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Posts Tagged ‘momento mori’

I went to the mall.

Last Sunday I drew twelve people at Maggianos at Old Orchard. We were celebrating the first birthday  of the first born son of a couple that had flown in from Florida to be with the rest of the family who still lives in the Chicago area.  When the gig was done, I packed up, pulled on my self-made hat, wheeled my drawing supplies back to the car and headed for Nordstrom.  One of the women at the party had told me, in English instead of the ambient Bosnian,  that she worked at Nordstrom’s in Schaumburg, in a department called Narrative.  “Narrative” is a word I sometimes use in my drawing class, apprehensively scanning my students’ faces for signs that this literary reference might snatch their minds out of the visual state and plunk them back into the quotidian verbal.  (My students are all over-educated readers.)  What, I was eager to learn, has the word “narrative” got to do with shopping?

There it was, a whole section of women’s clothing with the word “Narrative” on the wall over the alcove with the three manikins.  The urgency to make sense of the word in this context faded at the sight of the manikins’ faces that reminded me of André Carrillo’s caricatures.  I made a mental note that I needed to write about this comparison in a future blog and immediately got distracted by another display in an adjacent department, though the sartorial subtleties that justified the expense of putting different names on the walls in such close proximity did not catch my eye.

What caught my eye was the skull.  Where am I?  What’s the meaning of this skull in the context of shopping for clothes? My mind goes into free-association.

The skull became the central prop in still lifes painted by Dutch artists around 1600.  This genre of still life was called “momento mori.”   The skull would be surrounded by symbols of cultural achievement, such as books, silver, violins, and other luxurious or pleasurable goods and fragile things like soap bubbles and glassware,  to make the statement that none of these will matter at the inevitable moment of death.  There are yards and yards of these paintings, all exquisitely executed as if in self-contradiction:  making a fine painting really did matter even though you knew it was all ephemeral.  Doing something well really does give one pleasure in existing and a baker or brewer might possibly use his money-scheming mind to decipher the meta-text of his life’s narrative  at the sight of such a fine work of art, momento mori be damned.

This is what goes through my mind as I’m trying to understand that skull hovering over the clothes rack.  What could possibly go through the mind of a marketing expert at Nordstrom as she looks for ways to entice shoppers into buying this merchandise?  A light bulb goes off in her brain, “aha, we need a skull there, that’s what we need.”   Actually, there were two skulls.   So, this was a deliberate statement, a motif for this line of clothing.  Could that be?  Yes, it could.  I moved in closer to examine the craftsmanship in this pricy merchandise and discovered that the “momento mori” was all over this stuff.  The seams were raggedy, the fabric was raggedy, the cut was clearly intended to say “I just pulled this out from under my bed, what’re you lookin’ at, go get a life, I have more important things to think about.”  Here I’m tempted to add, “like, totally, dude” except these were large sizes.

At this point you’re expecting some insight.  Sorry, not yet.

I walked around some more and looked at more banal, poorly crafted artifacts and hyper-illuminated grotesqueries.  The skull, the skull.  Where else have we seen the skull?

The words “banal, hyper-illuminated and grotesque” just came to me now as I’m writing, but during my puzzled, non-verbal wanderings through the depressed looking crowds of Holiday shoppers, these associations must have been forming in my visual brain because the image that came to my mind was the diamond studded skull that brought Damien Hirst yet another burst of fame and a fist-full of banknotes.  I recall, something like a hundred million dollars.  Damien Hirst, he of the pickled shark and the decaying cow’s head fame, had hired craftsmen and jewelers to produce a skull cast out of platinum and covered with diamonds.

It will be at the Tate in London next year.  Art critics and curators are linking it to the “momento mori” genre.

Here, again, you’re expecting some insight.  Not yet, sorry.  I’ll keep working on this.  It’s the kind of thing that makes you want to give those French guys another reading, you know, Derrida, Foucault, Baudrillard, those unreadable books you threw across the room a few years ago.  Even Richard Dawkins has admitted that he can’t make heads or tails of their writings and I suspect it’s not a problem of translations.  But I am currently reading “The Moment of Complexity” by Mark C. Taylor and that’s got me thinking, again,  about semiotics and the desperate state of images in our time.

One thing is clear.  There’s some major messing with our brains going on.  And we’re doing the messing.   If you spend $68 for a shapeless, tattered t-shirt, you’ve had your brain messed with. If you hold the title of Curator at a major museum and you promote Damien Hirst as an artist, then you are messing with our brains.

Oh, please, everybody, send me your thoughts on this.  A tattered scrap of insight will be welcome.

Still life with skull by Peter Claesz, 1597-1660

http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/2011/nov/21/damien-hirst-tate-modern

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The Momento Mori or Vanitas still life I talked about in post for 6.17.11 led to a meticulous drawing by Louise F.  I’ll show two stages of her drawing.  Above is the drawing as it was at the end of the three-hour class.  I liked it at this stage and considered it finished.  I loved the side view of the violin because it was unusual and unconventional.  It offers a hint of the violin and just enough information to allow the viewer to identify the object.  There’s a mystery about it because of its averted angle.  Also mysterious are the flowers—where do they come from?  Then the scrolls of paper, echoing the scroll at the violin’s neck, but again, what are these things doing here?  We can’t quite make sense of the meeting of these objects, but at the same time the forms are perfect, all playing on each other.

Louise didn’t think it was finished at this stage.  She didn’t like the vacant space at the bottom.  The violin was resting on some drapery, which she didn’t have time to draw during the class period.  She invented some drapery at home, filled in the “vacant” space at the bottom and framed the drawing.  The pencil marks now fill out a rectangle, which conforms to the shape of the mat and frame. There’s more to look at.  The drawing looks more finished and complete and this is satisfying to most viewers.

We’ve encountered the opposition of the classical and romantic sensibility before in this blog.  My preference for the “vacant” space, for the incomplete feeling, is part of the romantic approach.  Louise, like most students (in my experience), preferred the complete, balanced drawing without the open space.  That’s the classical sensibility expressing itself.

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The history of the still life can be traced back to the Romans, but it came into full force around 1600, primarily in the Netherlands.  We have a still life by Caravaggio, but in Italy religious themes remained dominant.  In the Netherlands, where a republican government had taken root early and where a secular culture was in ascendancy, still life paintings became powerful objects of contemplation.  By the middle of the 17th century, Dutch art collectors filled their homes with landscapes, family portraits, still lifes,  and scenes of domesticity, with religious themes numbering (it’s estimated) only about one in five.  There was a special theme for a still life, devoid of religious references, that reminded the viewer of the transience of life.  Called “Vanitas” paintings or “Momemto Mori,” these paintings involved the human skull and other reminders of mortality such as candles, cobwebs;  the ephemeralness of fame as symbolized in cultural treasures like books and violins.

In a recent drawing class I set up such a Vanitas still life.  It turned out to be an inspiring subject, though half of the class avoided the skull, arguably the anchor of the still life, altogether. Some students invented background “atmospherics” in their use of shading or rectilinear forms.  I particularly like the choice of very oblique views of the still life so that the violin—the prima donna of the show—is actually seen from an obscuring angle.  The incompletion that we see in all of the drawings, this fading out of the lines and the shading as we get to the edge, this incompletion is a thoroughly modern technique.  It comes, as we have seen before (posts 2.21, 4.22, and 5.23.11) from early 19th century Romanticism.

Shown here are drawings by Maggy S., Karen G., In Young J., who gave us the most realistic rendering and Vera C., who drew the individual objects as if they were collaged together on the drawing paper according to dictates of the life in her composition.  The drawing by Louise F. will get a post of its own.

All contents copyright (C) 2010 Katherine Hilden. All rights reserved.

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