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A brush with death

26 January 2018

Jonathan Evens is confronted by what it means to be human at Guildhall Art Gallery

Courtesy the artist © the artist. Photo C. Lebedinsky  

Jim Skull’s Mr Smith, 2009, paper mâché, polyester yarn

Jim Skull’s Mr Smith, 2009, paper mâché, polyester yarn

CAN an exhibition change our understanding of what it means to be human? “Nature Morte” is an exhibition that essentially makes that claim, as it invites us to pause and look anew at the human condition.

The exhibition explores the chang­­ing significance of the still life (or nature morte in French) by bringing together historic still-life paintings and contemporary art­­works that illustrate how leading 21st-century artists (including Mat Collishaw, Michael Craig-Martin, Polly Morgan, and Gabriel Orozco) have reinvigorated the still life by using the language of the past to explore modern concerns.

“Nature Morte” can make the claim that still life is life-changing because the genre has never involved the innocent depiction of everyday objects, but has always utilised coded images.

For much of the history of the still-life, it has been Christian codes that viewers have been required to decipher — whether the use by Giotto and his contemporaries of the secret language of symbols devel­oped by the persecuted Early Church or the ev­­olution of still life as memento mori and vanitas.

Still-life painting has oscillated between imagery emphasising live objects that are depicted in stasis and those that depict dead matter, the literal meaning of nature morte. The vanitas still life, for example, paired symbols of the joys of a life well lived with symbols of death.

The still-life as a genre came into its own in the mid-17th century when oil paintings characterised by their tight focus on an assortment of objects sitting on a flat surface were used to explore the transience of time and the challenges of mort­ality.

Courtesy the artist © the artist  Paul Hazelton’s Fright Wig, 2010, household dust, wool dusting stick, adhesive  

Among the historic still-lifes featured in this exhibition are works by Henri Fantin-Latour, Pieter Claesz, Floris van Schooten, Willem Kalf, Thomas Sidney Cooper, Arthur Paine Garratt, Vera Cunningham, George Walter Harris, and Pieter van de Venne.

The exhibition is structured in terms of five topics: flora, fauna, food, house and home, and death. Christian symbolism is shown to have featured strongly within the iconography characterising each of these five foci.

As the exhibition amply demon­strates, 21st-century artists working with these themes and within this genre continue to engage with these symbols and this tradition. This is particularly apparent among those images that deal directly with death, where the skull beneath the skin and the flickering or extinguished candle are particularly prevalent.

Carolina McCarthy forms a Vanitas with skull and extinguished candle by punching thousands of tiny holes in a black bin bag and thereby utilising a container for our everyday waste to sign the sense of waste which death brings to life.

With Black Kites, Gabriel Orozco gives us a skull on which he has drawn a grid of graphite squares. What once was live, grimacing, arti­­culating flesh and bone and spirit, united in movement and com­­muni­ca­tion, is now static decorated display: the animate now so inani­mate that it can be decorated as an object.

Cast-off human skin in the form of dust has been accumulated by Paul Hazelton for Fright Wig, a fragile skull that resembles iconic images of Andy Warhol, and which hangs precariously like Dre Head on the Knight Bus in the Harry Potter films.

Courtesy the artist © the artistDermot O’Brien’s Untitled (Bullet), 2011, cast human bone and epoxy medium  

Most chillingly of all, for Untitled (Bullet), Dermot O’Brien gave that artist Mark Woods a real human finger bone to shape and cast as a rifle bullet — thus the bullet that reduces beings to bare bones is formed from the finger that pulls the trigger.

A skull sculpture by Jim Skull provides the iconic image used to publicise the exhibition, and yet his beautifully intricate papier-mâché and string constructions, unlike much of the work shown here, seek to transcend death and draw inspir­ation from ancient tribal rituals in doing so.

Like the Hazlelton image, popular culture also intrudes here, with visual resonances of Davy Jones in the Pirates of the Caribbean films.

A brush with death can be a salut­ary experience. Just as the taboo conversational topics of sex, death, and religion (all found in spades here) are actually the most signifi­cant and interesting of all; so a visit to “Nature Morte” will cause you to confront what it means to be human.


“Nature Morte” is at Guildhall Art Gallery, Guildhall Yard, London EC2, until 2 April. Phone 020 7332 3700. https://www.cityoflondon.gov.uk/

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