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'Vanitas' at The Merchant's Table



From the 29th July to the 25th August, I'll be presenting new works in a display at The Merchant's Table in Woodbridge inspired by the Vanitas genre. Asked to elaborate on the theme, I provided the following statement to provide a little context for the exhibition:


'Still Life, ’Memento Mori’ and the vanitas genre are synonymous with 17th century Dutch aesthetics and the ‘Golden Age’ of painting following Dutch independence.


A Vanitas is both a religious and philosophical statement. The works celebrate and call attention to the need to balance material and spiritual life. Despite the tumultuous split from Flanders by northern provinces, this period was also one of prosperity and growth. A growing Dutch middle class wished to celebrate their new wealth and opportunity whilst making it clear that these earthly delights were to be enjoyed with an ongoing awareness that such bounty was fleeting - a passing opportunity when compared to the eternal Spiritual life.


This Golden Age culture was defined by a new protestant ethic and shaped by the perspective offered by this particular branch of Christianity; it enabled the development of new painterly genres such as the Still Life, personal portrait or Landscape scene (albeit, often with a moral ore religious questions hidden within these depictions). The Protestant assertion of an individual’s direct access to God altered the cultures perception of self, emphasising not only the personal responsibility of redemption but the value of entrepreneurship (however you view the trajectory of such notions, no doubt they continue to underpin much of the culture and world we inhabit in the West today). Hence the need to keep track of one’s own materialism - prospering with the fear of Job in your heart!

With the unprecedented events of the last few years, we have all become well acquainted with the material space of our own homes. It would seem we have also been reminded of the significance of things beyond materiality. After a lockdown, the tableau of one’s own room is memento mori enough and I believe many of us have reacted to the situation by placing renewed significance on the natural world, our internal worlds, and the relationships we have with others.


My botanical works began as a celebration of place but the Vanitas genre here provides the opportunity to play with alternate themes. These are unchanging items. But even ‘deathless bronze’ isn’t immune to the subtle chemical change in patina or a surface well loved and well handled back to raw un-defined texture. The work as it is presented here hopes to both delight materially and invoke quiet contemplation.


There is also a clear fishing theme in the sculptures chosen here - with ‘Fruit de Mer’ appearing in many Vanitas paintings too! I remember reading once that Orford sits closer to Holland than it does to London, and the fishing-lore of the Suffolk Coast certainly celebrates the shimmering shoals of herring with the same enthusiasm as the Dutch revere Hollandse Nieuwe. I find there to be something significant in such conceptual, concentric circles! Returning to the idea of place once more, it is interesting to me how far away one can get by staying put and looking closer.'


For further information on the pieces features and available through the show, visit The Merchant's Table website (with works online from Thursday 28th July) or contact the store owner directly: susanna@themerchantstable.co.uk