Wednesday, October 22, 2008
Grace and I are singing in Continuo Collective this semester. Grace has spent a number of seasons in the group but it's my first time. Thankfully some of the singing I did years ago was in Latin, otherwise I'd feel utterly overwhelmed. As it is, between the Italian enunciation and the complex chords I feel like I've thrown myself into the deep end of the pool. I'm glad I joined, though, and particularly excited to be a part of the Vanitas Project.
During our first rehearsal we looked at some good examples of vanitas paintings. One of them was Holbein's "Ambassadors", which I wrote about in a February entry. I was excited that we were working on something I actually knew a bit about; between my visit to Paris and Amsterdam, my readings on sixteenth and seventeenth century Dutch history, and my visit to the "Age of Rembrandt" exhibit at the Met, I felt like I had a decent handle on the concept.
Tony made the point that, though vanitas art denounces worldly pursuits, the people who commissioned that art were most likely quite attached to those pursuits. I couldn't agree more; for me, Dutch still life painting is all about the paradox - not to say hypocrisy. Remember, those artists were hired by rich, powerful Dutch merchants to depict a panoply of shapes, transparencies and textures; this showcased not only the artists' talent but also the sundry goods that the patron imported from the far reaches of the world. The Dutch had become the preeminent merchants on the planet, and speaking of the planet... why, they just so happened to have a freshly printed set of atlases by Blaeu. Expensive, but worth it! They were bloody satisfied with themselves, and it showed in those paintings that gave great lip service to the renunciation of worldly pursuits.
If I'm overstating the hypocrisy angle it's because I'm reading Barbara Tuchman's A Distant Mirror and when I think of the hypocrisy of chivalry - a psychological construct that allowed for the ruination of the very people that it purported to protect - it reminds me of the suspiciously pornographic contradictions at the core of vanitas painting. This all goes to explain why, as I worked on my solo in Carissimi's "Vanitas Vanitatum II", I got to thinking - and researching - more and more about his purpose in composing it.