During the 16th-17th centuries, artists in Flanders and the Netherlands explored a genre of painting that came to be called “Vanitas” (Latin for vanity).
These works were generally still lifes of objects that symbolized the transience of life on this earth – the inevitability of ageing and decay – which was implicitly contrasted with the eternal bliss that was said to characterize the purported afterlife. One of the recurrent symbols found in such work was the skull.
Some modern and contemporary artists have revisited the medieval skull motif, sometimes ironically – like English artist Damien Hirst’s renowned diamond-encrusted sculpture “For the Love of God.”
In his latest exhibition, “Introspection: the Universal in the Personal” now up at Cynthia Nouhra Art Gallery, Lebanese artist Chawky Frenn also toys with the skull. Rather than taking up the human skull, his 18 oil-on-canvas works use images of the doll’s head as a metaphor for contemporary delirium.
There is something eerie in these works in which dolls – usually associated with joy and playfulness – have their symbolism pulled inside-out. He uproots these dolls of their innocence and puts them in a meditative context.
In “Your Silence, I Suffer” (183 x 122 cm), a nude man is kneeling, his chin in hand like Rodin’s “Thinker,” his left hand on his forehead. His posture reflects torment and frustration. Dominating the work, though are the jumble of doll’s heads, distorted and broken, which literally crowd him into one corner of the canvas.
Various interpretations could be applied to Frenn’s work. From the title of the show, we could understand him to call for human introspection, a need to address the internal voice in the face of the weight of universal personae.
On the other hand, a blatant irony is at work in the relationship between the title of the show and the subject matter – dismembered and obsolescent children’s dolls. Antique human figures are strongly evocative of the effigy – a representation of an original that has been emptied of whatever meaning it was once seen to possess. The fact that most of these figures are child’s toys suggests effigies of a long-lost innocence.
In his 122 x 183 piece “Our Human Rights were not their National Interests,” the nude male figure also resides in the bottom right corner of the canvas. Here too dolls’ heads feature, but they appear to have been kept at bay in the background, their menacing facial expressions in shadow.
In Frenn’s “The Truth Shall Set You Free” (122 x 183 cm), the onlooker faces five characters. Four of them are old-fashioned, child-sized dolls, most bewigged, one not. The fifth takes the form of a mature man decked-out in a black mask and white headdress like a figure from Carnival.
Frenn is adept at rendering the porcelain glow on the dolls’ faces, an effect made more eerie by their emotionless expressions.
Frenn’s title – a reference to a well-known passage from the Book of John – “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” – plays ironically with the central figure. This invocation of the Carnival trickster represents the libertine upside-down premises of the Catholic Church’s pre-Lenten festivities.
On the other hand, it’s obvious that the figure is, like the blank-faced infant figures behind him, a doll – an effigy, if you like. Furthermore, though the trickster’s posture is welcoming – palms up, arms extended – close inspection reveals that the fingers of his right hand have been smashed off, suggesting that the scriptural sentiments of “truth” and “freedom” he’s evoking are obsolete.
Chawky Frenn’s “Introspection: the Universal in the Personal” is on display at Cynthia Nouhra Art Gallery until April 5. For more information, please call 01-281-755.