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Visual Arts and Vanitas

Remember the infamous ‘Carpe Diem’ scene in the film Dead Poet’s Society? Well, ‘memento mori’ has been the inspiration for Ms Sinclair’s Year 9 Visual Arts students.

It was Socrates who first came up with the idea of ‘memento mori’ – keeping an object or memento as a tangible reminder to ‘seize the day’ because death is inevitable. Perhaps one of the most well-known examples of ‘memento mori’ is in Hamlet’s line, “Alas, poor Yorick”, a visible reminder of his mortality.

As Ms Sinclair explained, as part of their Unit of Work, Vanitas, Year 9 Visual Arts students have explored traditional and contemporary representations of still life, taking inspiration from 16th century Dutch Vanitas painters, who used symbolic objects, such as skulls, flowers, and fruit to communicate the idea of memento mori – the inevitability of death and the transience of life.

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Over the course of Semester 1, the students experimented with digital photography to arrange their compositions, after which they used traditional painting methods including tonal underpainting and glazing to develop their technical skills and resolve their artworks.

These artworks are now proudly on display in Wenona’s Judith Dey Gallery, along with explanations from each student about the inspiration behind their artwork. Ms Sinclair said, “Each student has also written an artist’s statement explaining their individual artworks and the symbols and objects they incorporated into their paintings. These were also reflected in the student’s chosen artwork title. These are displayed below the paintings and add another layer of complexity to their artworks.”

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Jemma said her painting, Rise of the Flowers, evokes death and decay, symbolising how everything alive slowly fades. “My artwork includes a skull, which symbolises the theme of certain death, as well as books symbolising the curiosity of human nature.”

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Ivy’s painting, The Skull Monologues, features a skull on a book, along with tulips, a clock, fruit and a ceramic vase. “My intention was to show that life is vulnerable and short,” she said. “The fruit and clock symbolise our shot lifespan and the passing of time. The book and ceramics show the property of life that cannot be taken into the afterlife. I created this artwork hoping to call on people to be aware of the preciousness of life.”

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Abigail said of her painting, The Sound of Silence, “this artwork features flowers (symbolic of the decaying body and the inevitability of human morality), a skull (the fragility of life), a shell (exoticism and wealth), fruit (aging and the passing of time) and two books (symbolic of human curiosity) resting in front of navy drapes (symbolic of vanity).”

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Sienna said of her painting, Simplicity of Life, “My artwork reminds the audience that life is fragile, shown through a glass, delicate flowers and a flickering candle. The flowers also symbolise a sense of decay, as flowers eventually die, just like everyone in life. This also suggest that life is fragile and special.”

Ms Sinclair is delighted that the artworks are now on display for other to enjoy. “Year 9 Visual Arts students worked so diligently on them and it is wonderful to hear they are being enjoyed and appreciated by others in the School.”