A NEW SERIES OF PAINTINGS WE CAN ALL RELATE TO
"Ars longa, vita brevis" (Life is short but Art is long), wrote Hippocrates in the 5th century, bemoaning the length of time it takes to acquire skill in the arts. A little later, as a serious young art student myself, I was allowed to borrow a human skull from my college's Biology Department, carefully carrying it back to the studio in a small, battered cardboard box. Once at my desk, I unwrapped the paper tissue reverentially, and began to draw. I suppose you never forget your first one, and I was overpowered by the sense that this was the cradle of somebody's thoughts and dreams I was holding in my hands. My own reaction surprised me, and I don't remember getting much drawing done that afternoon. But I do remember that - horrified by my fellow-students' desire to make it talk - I soon protectively rushed it back to the lab.
Another Latin phrase, "Memento Mori", means literally Remember Death, or more pertinently, Remember That You Will Die. Not the most pleasant of thoughts, and one which is practically taboo in our culture. However, in ancient Rome, when a triumphant General paraded before the populace, it was one person's official job to whisper, “Respice post te. Hominem te esse memento. Memento mori.” (Look behind. Remember thou art mortal. Remember you must die.) Or the slightly snappier, "Sic transit gloria" (Glory fades), to help keep his feet firmly on the ground. As poet Thomas Gray neatly paraphrased in the mid-18th century: "The paths of glory lead but to the grave". Unlike life, the idea of Memento Mori is a very enduring one.
The Stoic philosophers of Ancient Greece used the idea of Memento Mori to invigorate life. They treated each day as a gift, and reminded themselves not to waste time on the trivial and vain, thus transforming Memento Mori into Memento vitae: Remember to live.
Mindfulness of death is also a central teaching in Buddhism, with the meditative practice known as "Maranasati" (Awareness of death), which brings recognition to the transitory nature of one’s physical life and the question of whether or not one is making good use of this precious finite resource. This sentiment is deeply infused throughout Japanese culture even today, and "Mono no aware", or an awareness of the impermanence of things, is the real reason the Japanese are so enamoured with cherry blossoms. “Because they fall we love them... In this floating world, does anything endure?" Ariwara no Narihira's famous 9th century poem asks.
In the early 17th century, Netherlandish "Vanitas" painting flourished, reminding viewers how precious life is and not to waste its fleeting gift on vanities and empty pleasures. Artists emphasized the futility of all things earthly with skulls, hourglasses, bubbles, rotting fruit and wilting flowers, preyed upon by meticulously-painted invertebrates.
Later, Georgian and ever-sentimental Victorian artists embraced a symbolic language of plants and flowers; from the self-explanatory forget-me-not, to the sombre graveyard ivy, which symbolised undying love and devotion. The 19th century brought a spectacular flowering of mourning culture; skulls, broken columns, weeping willows and miniature portraits graced memorial lockets and jewellery - sometimes alongside intricately woven, curled and arranged clippings of the deceased's hair. The simple desire for a tangible keepsake, some reliquary of a lost loved-one elevated to a fine art.
Several years ago I made a pilgrimage to the infamous Czech 'Bone Church' of Sedlec Ossuary, Kutna Hora, where vast numbers of human bones have been arranged to decorate a terrifyingly splendid Cathedral of Death, complete with bone chandeliers which are to die for. I soon followed up with visits to the less ostentatious English ossuaries at St. Leonard's Church in Hythe and Rothwell's Holy Trinity Church. Inevitably, I was inspired. I also pored over pictures of Hallstatt Charnel House in Austria, home to hundreds of intricately painted skulls bearing names and dates, leaves and flowers. Skulls transformed into memorial treasures.
I was struck by the contrast in the shattered and crudely numbered skulls of the once-living I came across in the English ossuaries. Sometimes scratched in pencil by researchers, sometimes stencilled, or worst of all (it seemed to me) etched in thick black permanent marker. And usually across the centre of the forehead.
However, one skull at St. Leonards made a very different impression. Like many of the skulls there, it suggested a violent death, or at least gross mistreatment over subsequent centuries. The side of the skull was smashed out, and the aching void filled lovingly with pieces of dead grass by a pair of robins. I was told by staff that the birds had indeed successfully raised a family inside the skull the previous year. My intimate little boxed painting, 'Ambition', naturally followed. The idea of a very real life after death was here. The cycle of life laid bare. Rather than the skull as a symbol of the futility of earthly ambitions, here it embodied to me a previously unimagined ambition - I can think of none higher - than that my skull could bear baby birds when I am finished with it.
I have come to think of the iconic image of the skull as something akin to a logo for the human condition. A symbol of what binds us all together as equals, for what we all share, our brand, almost. Humans are supposedly the only creatures to live with this burden, the knowledge of our own definite mortality. It's no coincidence that we are also a species with a highly-developed sense, a desperate need, to seek out and impose Meaning on the chaos we experience in the short time we have here.
Delving into things others would not or could not is part of the almost-shamanic function of the artist; to go out on the brink and bring back insights to share. In the words of Proust: "Everything we think of as great has come to us from neurotics. It is they and they alone who found religions and create great works of art. The world will never realise how much it owes to them and what they have suffered in order to bestow their gifts on it."
Art is surely an attempt to crystallise time - to turn the moments of our lives into something tangible, meaningful, perhaps even lasting. To try to grasp pieces of time as it flies by, to hold them up and show them to others who might understand. Because after all, none of us are getting out of here alive.