Seventeenth-century painters developed a symbolic language to show the ephemeral nature of earthly existence, which they presented as merely a preparation for the afterlife, inspired by a quotation from the Book of Ecclesiastes: “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.” In a new exhibition at Paris’ Pierre Bergé Foundation running through September 19, “Vanité — Mort que me veux-tu?” (“Vanity — Death, what do you want with me?”), curator Alain Tapié takes an updated look at this centuries-old theme.
This long-lived genre has continued to juxtapose the quick with the dead, forcing viewers to confront their own mortality through a variety of pictorial approaches. According to Tapié, “Vanity in painting can be a meditation, an obsessive and fascinated expression of natural beauty, an skillful laying-out of shapes and objects, or a sublime technique.”
The exhibition starts with northern European paintings, thoughtful compositions with radiant elements (a flower in full bloom, the sheen of a clear glass) accompanied by signs of mortality (skulls or rats). The show quickly jumps ahead to the contemporary period, where artists treat the theme in more personal terms, as a confrontation with death, either close-up or from a distance.
Joel-Peter Witkin breaks with propriety by photographing corpses that are staged like puppets, revealing a dark and disturbing aesthetic. Andres Serrano also looks death in the face with his series “The Morgue,” focused on the body’s final appearance, whether plain or powerfully expressive.
The concept of vanity is like a harsh mirror reflecting our vulnerability and uncertainty. Duane Michals explores this idea in his photograph “Balthus and Setsuko” — taken shortly before the end of the painter’s extremely long and prolific life — in which he contemplates his reflection in a round hand mirror held up by a his much-younger wife.