At first glance, Vanitas looks back to the mid 19th century - the world of Baudelaire's Les Fleurs du Mal, the paintings of Henri Fantin-Latour and William Dyce, Swinburne's Garden of Proserpine. We go back perhaps even further to Holland in the 17th century. Yet the Vanitas prints emerged from contemporary technical experiments.
John Phillips combines photographic and digital techniques with the manipulation of light. This print series 'Vanitas' is the culmination of experimental work shown in his 2014 'Captive Light' exhibition. Each of the Vanitas images is a technical tour de force, in which the artist combines up to 1400 image components to imbue his subjects with an eerie hyper-reality.
Phillips’s Vanitas XVII sold out at the 2016 Royal Academy Summer exhibition. It was one of the best selling prints in the show, and aroused considerable interest. There are over 20 prints in the exhibition, some large scale, some small, all reflecting Phillips' current subject of discarded flowers.
John Phillips says 'With the increasing proliferation of photographic imagery and the recording of all aspects of our lives, there is a need to reclaim photography as a route to creating startling images. The Vanitas prints seek to reclaim the discarded and overlooked, and reference a tradition of Western genre painting. Still life and its metaphorical meaning nature morte is the theme of Vanitas, redolent with fading beauty and mortality.
Early adopters of technologies are frequently constrained by the types of images created by the technologies they supersede. As McLuhan succinctly proposed “We look at the present through a rear-view mirror. We march backwards into the future.”The problem we all face when using new media is realising the possibilities that they offer. Vanitas playfully explores this issue through images that are unique to digital technologies, which simultaneously reference the past.'
John Phillips (b.1951) is an artist, photographer and printmaker who lives in London. He studied fine art at Sheffield Polytechnic (now Sheffield Hallam University), and has a PhD in Fine Art from the University of Brighton. His work is held in a number of public collections including Victoria & Albert Museum, London, at the International Institute of Social History in Amsterdam, and Rhode Island School of Design Museum. As a designer and curator he retains a strong interest in socially engaged art practice. Active in arts debates, John is a regular platform speaker at print seminars and conferences in the UK and abroad.
Vanitas themes in Art History
'Vanitas' (the Latin term for vanity) was a genre common in Holland and Flanders in the first half of the seventeenth century. Vanitas paintings are often an appreciation ofeveryday household objects, or fruit and flowers. These apparently simple subjects give rise to a comparison with vain and futile human ambitions. The genre may have been inspired by a phrase from the Bible:- Vanity of vanities; all is vanity.* 'Vanitas vanitatum omnia vanitas' from Latin, vanitas- may equally be translated as 'futility'.