Life in medieval Europe was tough. Sudden death was common, and people accepted early mortality and disease as an inevitable part of daily life. Much of the art focused on educating people about many concerns of death, including salvation and the afterlife. Patrons committed great resources for solemn tombs and burial chapels, even literature and music. As one lived well, one could die well, and the patronage confirmed the piety and status of the departed. This art of death is often peaceful and beautiful.
But partly because it’s subversive and has its own parallels in contemporary art, my favorite examples of this theme are in Northern printmaking. Prints served as secular art for the masses and often contained iconography of “Memento Mori”, a Latin reminder that everyone is mortal. Unlike the impressive art of the nobility, with elaborate tombs and a focus on the divine, prints were often humble and quotidian. They might show regular people doing ordinary things. Or even better, they might show the elite in embarrassing situations. Curiously, the people were often accompanied by Death in the form of a skeleton. Death dances alongside the happy couple, he skips happily beside the young girl on her walk, he sits unnoticed behind the merchant. Enjoy life now, for death will come to all, and its timing cannot be predicted. People of the period found these prints entertaining and highly collectible. Even today we are amused, think of tattoos, skater culture, the Grateful Dead and tee shirts we can find at any shopping mall.
I often paint old growth forests, which also exist in an ongoing balance of life and death. The young saplings and vigorous moss thrive alongside the rotting dead life forms which shelter and nourish the growth. In a nod to art history, I always include little memento moris of my own in the paintings, nurse logs, dead branches, dried ferns. I do this not so much as a medieval warning of doom, not at all, but as an acknowledgement of life’s seasons and natural cycles. A forest is incomplete without both photosynthesis and decomposition. I used to hide these memento mori in a “Where’s Waldo” way, concerned that people might think they were depressing if they didn’t understand the tradition.
Most of my effort is spent creating iconography of the living. There’s the plants, that’s obvious, a visual vocabulary which can be moved about on the panel for effect. I hide leaves in the shape of doves from Piero della Francesca paintings. I also try to create life in the paint for the viewer, little “optical flutters”. These effects result from placing complementary colors adjacent to one another, or using color to define spatial relationships, or layering opaque and transparent pigments in a planned manner.
My favorite art of the modern age provides many role models to study for these techniques: Josef Albers, Paul Klee, Gustav Klimt and Edouard Vuillard are top of mind.
Recently I painted a huge painting during a residency at Seattle Artist League. Comprising three wood panels, my painting depicts a nurse log in the forest context and measures twelve feet across when hung as a triptych. The original nurse log which inspired the painting is in Mount Rainier National Park, along the White River Trail on the Sunrise side. My painting is a fantasy of my own making, but one I hope captures that persistence of life I feel whenever I encounter new growth in an ancient forest. I painstakingly used a tiny 1/4″ brush to make most of the painting, so I feel I infused my own drive for life into the artwork.
The left panel shows the forest scene with a faraway view , while the center panel teems with plant life against a nearby backdrop of old growth. The right panel focuses on a mass of intertwined small plant forms atop the massive nurse log.
I’ve titled these panels “Memento Vivere”, Latin for a reminder to Live. This is a play on the memento mori concept that fits more closely with my own philosophy. And I do want to remind others to live in the present, to laugh and love, make new friends, celebrate babies and enjoy nature. Really, celebrate those babies. These connections are close if we only look and decide to enjoy them. No permission is required, it’s a personal choice available to everyone. I’m still planning to include both memento mori and vivere in my paintings, but you see I am solidly on the living side of the fence.