The time of Vanitas

“Does the skull I am contemplating know that it reflects my death?”
The unfathomable enigma of the skull symbolizes life and its end. André Malraux thought that “man is born when, at the sight of a corpse, he whispers for the first time: why?” Born to the knowledge of his own death, he never ceases to wonder.

Skull iconography appeared in the Middle Ages, experienced its golden age in the fifteenth century with the Vanitas in European painting, and reemerged as an obsession in the second half of the twentieth century.
While in classical art the skull accompanied a representation of death that was generally untroubled and sublimated—since it continued to be experienced through the prism of the Church which elevated it as a passage toward eternal life—in contemporary art things are quite different: death strikes us as violent; it has become the enemy, the aggressor.

A reflection on time and death, the Vanitas iconography has greatly diversified under the influence of the bloodbaths of the last wars and in the wake of the boom of consumer society. Obsessed by the acceleration of Time, Western societies dream of the Apocalypse and of all sorts of cataclysms.

Whether in video works, photography, performances, sculpture, or installations, the motif of Vanitas remains topical. . . Is the contemporary interest in the representation of the passage of time, of instability and of metamorphosis a result of superstition or of fear? A return to mysticism or a hymn to life?

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