Robert Barry

The artist Robert Barry states that “nothing keeps renewing itself the way art does” the meaning behind this statement can be supported by analysing the still life or vanitas of painting in western culture whilst looking through the post-modern frame. The use of the post-modern frame is to primarily analyse and interpret an artwork, taking into account the post-modern and temporary influences and how this many affect the making & meaning of the artwork. It is used to examine how changing the context of works can influence the interpretation of the artwork overall.

In other words, it could be described as taking something old and making it new. Flemish still life’s were some of the earliest recorded still life paintings. The earliest being Hare (1502) by Albrecht Durer and Dead Bird (1504) by Jacopo de’barbari. As a result of the protestant revolt against the Church of Rome, religious painting declined immensely and encouraged the re-emergence of the Still Life genre in Northern Europe. The development of the genre came with the introduction of allegories into still life through the use of religious or quasi-religious symbolism.

This in turn widened its appeal. This was where the birth of Still Life was formed which is the comprised arrangement of symbolic objects designed to remind the viewers of their materialistic place on earth and not to abuse that place in order to receive deliverance from sin. Flemish vanitas artists often used to technique of “Trompe L’oeil” or “Trick of the eye” to further the feeling and tone of their creations and help the audience relate to it more with the detailed symbolism that conveyed the meaning behind the painting.

Vanitas commonly used symbols that signified death (skull), time (melted candle, hour glass, rotting fruit or dust) or vanity (mirrors, materialistic treasures that defined ones wealth). All these symbols came together to create an allegory behind the painting, some symbols having allegories within themselves. Some of the most famous Flemish still life painters include Harmen Steenwyck, Pieter Claesz, William Kalf & Samuel Hoogstatraten.

Still life was from there on interpreted and manipulated to satisfy the ideas of the artist. A classic example of this being Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin. Chardin used less than the considered normal amount of objects in his still life, also using quite usual objects in platonic forms of composition. He provided a mathematical approach to still life, but his creations gave another life to the genre of still life apart from the religious approach. 0th century artist Audrey Flack used her paintings photo-realistic, imagistic symbolism and its association with classical Flemish tradition of Vanitas paintings to present aesthetic & sophisticated social commentary to her audience. Flacks paintings come under the genre of vanitas still life and still somewhat relates to the Flemish classical still life, but her paintings have a different intent and overall backbone to it which is what brings the appeal to it.

Flack uses Trompe L’oeil to create the realism of the painting, but has made it clear that she is less interested in confusing truth with illusion than in capturing the integral truth of seeing, meaning that she doesn’t want to confuse the truth behind her paintings with the illusion of realism but would like to create the reality to which her audience can fully understand the context and social commentary behind her paintings.

Another technique that Audrey uses is the dimensions of her paintings, making her paintings large enough so that if the viewer stands close, you cannot see anything but brush strokes, you need to take a few steps back and fully take in the big picture and all its symbolism together to understand. This also is somewhat of a metaphor for her social commentary. For example; having to look at the bigger picture of feminism and taking in all aspects rather than a few key points or looking at the beauty beyond war and how beauty and war can co-exist, it’s a matter of perception.

Applying Flacks works through the post-modern frame is vital for otherwise you will not understand her art works at all. If we put Flacks “Marilyn” into another context, it could be seen as a colourful and imaginative tribute to & celebration of an iconic member of our society. However, it was intended to be more than a simple mural to an actress but to more a memorial to the eternal feminine. This context can be seen with the use of the post modern frame. Two well-known examples of Flacks works include “Marilyn” (oil over acrylic on canvas, 243. 8 x 243. 8cm, 1977) and “World War 2” (Oil on canvas, 8ft x 8ft, 1976-1977).

Both address vast social issues, as suggested by their names, which are explored throughout generations. Flack places a picture to the voice of the issue. “Marilyn” explores the concepts of feminism and the place of a woman in a man’s world, more especially on the topics of women in advertising and the sexual objectification of women. “World War 2” tells an allegory of war and shows the existence of pure evil as well as beautiful humanity and how they can both co-exist. Both paintings use a smorgasbord of symbolism that effectively support the social commentary of the paintings as well as tell an allegory with each object on its own.

Another painting of Audrey’s is “Wheel of Fortune” which I believe is more similar to Flemish vanitas than of the other two paintings I named. This painting illustrates the transient nature of this life. This painting also heavily uses symbolism to create an allegory of life and how no matter our status, or materialistic belongings in the end we will still come closer and closer to the inevitable death that is our fate. We can drown ourselves in jewels, wealth and all the pleasures that life gives us but that won’t stop death. Materials don’t last forever but memories do.

Although Flack is heavily influenced by the work of 17th-century Dutch still life painters, by celebrating the lush textures and colours of the physical world with her densely packed depictions of illusionistically-rendered objects… she is also noticeably different to them as they depict allegories whereas she represents social issues of generations past and continuing, the painting renews itself with every new issue brought to the cause of the painting… furthermore renewing itself as the quote says. Along with this, Flemish/Dutch painters are more religiously based whereas Audrey is not.

To conclude, my investigation has thoroughly supported Robert Barry’s quote “nothing keeps renewing itself the way art does”. Audrey Flack is a key example of this for although she is a 20th century artist, she addresses issues that were relevant 400 years ago in an aesthetic and symbolic way. Issues such as feminism, war & the overall transience of life. Looking at her artworks through the post-modern frame truly shows how still life can represent both old and new concepts of life & reborn it in a way that almost any one with critical validation can relate to.