This groundbreaking photorealist painting by Audrey Flack, despite its festive candy colors, is actually a meditation on the inevitability of death. It features Marilyn Monroe, an example of a glamorous star who died prematurely, but the reflection of another movie idol gleams on the crowded tabletop.
A vanitas still life is a work of art that uses symbolic items to remind viewers that life is fleeting. Beauty, wealth, pleasure… all will disappear.
For example, here’s a 17th century example by Maria van Oosterwyck.
Vanitas-Still Life (1668) by Maria van Oosterwyck (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna)
Note the symbols such as the depleted hourglass, skull, account book, and decaying corn, and, at the far right, the money pouch and coins, which of course are useless after death. The paper drooping over the table edge is inscribed with a passage from the book of Job: “Man that is born of a woman is of few days and full of trouble.” (14:1)
Audrey Flack’s famous photorealist work Marilyn (Vanitas) glows with saturated colors and tempting objects, but her message, like Van Oosterwyck’s, is grim.
An hourglass, a watch, a calendar, and a burning candle all remind us of the relentless progression of time. The glossy fruit and vivid rose will soon fade. Jewels and makeup can’t mask time’s effects. And of course Marilyn Monroe, painted here as a luminous 22 year old, took her own life in 1962, at age 36.
Marilyn (Vanitas) (1977), by Audrey Flack
Did you notice another youthful idol who died young? James Dean died in a 1955 car accident, at age 24; his reflection is barely visible on the candlestick.
Artist: Audrey Flack (1931- )
Audrey Flack is an American artist best known for her pioneering work in photorealism, which she began in the 1960s. She developed an innovative technique in which she would project and trace photographs, then recolor them and enhance them with an airbrush. Since the mid-198os she has focused primarily on sculpture, though she has recently returned to drawing as well.
Material & Support: Oil over acrylic on canvas
Size: 244 cm. x 244 cm. (96 in. x 96 in.)
Location: University of Arizona Art Museum, Tucson
Maurer, Susannah, “Audrey Flack’s Marilyn: Still Life, Vanitas, Trompe l’Oeil.” The University of Arizona Museum of Art.
Blumberg, Naomi & Ida Yalzadeh, “Audrey Flack.” Encyclopedia Britannica.
AudreyFlack.com (Audrey Flack’s website)
Flower Still Life (1669) by Maria van Oosterwyck