Vanitas in Modern Times

Skull series by Irving Penn

 
 

Cecil Beaton, Self-portrait

 
 

Manasse

 
 

Duane Michals

 
 

Mark Seliger

 
 

Guido Mocafico

 
 

Hedi Slimane

 
 

Common vanitas symbols include skulls, which are a reminder of the certainty of death; rotten fruit, which symbolizes decay; 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-life paintings without explicit imagery such as a skull. As in much moralistic genre painting, the enjoyment evoked by the sensuous depiction of the subject is in a certain conflict with the moralistic message.

Dum Vivimus Vivamus

Dum vivimus vivamus is a Latin phrase that means “While we live, let us live”. It is often taken to be an epicurean declaration.

Emily Dickinson once used it in a letter written to William Howland:

“Sic transit gloria mundi*
How doth the busy bee,
Dum vivimus vivamus,
I stay my enemy!”

 
 

Portrait of Salvador Dalí, Philippe Halsman

 
 

Brion Gysin

 
 

Alfred Hitchcock

 
 

One of the members of Jefferson Airplane by Jim Marshall

 
 

Andy Warhol and Mick Jagger

 
 

Still from Tommy (Ken Russell, 1975)

 
 

David Bowie

 
 

Tim Burton

 
 

Beck Hansen

 
 

Michael Stipe, Mario Sorrenti for Interview Magazine, March 2011

 
 

Lady Gaga and model Rick Genest, still from Born This Way music video (Nick Night, 2011)

 
 

*Sic transit gloria mundi is a Latin phrase that means “Thus passes the glory of the world.” It has been interpreted as “Worldly things are fleeting.” It is possibly an adaptation of a phrase in Thomas à Kempis‘s 1418 work The Imitation of Christ: “O quam cito transit gloria mundi” (“How quickly the glory of the world passes away”).

The Artistic Side of Death

View of a Skull, Leonardo da Vinci, c. 1489

 
 

Saint Francis in Meditation, Caravaggio, 1605

 
 

Skull, Albrecht Dürer, 1521

 
 

La Calavera Catrina (Dapper Skeleton or Elegant Skull), José Guadalupe Posada, 1910-1913.

Much memento mori art is associated with the Mexican festival Day of the Dead, including skull-shaped candies and bread loaves adorned with bread “bones.”

 
 

Self-portrait With Death Playing the Fiddle, Arnold Böcklin, 1872

 
 

Engraving by M.C. Escher, 1919

 
 

Untitled-Death Outside the Head-Paul Eluard, Salvador Dalí, 1933

 
 

Head with Broken Pot, Georgia O’Keeffe, 1942

 
 

Sin esperanza (Without Hope), Frida Kahlo, 1945

 
 

Detail of Sueño de una tarde dominical en la Alameda Central, Diego Rivera, 1946-1947

 
 

Three Study Portraits of Lucian Freud, by Francis Bacon

 
 

Artwork by Sergio Toppi

 
 

Drawings by Edward Gorey

 
 

Knowledge of the Past Is the Key to the Future: Some Afterthoughts on Discovery, Robert Colescott, 1986

 
 

Riding with Death, Jean-Michel Basquiat, 1988

 
 

Black Kites, Gabriel Orozco, 1997

 
 

For the Love of God, Damien Hirst, 1997

 
 

The Orientalist, Walton Ford, 1999

 
 

Painting by Pascal Vilcollet

 
 

Confetti Death, Typoe, 2010