the front of the picture

Part eight of Nothing


Is this a photograph of an easel and canvasses arranged for a trendy shop window display? Or you might see it on the cover of one of those aspirational free lifestyle mags published by estate agents, showing off the latest interior design features to fill those awkward corners of a penthouse with river view.

We know it’s staged – no real painter’s easel ever looks like that – but it is a reproduction of a real three-dimensional, isn’t it?

It is the three-hundred and forty year old optical illusion proving that human life is transient and meaningless, but art is not:

Cornelius Norbertus Gijsbrechts Cut-Out Trompe l’Oeil Easel with Fruit Piece oil on canvas 1670-1672.
Image: SMK – Statens Museum, Copenhagen..

Is this why all of us, even if we can’t draw or paint or write much more than a list of tags, are so desperate to leave our mark? Because we can’t bear being meaningless?  Even if we can’t find a market for it? Even if we’re vanity publishing?

Posting on our online pin boards is another opiate for existential angst, supplying illusions ad infinitum. We think it keeps us sane, even while we drive everyone else mad. All is vanity.

Our response to the portrait of Lord Rochester holding a laurel crown over a monkey is dictated by the subject matter, because the charisma of the wild glamour boy poet, and the daring symbolism, which was the patron’s idea, not the artist’s, are more striking than Huysman’s execution, gorgeous though the baroque reds and ochres are.

Most Vanitas painting, of everyday objects, just stuff lying around, succeeded in glorifying itself as much as the customer’s lifestyle choices.

It was bravura advertizing of the painter’s technique and ingenuity, especially in conveying perspective, and of the power of art, in which the painting triumphed over the concept, the artist over the patron, however rich or royal; as an exercise in humility it defeated its own object. It is utterly vain. It’s not even transient.

The strict moral message is usually, thank God, almost completely submerged in wonderfully extravagant decorative effects, like theatre design.

The seventeenth century was as fluent in theatrical metaphor as we are in digital media and the manipulated image. Vanitas, which at first glance is the least dramatic of historic painting, with none of the stories to tell of landscape and portraits, is all about theatrical illusion.

Gijsbrechts created his delectable fruit-piece for the Danish king’s cabinet of curiosities. It was plainly described in the inventory from 1674 as: “A stand with painter’s paraphernalia painted on perspective.” (SMK website, which is superb.)

Even without tricks of perspective, the most mundane looking Baroque still life is set-dressing of a drama or satirical comedy, an illustration to a Shakespearean soliloquy about the futility of life, in which the cloud capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces, all our invented consolations dissolve; or it simply looks good enough to eat.


Photo: Martin Hübscher Photography © 2014

And there is more vanity to come, in yet another post….

4 comments on “the front of the picture

  1. erickeyswriter says:

    ” We think it keeps us sane, even while we drive everyone else mad.”

    I agree with Pete that you make the world – even if it’s just my tiny corner of – a little richer.

    I think blogging may be more about communication and interaction than vanity publishing. But, as a vain self-publisher, my opinion should be treated as suspect.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. beetleypete says:

    There is no doubt in my mind that blogging allows that ‘communion of minds’. Somehow, almost magically, we connect with others we could never have met, and understand each other in ways that would seem incredible in any other regard of ‘knowing’.
    We can be the person that we cannot allow ourselves to be in the real (as opposed to electronic) world. By choosing our companions carefully, we can enrich our lives. And as pompous and overblown as that might sound, I believe it to be true.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. PJR says:

    My posts always seem better after you have commented! Scoffing disbeliever that I am, I didn’t expect a communion of minds from blogging, but it’s there, after all. Blogs might be the new “salons” as I suggested in tribute to Sarah Vernon.X

    Liked by 2 people

  4. beetleypete says:

    Vanity Publishing has that name for a good reason, I agree. Does Blogging fit into the same category, but with less embarrassment? I have never really thought about that, so will proceed to do so now.
    Some of us yearn to leave a mark, to have been seen to have existed, to be noticed in this transient anthill of human history. I believe that many of your characters sought only to make the best of the lives they led, and thought little of the views of us, dissecting their personalities at an unspecified date in the future.
    I doubt blogging will ever do that for anyone, but it fills the need as an electronic soap-box, a pamphlet published on screen, or a simple family legacy for the amusement and diversion of future generations. Like letters from a war, faded photos in a shoe box, or a twisted ribbon in a locket. It is the modern answer to a memory-box. At least for me.
    Thanks for making the present that little bit richer Pippa. x

    Liked by 2 people

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s