By Jessica Jakoinao
As stunning as they are, the breakfast pieces by Willem Claesz Heda, have a tendency to mask what’s amiss, with blissful ignorance almost taking the cake. There’s something not quite right in the The Blackcurrant Pie (1641). But who’s to say what’s off and what’s right when wealth lying in disarray can simply look like careless excess. Who is to think it impermanent or overthrown? Perhaps painters of the vanitas tradition.
But there lies another problem. That of overstating the tell-tale symbols of a Vanitas—skulls, (rotten) fruit, smoke, watches, hourglasses, musical instruments, mirrors, flowers, butterflies, glass (empty or broken), a peeled lemon—so that it seems to only admonish the tastes and desires of its true subjects, the viewer and the possessor. That wouldn’t be right either. Take how a peeled lemon symbolizes luxury, love and longevity but also sourness and disappointment (attractive to look at but bitter to taste).
I’ve adored The Blackcurrant Pie rather superficially for quite some years now and I suspect I’ve been doing the same with the works of many other artists. How could I have spent hours of my life visually absorbing a work, not realizing it as a Vanitas? Well, I hardly knew what a Vanitas was anyway. The shelf life of anything beyond the edible never crossed my mind. Staring alone would not have brought the meaning out for me. But it did, for Mark Doty.
So struck, gripped, and entranced by Jan Davidsz de Heem’s Still Life with a Glass and Oysters (ca. 1640) was the poet and memoirist, Mark Doty, that he wrote a book about it, Still Life with Oysters and Lemon: On Objects and Intimacy (2002). And I believe it qualifies him as an expert on the subject of still lifes. Just listening to him in an audio journey titled “Fleeting Moments” by The Met is enough to convince me, despite him not having had any traditional training in art or in art history, when he says:
As a writer, I respond so immediately to visual images. And it’s partly because you can do so swiftly in paint what would take you forever to try to do in words. Poets and painters—painters of still life—use objects as a kind of language, placing one thing beside the other, allowing them to generate meaning through contrast, through scale, through their relation to one another. This is the way the poetic image works.
It’s just so beautifully put that I hang by his every word like every element and object in the paintings themselves. Perhaps poets and painters truly are alike in their craft. That’s what Doty has to say, beginning with their use of objects as language. And coming to Heda’s Still Life with Oysters, a Silver Tazza, and Glassware (1635), Doty in the audio journey says:
I don’t think this will be an easy painting to live with. That may be a compliment to it. It effectively gets a little bit under your skin. And you don’t know at first that that’s going to happen. It doesn’t look like it’s going to be disturbing but the more I spend time with it, the more there’s something uncomfortable, perhaps, about the relationship between the richness of these items and their disarray.
Perhaps I too could have felt and embodied these words sooner had I seen another breakfast piece by Heda, Still Life with Fruit Pie and Various Objects (1634), which is quite similar in composition and colour to The Blackcurrant Pie (1641). Which is also an important lesson in the need and necessity of exploring an artist’s oeuvre. The Blackcurrant Pie is certainly not as calming as I’d found it before, now that it’s flavoured with an undercurrent, but it tastes so much better that way. And finally, my eyes are open.
Now if you remember, I suspected that I had been experiencing vanitas artworks by other well-known artists rather superficially, not knowing them to be it. How about you? We’re talking art in all forms and genres. For me, the most glaring ones are those by Prince. Well, not Prince the musical artist alone. I’d be the greater fool to not know that it takes many talents to make a music video. I’ll begin with the director, Rebecca Blake, for her involvement in “Cream” and “Diamonds and Pearls” from the hit 1991 album, Diamonds and Pearls.
Perhaps it’s her strong musical background and seemingly visible grasp of art history blended together in the audio-visuals, which allows the vanitas tradition to segue from paintings into music videos. Her motivations to direct music videos weren’t so different either. It came from wanting a “very good marriage” between her existing interests—music and creating images. As for my own transition from Heda to Blake, it’s the common visual cues of the ornate and sumptuous.
Blake, otherwise better known as a commercial director, in fact began her career as a still photographer. She’s a notable presence in the commercial and music-video worlds, having also directed campaigns for giant vanity brands. But you may wonder what makes these music videos in question qualify as a Vanitas. Well, it’s about interpretation more than anything else. Willing to take this trip with me?
It’s all got to do with bubbles. That fragile but significant symbol in the vanitas tradition of art, symbolizing the brevity of life, the suddenness of death and therefore the futility of pleasure. I was rather surprised to find bubbles floating about in black and white towards the end of the music video for “Diamonds and Pearls”. I thought it was rather ironic—it already had the vanitas symbols of ostentatious wealth and of course, musical instruments—for a video so focused on beauty in luxury when bubbles should impose that beauty is transient and death inevitable.
But I’m willing to give them all the benefit of the doubt. For nothing else grabs your attention like the gorgeous duo of Diamond and Pearl in, yes, diamonds and pearls and rhinestones. Hook, line and sinker. I’ll commend Blake for the concept, and Lori Werner and Robia LaMorte for complementing each other like saccharin and cyclamate. And Prince for putting love above material objects, in the lines:
If I gave you diamonds and pearls Would you be a happy boy or a girl If I could I would give you the world But all I can do is just offer you my love
See, I have a hunch about still photographers and art history. They’d know of the traditions in still life painting surely. Vanitas, being mostly still life is bound to arise in any disciplinary research. As for Prince, I heard it was his idea to have a lot of children in the music video. Curious about artistic intention, I decided to listen to the whole album and watch the accompanying music videos if it had one. Accomplishing that, I realized there was something going on. There was more to the entirety of the 1991 album that could qualify it as a work of Vanitas.
The image of the child in the frame is particularly striking for its resemblance to Sir John Everett Millais’ painting of his grandson, titled Bubbles (1886, originally A Child’s World), bought by Thomas J. Barratt (1842-1914) of A. & F. Pears who then reproduced it as a print with a bar of soap and the name of the company added to the image in an instance of ‘artistic’ advertising. So whether it’s intentional Vanitas on the part of the director/artist or not, the seed for the crossover of the vanitas tradition from art into advertising and music videos was sown at least a century before it popped up in a Prince music-video.
But what drives home the vanitas theme for me is the album taken as a whole. And with that, I’ve come to see the music videos differently. In “Strollin’” (fifth number on the album) the multi-instrumentalist sings “Least we can do is make a joyful sound” and in “Money Don’t Matter 2 Night” (tenth number on the album) he sings:
Money don't matter tonight It sure didn't matter yesterday Just when you think you've got more than enough That's when it all up and flies away That's when you find out that you're better off Makin' sure your soul's alright 'Cause money didn't matter yesterday And it sure don't matter tonight
In truth, this essay is an answer to The Met’s questions regarding the other elements ‘ripe for interpretation’ in Still Life with Oysters, a Silver Tazza, and Glassware, posed to the viewer: Who was enjoying these oysters? Why did they leave so suddenly? To board a train, while evading fans and paparazzi perhaps. Who knows?
Like Doty, entranced by Jan Davidsz de Heem’s painting, Still Life with a Glass and Oysters, I must have, since the past twelve years now, watched these two music videos together about a hundred times. I had never bothered to explore some of his more sombre compositions. I’m glad I finally did. And I come back to Doty again from the audio journey for a conclusion on the matter of over/understating the vanitas theme:
Now, you could say that this Jan de Heem painting also reminds us of the brevity of these foodstuffs. These oysters aren’t going to last very long. You need to eat them at this moment, enjoy them now, because they will be gone before you know it. All things will be gone. The objects in this painting stand on the brink of an abyss, which is disappearance. And you might say that that elusive, vague background is, in fact, mortality. It’s where things go as they vanish and as they perish. But they’re here now, here for us to embrace and to enjoy. So you could take this as a warning or you could take it as a celebration. Or perhaps some of both.
The last two stills quite literally capture celebrity, fame, and fashion in its fleeting moments. As for the question of who’s enjoying these oysters? Hopefully, we are. Vanitas, I feel, is just another lens through which some aspects of life may reveal itself in common imagery. And thanks to Prince, every time I come across an image of a bubble shaped derrière daring to break the internet, I shall be reminded in good humour that man is butt a bubble.