“Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.” – Ecclesiastes 1:2
Although classed as one of the seven deadly sins, in its earliest usage around the 12th century, the English word vanity (derived from the Latin vanitas) referred mainly to the emptiness, transience and futility of life. Only by the 14th century did it acquire the meaning of self-conceit or belief in one’s own attractiveness.
The term ‘vanity fair’ was introduced by Bunyan’s 1678 Christian allegory, The Pilgrim’s Progress and later the title of Thackeray’s 1848 novel, not to mention the glossy magazine launched in 1983. Meanwhile, the term ‘vanity table’ is only attested from the 1930s.
The long and rich artistic tradition of ‘vanitas’ is being reinvigorated through carpentry in a vanity table designed by Dr Phillip Prager, a former assistant professor of aesthetics at the IT University in Copenhagen, who graduated from a professional course at the Chippendale school last year.
Phillip, a published expert on the nature of creative thinking, is a devoted collector of the eclectic – recently acquiring a legless Chinese pottery horse dating back to the Han dynasty, for which he is currently fashioning new wooden legs. During his professional course here at the school, he also used his skill to restore a medieval mummified cat, gilding it in 24 carat gold.
Phillip is now turning his playful imagination to the creation of a philosophical piece of furniture, and continuing the tradition of vanitas that emerged in the Renaissance, when vanity was often symbolised by a naked woman holding a comb and mirror, signifying the impermanence of life.
The vanitas tradition continued throughout early modern art, most strikingly captured by 17th century Dutch still life paintings juxtaposing earthly delights – musical instruments, fruit, or flowers – with symbols of death and decay such as skulls, timepieces and snuffed out candles.
It remained an enduring theme even in modernist and contemporary art, from Picasso’s 1952 Goat’s Skull, Bottle and Candle to Damien Hirst’s 2007 diamond-encrusted skull. With his Vanitas Table, Phillip elaborates on this tradition in the most literal sense, creating a conceptual artwork that captures the full etymology of ‘vanitas’ while marrying both form and function – a table for indulgence in self-conceit and beautification, that simultaneously represents the fleeting nature of human life and acts as a memento mori, a reminder that we all must eventually die.
The Vanitas Table will incorporate genuine archaeological artefacts purchased at specialist auctions from across the ages. These objects have been curated both to delight the senses and to stimulate reflection, playfully blending utility and futility.
They include Roman clothing pins, ancient Greek hair clips and a Byzantine comb that can still be used today; a Viking mirror handle tilts a modern looking-glass, and the table stands on two bronze Greek legs dating back 2,500 years.
The modern central mirror is flanked on one side by a Roman mirror missing its glass, and on the other by a Ming Dynasty mirror too patinated to reflect an image, while two Pharaonic inlaid glass eyes glare back at the observer. Together, they coalesce into both a playful and uncanny reminder of the futility of conceitedness in the face of the inexorable passage of time, civilisations, youth and beauty.
Phillip has bought an 18th century Grade 1 listed Palladian home just outside Haddington, the nearest town to the Chippendale school, which he is filling with the aesthetic, ancient and quirky. He intends in due course to open part of this to the public and to sell a variety of his curiosities and fine furnishings from a small on-site shop.