"Anatomy of Vanities".
In 1521, the famously itinerant Erasmus of Rotterdam (1469-1536) retreated for a while to a friend's house in Anderlecht. Though his visit to this medieval town near Brussels was rather brief, it delivered a lasting impression on the townsmen. By the beginning of the seventeenth century, the house where he had stayed was a veritable pilgrimage site for his followers. In 1933, it became the first communal museum in Belgium with a modest collection of old master paintings and prints.
On the occasion of the 75th anniversary of the Erasmus House, curator Alexandre Vanautgaerden invited several artists to create an exhibition on the quintessentially humanist theme of memento mori, or the lifelong preparation for one's death. They are the painter Aida Kazarian, the floral artist Thierry Boutemythe, the photographer and video artist Marie-Jo Lafontaine, and Jan Fabre, whose most controversial recent project was to make an "intervention" in the old master galleries of the Louvre. What these artists have been encouraged to do in the Erasmus house is not unlike Fabre's Louvre project, but on a much smaller scale: the establishment of a dialogue between their works and various holdings of the museum, including those culled from a private collection of Renaissance sculptures and curiosities.
For Erasmus and his fellow humanists, meditation upon death was an exercise in mindfulness about the preciousness of one's time on earth. Nor did they feel that the repeated return to this idea would necessarily divest it of its meaning. Rather, like monks who discover something new every time they pray, the artists and distinguished men of his generation felt that each new literary or visual reminder of the transitoriness of existence helped to equip us for our spiritual journey.
This cultural fascination with vanitas is beautifully stated by the exhibition's centerpiece, an early-seventeenth-century anatomical Eve that has been fully opened to reveal a gestating infant in her womb. The physical beauty of the sinner has finally been unmasked in all its physiological glory. Yet even as we behold this far less appealing aspect of Everywoman, she continues to entice us with the superficial charms of her rosy skin and vine-leaf modesty.
Standing above a gathering of similar objects, like a German Todlein from ca. 1670, this Eve is the conceptual kernel of a temporary Wunderkammer spread throughout the museum. Among the assorted natural and manmade curiosities to be found are various botanical rarities, zoological specimens in formaldehyde, Narwhal tusks, a stuffed chimpanzee, a whale's penis, and a set of exquisite (and often stunningly morbid) Renaissance sculptures in wood and ivory.
While the artists responsible for staging this theater of the vanities have consciously downplayed their individual points of view, their authorial presences are not entirely lost. Kazarian, for instance, helped redesign the museum layout and decided on new color schemes for the individual rooms. Under her guidance, their walls have become allover paintings with highly saturated hues. Among Lafontaine's contributions is one of her nature morte photographs, World Wide Web (2003), which shows a close-up of intertwined snakes. However, it is Fabre's Umbraculum (2001) that provides the most memorable commentary on the idea of vanitas. A life-size hooded robe made up of bones, this sculpture calls to mind Capuchin ossuaries--crypts decorated with the skeletal remains of the deceased members of this order. With its ironic status as a garment made from the innermost matter that earthly attire is actually intended to cover and shield, this "umbrella" is a paradoxical proposition that would have been admired in many a Renaissance cabinet of wonders.
And yet prolonged contemplation of this beguiling assemblage only serves to make one more aware of the mental chasm that exists between the Renaissance artificers of curiosities and their present-day heirs. For whereas the ultimate purpose of these marvels of old was a higher awareness of the unfathomable design behind all facets of creation, now with God long dead the conceptual flights behind works like Umbraculum or the World Wide Web appear as mere exercises of wit--something with which to while away one's time.
Intellectual sport was certainly not foreign to Erasmus. One has only to recall his most famous work--In Praise of Folly (1509)--in which the subject he was ostensibly defending was, in fact, a pretext for a sharply satirical attack on the traditions of the Catholic Church and popular superstitions. This ironic mode of discourse was, as he explained in his treatise On the twofold abundance of expressions and ideas (1512), one of the ways in which a writer could make his speech more memorable. Indeed, eloquence itself was demonstrated by one's were these performances mere games, but served to show the deeper connectedness of all things.
Similar rhetorical intricacies can be discerned within Fabre's clever invocation of the Capuchin ossuaries, or Lafontaine's reflections on the inseparability of beauty and decay in the image of tightly coiled snakes. At the same time, the humanist interest in exploring the multifariousness of existence in order to gain an insight into the workings of the universe could not be further removed from the eclectic plateau of this exhibition, in which disparate components are mixed together with remarkable sparkle and wit, yet without once admitting occupied or cathected commitment to the meanings of their original parts. Less journalism in this case might have meant more allegoresis.
As for Erasmus himself, he would have probably responded to these new variations on the theme of vanitas with the same kind of serious joking that concludes his mock praise of foolishness: " 'Tis an old proverb, I hate one that remembers what's done over the cup. This is a new one of my own making. I hate a man that remembers what he hears. Wherefore farewell, clap your hands, live and drink lustily, my most excellent disciples of Folly."
Erasmus House, Anderlecht BELGIUM April 12 * September 16, 2008
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|Date:||Sep 22, 2008|
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