The Delicate Art of Still Life, Past and Present: Morwenna Morrison at Arusha Gallery Edinburgh

Morwenna Morrison, 'Vanitas I', 2022' oil on canvas
Morwenna Morrison, 'Vanitas I', 2022' oil on canvas

Morwenna Morrison: Vanitas

Mon - Sat 10:00 - 17:00, Sun 13:00 - 17:00

From: 7 Apr 2023

To: 7 May 2023

Arusha Gallery
13A Dundas Street
Edinburgh & the Lothians

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The genre of Stilleven – Still Life – was first developed in the Netherlands during the 17th century, illustrating inanimate objects to express social, moral or spiritual ideas: musical instruments, books, flowers, fruit as well as human skulls, hour glasses and candles to symbolise Memento Mori, ‘remember you must die’.

Vanitas paintings utilised the still life form to evoke the vanity of living and futility of earthly pursuits in the face of mortal existence.  The Biblical term comes from the Book of Ecclesiastes: ‘Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, all is vanity,’ meaning that there was more to life than worldly pleasures.

In this magical, moody series of Vanitas, Morwenna Morrison creates her own modern interpretation of classic still life to represent themes of ageing, memory, nostalgia and passing of time.

Vanitas Still life painting that flourished in the Netherlands during the 17th century intended to communicate the fleeting, temporary and finite nature of life. I combine Dutch paintings with vintage photographs, one flowing into the other ….and explore what Vanitas might mean in contemporary society through the depiction of everyday objects.Morwenna Morrison

Morwenna Morrison, 'Vanitas I', 2022' oil on canvas
‘Vanitas I’, 2022 oil on canvas

Vanitas I features a superb recreation of a botanical painting by Rachel Ruysch, (1664-1752),an internationally renowned woman artist of the Dutch Golden Age, imaginatively combined with the image of a vintage photograph – a snapshot of time.

The soft colours and translucent texture of petals, stalks and buds present a joyous floral arrangement with such realism from the needle-thin veined leaves to silky pink corolla. The partial portrait of a girl, circa 1960s/70s, looks as if she is peering down at the flowers, her copper hair echoed by the coral marigold, with sunny glow over her pale porcelain skin. The innovative juxtaposition of subjects marries together the idea of blossoming nature and feminine beauty. But the underlying message is that flowers wilt and youth withers.

Morwenna Morrison, 'Vanitas IV', 2022, oil on canvas
‘Vanitas IV’, 2022, oil on canvas

Flowers were highly valued in Dutch life and tulips became a coveted, exotic item featured prominently in oil paintings. Rachel Ruysch revolutionised still life through her meticulous scientific accuracy of flora and fauna, especially her study of insects. Vanitas IV is another exemplary reproduction of a vivid crimson and glossy green bouquet – but look closely to spot a tiny caterpillar and a beetle. This less formal display with spontaneous flair gives a real sense of movement. This is paired with a picture of young Japanese woman from the 1920s, in fashionable mode with sunglasses and large straw hat which picks up the same shimmering shades of lilac and mauve blooms in the vase.

Morwenna Morrison, 'Vanitas III', 2022, oil on wood panel
‘vanitas iii’, 2022, oil on wood panel

As well as their passion for flowers, Dutch and Flemish artists celebrated their appetite for food and drink – from a simple breakfast of bread and cheese to lavish Baroque banquets of grapes, lemons, ham, oysters and wine goblets. This classic genre of Stilleven was later modelled and modernised by such Impressionist artists as Gauguin, Van Gogh, Cezanne and Valadon. As an art tutor for young students, Edouard Manet is quoted as saying, Bring a brioche, I want to see you paint one: still life is the touchstone of painting.’

Morwenna Morrison does not present a brioche but an iconic McDonald’s cheeseburger and salad garnish in a seeded bun with crispy fries. With a mouthful already munched, this image is placed beside a recreation of a painting by Pieter de Ring (1615/20-1660) of a lobster on a platter surrounded by crystal glass and a silver hunting horn. Shellfish was a recurring subject for Dutch painters signifying gluttony, status and pleasure, depicted here with anatomical detail of contour and colour; having been boiled alive, the lobster is red and dead, symbolising Memento Mori. For his painterly precision, Pieter de Ring was a masterchef of the canvas.

Lobster is still, today, a luxury dish for special occasions, and therefore the antithesis is cheap, fast food, epitomised by the globally popular brand name, McDonald’s burger. Two vanitas combined in a decorative diptych to compare and contrast 17th and 21st century culture and society with light-hearted whimsical humour.

Morwenna Morrison, 'vanitas v', oil on wood panel
‘vanitas v’, oil on wood panel

A birthday celebration usually means a cake with candles to blow out and make a wish. This tradition can be traced back to the Ancient Greeks who made round cakes to pay tribute to Artemis, the Goddess of the moon, the candles representing moonlight. In vanitas v, a slice of a sponge cake smothered in frosting is so precisely painted from the striped flaming candle to the crumbs on the creased linen cloth.

Candles on a birthday cake are said to have originated in Germany in the 18th century to reflect the light of life; blowing them out links to the Ancient Greek belief of sending prayers to the Gods. In vanitas vi, against the dark shadow, a waft of white smoke swirls over the extinguished candle. A birthday marks your age and the inevitable passing of time but today as we make a wish, it’s more about a happy future rather than a reminder of death.

Morwenna Morrison, 'Vanitas VI', 2023, oil on wood panel
‘vanitas vi’, 2023, oil on wood panel

With intelligent research and imaginative insight, Morwenna Morrison shows, with great clarity, how contemporary art can and should be inspired by classic artistic genres. This series of Vanitas paintings depicts a magical sense of realism which mirror the aesthetics of photography – exquisitely beautiful, modern masterpieces.

With grateful thanks to Artmag contributor Vivien Devlin for this review.

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