de Champaigne, Philippe: Vanité (1660s)

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The Independent Culture

There's that beautiful strip-cartoon convention that means something has disappeared. The picture shows a tabletop, say, where a moment ago an important package was sitting. But it is there no longer. And to emphasise its vanishing, the cartoonist puts an arc of radiating lines around the empty space it used to occupy. Ting! Gone! The device is very true to our experience of things that go missing from where they ought to be. You return to the parking space and your vehicle is not there. The vacant place, the empty air, seem charged with its absence.

Cartoons can do the trick the other way, as well, meaning that something has just appeared. The package is on the table now, but it wasn't there before, and so it has a halo of radiating lines around it, to indicate its new arrival on the scene. Surprise! The object is charged with its unexpected presence.

This vanishing/arriving device is easy enough to read. But what precisely the radiant lines signify is hard to describe. They're a kind of metaphor. They say: when something suddenly appears or disappears, it's as if.... But as if what? Maybe they suggest a twinkling gleam, or maybe a fanfare (ta-da!). Perhaps they're like a splash, or a flash, or a bubble-pop. They could be a ring of exclamation marks.

Whatever it is, you won't find this cartoon trick in an old master painting. You may find the same effect achieved by different means, though. Old pictures have various ways of imbuing things with dramatic presence, with the sense of an entrance, an arrival, a materialisation. (A feeling of dramatic absence is less common " though not wholly impossible.) Look here.

A slab of stone, central, frontal, foreshortened, is the basis for this still life by Philippe de Champaigne. The picture is a Vanitas, an image to encourage reflection on earthly life's worthlessness. It presents three traditional emblems of transience or doom. There's a tulip, for brief glory; an hourglass, for passing time; a skull, for the inevitable.

These things are here before us. More than that, they've arrived. The emblems are shown whole and they stand apart, detached. And the way they're placed indicates a deed done. As in the legend of the Mary Celeste " the people who go on board the deserted ship find the coffee still warm in the pot " this is still life as evidence, still life with a story.

Normally a still life doesn't have a definite past. You don't feel that the arrival of these particular objects in this particular place was an event. You see a bunch of inanimate things by themselves, and you don't really wonder how they got there. Sometimes they may look like the scattered remains of a meal. Sometimes they suggest more casual object traffic. But you're not asked to imagine an deed by which the assembly was created. You don't think that this pot or this fruit landed where it is at a particular moment. The things are just there. They came together, somehow, sometime.

But de Champaigne's Vanitas is timed. The first sign is the hourglass. Next to the other two objects, it sets up a contrast. The tulip and the skull are entirely still, but the hourglass is in motion. Its sand is running. It has an immediate life in time that the others don't have. Skull and flower just sit on, but the sand in the glass has a span. It will at some point stop.

At some point, too, it had a start. An hourglass doesn't only tell the time, it tells you, specifically, the time since it was turned over. Most of the sand is still in the top half, so we know the hourglass was recently set going. The flower and the skull may have been there who knows how long. A few minutes ago somebody put this hourglass down.

But the three objects together also declare their joint arrival on this spot. They're a conspicuously composed group, designed for this particular place and this particular viewing. They're set out in a straight line- up, evenly spaced, a one-two-three display. This row is set up on an otherwise empty slab, fitted neatly to the area of the oblong stone platform. The whole ensemble is set square to the front of the picture, and pushed right up-front, filling the frame.

So it's an arrangement, a coordinated and oriented layout of objects, which points to a single plan. Through their positions, the objects manifest how they got here. Their pattern makes you conscious of the hand that stood them in their places. The crisp, plain-light solidity of the painting evokes the feel and sound of hard object being laid on hard surface, glass, bone and wood on stone. They may have no radiant cartoon lines to charge up their presence, but these objects don't just sit. You can see they were put here, deliberately, not long before.

And they demand attention. They've been arranged for our contemplation and instruction. Unlike some Vanitas still lifes, this is no everyday tabletop sermon, a gathering of objects that just happen conveniently to hold intimations of mortality. The message here is all up-front. It's a still life with a demonstrative programme. The meanings address you full on. Memento mori. The skull, dead centre, is turned to look straight out at you, full face. It offers eye-to-eye contact with its vacant sockets: a portrait mort, or your future mirror image.

THE ARTIST

Philippe de Champaigne (1602-74) was an evangelical painter. He worked for the French court, making memorable portraits of Cardinal Richelieu, but his conversion to Jansenism, an austere Catholic sect, resulted in his most powerful work. The style is high-class realism. He portrayed the personalities of Christianity as contemporary individuals.

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