Written by

Where's the frame

Maribelle Bierens

October 18, 2023 12:05 PM


Currently, Night Café is exhibiting a contemporary take on ‘vanitas’ painting, presenting the works of Norberto Spina, Rebecca Halliwell Sutton and Taisiia Cherkasova conceptualising it as a way to think about life.

Installation shot ‘Vanitas’ at Night Café. Left to right, Norberto Spina &  Rebecca Halliwell Sutton. Photography by Vanessa Walters. 

In the heart of the Dutch 17th century, a new artistic movement emerged, a form of still life painting we now know as Vanitas painting. These artworks, adorned with symbols like skulls, hourglasses, and withering flowers, sought to convey the fleeting nature of life and the futility of worldly pursuits. At their core, the artists who painted them urged viewers to engage in spiritual contemplation and to consider eternal values. Four centuries later, traditional religious beliefs have waned. This shift has ramifications that ripple through our perception of life, death, spirituality, and mortality. In a world where millennials and Gen Z often lean towards hedonism or nihilism, emphasising the pursuit of immediate pleasure and gratification or questioning the inherent meaning of life, our relationship with life and death changes too.

Vanitas painting emerged during a period closely associated with the Reformation. The 17th century marked significant cultural, religious, and societal changes in the Netherlands. The Protestant Reformation, initiated by Martin Luther in the 16th century, had swept through Europe.

Installation shot of works by Norberto Spina at ‘Vanitas’ at Night Café. Photography by Vanessa Walters. 

As a result of the Reformation, the Netherlands experienced a surge in Calvinism, a branch of Protestantism known for its strict adherence to predestination and the rejection of many Catholic practices. This religious shift led to a decline in Catholicism, which had long held sway in the region. In the arts, this shift in religious dynamics had far-reaching consequences, including the decline of organised Catholic religious patronage for art and the disappearance of royal patronage as the Netherlands transitioned into a republic. In this changing environment, artists adapted to new themes and subjects.

Rebecca Halliwell Sutton, ‘Through ions and stratus (iii)’, 2022. Aluminium, Steel. 160 x 100 x 58 cm. Photography by Vanessa Walters. 

In this transformative period, the Bible was translated into vernacular languages, including Dutch, making religious texts accessible to a broader audience. The concept of indulgences, once widely accepted, came under intense scrutiny. Indulgences were a practice within the Catholic Church where individuals could obtain remission from the temporal punishment for their sins, often through monetary donations or acts of penance. This system allowed for the purchase of spiritual benefits, including reducing one's time in purgatory or even the assurance of a place in heaven. With these beliefs in flux, questions about the nature of salvation, the existence of an afterlife, and the role of material wealth in securing one's place in eternity became central to people's contemplation.

One way artists responded to these dogmatic shifts was by vanitas painting. Artists began to create works that focused on the transient nature of life and the impermanence of material wealth and pleasures. These paintings were visual reminders of the inevitability of death and the importance of spiritual reflection and moral living in a world where the certainty of salvation was no longer guaranteed by earthly means.

Installation shot of works by Taisiia Cherkasova at ‘Vanitas’ at Night Café. Photography by Vanessa Walters. 

Fast forward a couple of centuries, and beliefs have changed tremendously. One of the most significant changes in the Western world over the last few decades, specifically in specific urban centres, has been the decline of organised religion. Traditional beliefs in an afterlife have shifted or faded away, leaving a void in the spiritual landscape. This shift has ramifications that ripple through our perception of life and mortality. As traditional religious beliefs have waned, questions about the purpose of life, the nature of death, and the existence of an afterlife have taken on new dimensions. In a world where the concept of an afterlife may hold less sway, our relationship with life and death changes too. Particularly among younger generations, while some look to other unorganised spirituality, there has arguably led to a notable rise in nihilism and hedonism.

Norberto Spina, Il colore della pietra, 2023 Oil and Marker on Canvas 18 x 17 cm. Photography by Vanessa Walters. 

Nihilism, a philosophical stance that often contends life lacks inherent meaning or value, has gained traction in contemporary society. It rejects traditional religious or moral frameworks and embraces a worldview where existential questions about life and death lead to a sense of meaninglessness. As individuals grapple with pressing global challenges, he- donism, the pursuit of immediate pleasure and gratification, often associated with nihilistic tendencies, becomes a tempting alternative to navigating existence's uncertainties.

Installation shot ‘Vanitas’ at Night Café. Left to right, Norberto Spina & Taisiia Cherkasova. Photography by Vanessa Walters. 

In a fast-paced time, the climate emergency is becoming a reality. In most Western democratic countries, there is a rise in far-right politics, increasing the polarisation of societal values. In these unsettling realities, artists often grapple with these existential questions about the human condition. As often is the case in extreme uncertainty, such as the AIDS crisis of the 1980s and times of extreme financial austerity, artists have often shifted their gaze to the few solid things that remain – their own lives and the everyday.

The artists in Night Café’s current exhibition on ‘vanitas’ don’t take a hedonistic or nihilistic approach to thinking about life through the inevitability of death. Spina and Cherkasova explore this concept with the use of the everyday. Spina looks at his own life, his family’s history, and his home country, Italy’s history and freezes these moments in time by depicting these moments in an almost cinematic way. In this way, he gives some solidity to these fleeting moments. The artworks presented in the show make viewers relate to these moments and might offer some introspection. 

Detail Taisiia Cherkasova. Photography by Vanessa Walters. 

In small fragmented ‘Vanitas’ still lifes, Cherkasova reimagines vanitas painting in a contemporary context, creating a visual narrative that blends imagination, memory, and everyday life. Her hybrid sculptures explore themes of violence and death as inherent aspects of humanity, prompting a visual journey through the depths of memory and the unconscious.

Halliwell Sutton’s work takes a more spiritually-based approach. The sculptures presented in ‘Vanitas’, symbolise passages between realms, echoing ancient protective practices. These artworks blur the boundaries between the material and the metaphysical, inviting contemplation of intergenerational connections, non-linear time, and the profound impact of belief in shaping our understanding of the world.

Norberto Spina, Ricordatemi così, 2023. Oil and Marker on Canvas 24,5 x 18 cm. Photography by Vanessa Walters. 

This contemporary take on vanitas does not try to provide definitive answers. It proposeses different ways to think about life through death in our ever-evolving world, where the past, present, and future intersect in complex ways. 

You can visit the show until November 3, 2023 at 162 New Cavendish Street in Fitzrovia, London. For more information, visit Night Café's website.

Suggested reading: