today, and to marvel at how great spiritual truths can be hidden in plain sight, in snags even.


Joan said...

I always enjoy your thoughtful, thoroughly explained musings, Jan. Thanks once again.

Yellowroot Arts said...

Had a discussion with a friend about the sculptural quality of dead trees and she sent me the following quote from Andrew Wyeth: “I prefer winter and fall, when you feel the bone structure of the landscape - the loneliness of it, the dead feeling of winter. Something waits beneath it, the whole story doesn't show.”