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Our morbid, irresistible fascination with death has inspired some of the most interesting artistic and cultural phenomena throughout the ages. How else to explain sensual “Death and the Maiden” themes, the colorful spectacle of “Dia de los Muertos”, and other dark allurements? Our acquaintance with the mysterious “other” begins tonight with these these fascinating underwater “vanitas” photographs:
Alexander James’ elaborate underwater scenes are a contemporary re-imagining of the 17th century Dutch masters’ vanitas paintings. The objects are painstakingly assembled, submerged, illuminated, and photographed— without any retouching— to create images that resemble hyper-realistic oil paintings:
Capturing the forgotten alchemy of a medium often considered to serve a purely documentary function, I create meticulously crafted scenes immersed here in huge dark tanks of water… Through careful manipulation of water and light and without the use of postproduction techniques, here I have produced a new series of photographic works that weave a historical thread between the mechanical reproduction of today’s image making and the meticulous realism and existential gaze of painters such as Pieter Claesz of the 16th Century Vanitas tradition of painting. (Alexander James)
With the flower petals, a sort of fossilization takes place, as the artist uses a special process to remove pigmentation from the plants:
I have developed a process that naturally removes all the pigment from the capillaries in rose petals. It is a complex process that over time replaces the pigment with highly purified water leaving behind only the skeletal fibre and plant structure visible; all while the plant still lives and grows. (Alexander James)
The delicate beauty produced in these artworks emphasize the fragility of life.
Vanitas Still Life by Jacques de Gheyn II, 1603
Vanitas paintings such as these were in vogue during the 17th century as a memento mori, a reminder that life is fleeting and death is inevitable. The certainty of death serves as incentive to spend limited time wisely, investing in worthwhile pursuits.
Valse Macabre by Gustav-Adolf Mossa, 1906
Detail of Death And The Maiden by Henri Lévy, 1900
Meet Joe Black, 1998
“Death and the maiden” and “dance of death” themes trace their roots back to the medieval period, a time of rampant plague and superstition. Perhaps this is why early depictions illustrated Death as a menacing and gruesome specter, preying on hapless innocents. Later depictions are more flattering, showing Death as a romanticized and sensual character. The 1998 film Meet Joe Black, starring Brad Pitt as Death, must be the most flattering of all artistic portrayals. Archetypal “death and the maiden” artworks always involve a hint— or more than a hint— of sex. This sticky entanglement symbolizes the coupling of life and death— for, despite their contrasting traits, they define each other. Like light and darkness: neither can exist without the other.
Dia De Los Muertos, “Day Of The Dead”, is a Mexican tradition celebrated during the same period as Hallowe’en. Here, death and the maiden become one— for the maiden herself portrays death. It is a colorful, playful, and festive occasion, contrasting with serious or somber notions of death. Families converge upon cemeteries to visit their loved ones who have passed away, to share food and drink, commemorate the deceased with humorous anecdotes, and make offerings of flowers and trinkets. Although the occasion is dedicated to the dead, it’s really for the living— it’s a holiday tradition that, like Christmas, reinforces familial bonds while enjoying feasts and decoration.
Skull paintings by Georgia O’Keeffe
The iconic artist Georgia O’Keeffe painted a number of blooming animal skulls, elegantly symbolizing the circle of life. Bodies that grow old and die return to the soil to feed budding plants, and other bodies. Death gives matter the opportunity to rearrange itself into new and different life forms, and thus it is the key to resurrection and rebirth.
GlamTribale goddess jewelry will be at Building Character in Lancaster for Nov. 1 First Friday. Here’s a sneak peak of our holiday collection! Catch us at any of our regular and upcoming events— check our calendar here and follow GlamTribale on Facebook for updates.
This Week In Women’s Words, Warding Off Death & Promoting Health:
- Stef van der Laan Says ‘Witness the Fitness’ & Be Happy With Your Body — Exercise promotes happy hormones and overall better health.
- How Body Image Affects Women’s Health For Real — Negative body image is linked with chronic inflammation, positive body image is linked with safer sex behavior, and more interesting lessons from this year’s scientific studies about body image.
- Anne Wojcicki’s $99 DNA Revolution — Her genetic startup company’s affordable test unlocks knowledge of your body’s strengths and weaknesses, a double-edged sword that brings both better preparedness and increased anxiety.