Vanitas refers to the futility of achievement, love, knowledge, riches. In the 14th century, the pandemic of plague commonly known as the Black Death killed somewhere between 30 to 60% of the total population of Europe. It took the continent about 150 years to recover from this devastation, marking deeply the continent’s culture and imagination.
Two centuries later, the pictorial trope of the vanitas—demonstrating the meaninglessness of earthly life and the transient nature of all earthly goods and pursuits—came into its own in Flanders and the Netherlands in the 16th and 17th centuries. It deployed the enormous wealth, material well-being and privilege of the Northern Renaissance to explore the fleeting nature of life and beauty. The still-life was its main form and the skull was its central symbol, a primordial reminder of the certainty of death.
Any current reflection on the subject of the vanitas in contemporary art cannot ignore the global pandemic that HIV/AIDS in our own time. AIDS was first clinically observed in 1981 in the United States and has caused about 30 million deaths worldwide. Following the sexual revolution and a period of great social change in the United States and Western world, the disease devastated a younger population on the leading edge of social, personal and artistic innovation. Artists like Nan Goldin documented this monumental shift from carefree hedonism to the darkest moments of the siege of a disease that appeared unstoppable. Thirty years later, we have found an uneasy truce that allows individuals to live with the disease but the spectre of this period haunts us. It profoundly influenced the rise of many artistic ideas and forms over the past thirty years including those of masquerade, theories about the cyborg as well as redefining how we think about and represent death.
Stéphane Janssen seems to have linked these two impulses early in his own thinking. He began to collect art as a very young man, and some of his earliest acquisitions were works of the CoBrA school, with content that reflected the context of the Second World War. At age 22 he lived in Mexico for six months and became fascinated by the Mexican attitude towards death and the art inspired by the subject. Janssen has also collected the work of artists such as, Lucien Murat, Joel-Peter Witkin, and Spencer Tunick.
Vanitas: Contemporary Reflections on Love and Death from the Collection of Stéphane Janssen will explore the visual material of this waking nightmare from the divine and beautiful to the sorrow and pain of all we have lost.
Vanitas: Contemporary Reflections Of Love And Death November 2, 2014 to February 8, 2015 Phoenix Art Museum, Arizona USA