VANITÀ ESSAY by Kevin Pontuti

Redemption and Transformation: The Imagery of Kevin Pontuti’s VANITÀ

By Sarah Diebel, PhD

October 15, 2017

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The dark and dreamlike episode that confronts the viewer in Kevin Pontuti’s VANITÀ is rich in the suggestion of imagery recounting the long human struggle to balance the lures of the world with the needs of the soul. His solemn woman before a mirror, whose red hair glints in the darkness around her, is redolent of portrayals of the penitent Mary Magdalene, a woman whose physical past is shed to find her spiritual core. Pontuti’s wordless image especially reminds of quiet scenes of contemplation, like Georges de la Tour’s painting of the Magdalene with Two Flames (Fig. 1), where the sinner looks toward a mirror, a traditional symbol of vanity, and is reminded by the insubstantial flame of the transience of earthly life.  In Pontuti’s film, the woman’s disturbing moments of disgorging a part of herself- a physical part of herself- is the equivalent in the painting of the quiet skull, hollow with gaping dark orbits, that implies mortality and the willing abandonment of the physical, sensual past. But while the Magdalene lets her earthly beauty go, the woman in Pontuti’s film resorbs that aspect of physical sensuality that links her to world. Her quest for redemption and transformation has not yet found resolution. 

Fig. 1 Georges de la Tour, Magdalene with Two Flames, c. 1640                                  

Fig. 1 Georges de la Tour, Magdalene with Two Flames, c. 1640                                  

The hair that is the fixation for Pontuti’s silent woman is a telling symbol in depictions of Mary Magdalene. Her luxuriant hair is at once an emblem of her worldly sin and of her penance, and while La Tour’s gently meditative painting shows her with a pure physical beauty in the moment of her conversion, Donatello’s extraordinary sculpture of the penitent Magdalene at the end of her life (Fig. 2), gives an unflinching look at the real result of rejecting worldly concerns: a ravaged, starved body and dirty, painfully matted hair which has grown long and become her only clothing.  This Magdalene’s sunken eyes and thin frame suggest, almost, a living skeleton. But those eyes also send the resounding message that as earthly beauty fades, the spiritual flame can intensify.

Fig. 2 Donatello, Penitent Magdalene, 1454 

Fig. 2 Donatello, Penitent Magdalene, 1454 

The long tradition of the Vanitas theme, both in overtly religious and secular images, suggests a strong human preoccupation and inclination toward dangerous self-absorption. And a painting like Giovanni Bellini’s Young Woman at her Toilette, where a tranquil nude with ivory colored skin gazes into a mirror (Fig. 3) cunningly poses the human dilemma: we look, and she looks, but with different motives. We recognize the precariousness of the subject’s self-admiration, but we are complicit, having been placed in the voyeuristic position of admiring her physical beauty too. So the painting is a warning against sin, but also an invitation to embrace it. What viewer fully has the power to understand one, without succumbing to the other?  But Bellini uses the device of two mirrors, one of which is turned toward the viewer, offering the possibility of self-reflection. What we see in the mirror’s face, however, is only the back of the woman’s head adorned with rich embroidered material and lustrous pearls. Ultimately the true image of ourselves is obscured by the beauty in the painting and the beauty of the painting.

Fig. 3 Giovanni Bellini, Young Woman at her Toilette, 1515 

Fig. 3 Giovanni Bellini, Young Woman at her Toilette, 1515 

The underlying suggestion of sin- self-admiring, voyeuristic and sensual- is heightened in Titian’s Woman at her Toilette (Fig. 4) which introduces a male protagonist into a similar scene of a woman grooming her long, luxuriant hair. The man at her shoulder, whose down-turned eyes and shaded face infer sensuality, holds two mirrors. The one turned toward us shows only the ghostly forms of the figure’s backs, and the high glare of a window. The rest of the convex surface is dark, once again obscuring self-reflection. It alludes, of course, to the Biblical passage in Paul’s epistles where he says, “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known” (1 Cor. 13:12).  Similarly, in Pontuti’s film, the woman sees ‘through a glass darkly,’ surrounded by gloom and unable to penetrate beyond the superficial reflection of herself. And while Pontuti’s woman sits alone, the hovering presence of an absent male protagonist- or protagonists- is implied in the heavy weight of darkness.

Fig. 4 Titian, Woman at her Toilette, c.1515                              

Fig. 4 Titian, Woman at her Toilette, c.1515                              

In Nicolas Régnier’s Woman at a Mirror (Fig. 5) we finally see the reflected image that the riveted young woman admires. Showcasing the opulence of earthly riches, he shows a girl in the blush of youth and swathed in silks who sits at a dressing table surrounded by gold and jewels. The flush of her smooth cheek and the sheen of her silky hair are the match of the luscious materials that surround her. She seems transfixed by her image in the mirror, as she sets a trio of perfectly ripe blossoms behind her ear. Ironically, though, the adornment she chooses- the organic product of nature, flowers whose stems have been cut, are the symbol of earthly vanity to which she seems oblivious. Cut flowers wither quickly, they wilt and die. But for the girl, the lure of her physical self is stronger than the deeper self-awareness she should strive to know. And this is at the crux of Vanitas imagery, and of Pontuti’s sober film.  Self-admiration is not self-reflection. It does not inherently imply introspection, and in fact, these gazers all are dangerously oblivious to their true nature and to the ultimate fate of their souls.

Fig. 5 Nicolas Régnier, Woman at a Mirror or Vanity, 1626  

Fig. 5 Nicolas Régnier, Woman at a Mirror or Vanity, 1626  

In Pontuti’s dark scene, where gloom surrounds the figure and the stark locale is stripped of the overt signs of earthly luxury, the woman’s blind self-absorption is all the more perilous. She lacks the self-awareness of the figure in Girl with a Mirror (Fig. 6) by the Dutch painter, Paulus Moreelse, where a lavishly dressed woman turns toward the viewer while gesturing at a mirror

Fig. 6 Paulus Moreelse, Girl with a Mirror, 1632 

Fig. 6 Paulus Moreelse, Girl with a Mirror, 1632 

and to her own reflection in it. The directness of her gaze and her knowing smile suggest she recognizes the dangerous implications of self-absorption, and wants to share her knowledge with the viewer. Ultimately, it’s an appealing image that contains only a gentle reprimand, and we can admire her and receive her admonishment in equal measures. Another version of the subject by the same painter (Fig. 7), shows another lavishly dressed girl, in a state of slight undress with one breast exposed, and takes sterner tone. The picture is patently an allegory of profane love, and the painting within a painting hanging in the background that shows nude lovers in a landscape makes plainer the sinful implications of embracing earthly pleasures.

Fig. 7 Paulus Moreelse, A Girl with a Mirror (Allegory of Profane Love) 1627

Fig. 7 Paulus Moreelse, A Girl with a Mirror (Allegory of Profane Love) 1627

In Pontuti’s film the woman never acknowledges the viewer, nor shares a knowing glance as Moreelse’s beauties do. She remains, instead, alone in the presence of the audience, locked in her self-admiring cycle, even as the darkness closes in around her.  The dire implications of vanity are more harshly evoked in Jan Miense Molenaer’s Allegory of Vanity (Fig. 8).  Here, a woman with lustrous blond hair sits holding a mirror in a setting crowded with the signs of seventeenth-century wealth and material riches. Gold embroidered fabrics, painted furniture and elegant musical instruments show her attachment to the earthly realm, and the map of the globe hanging behind her is a clear statement of her worldliness.  As a man dressed richly in a fur-lined cloak intently and tenderly combs her hair the woman glances toward us, but without the disarming smile of Moreelse’s girls. Her tempered attitude is underscored by her curious footrest: a skull that lies close to the picture plane and cancels the exuberance of the plush surroundings.

Fig. 8 Jan Miense Molenaer, Allegory of Vanity, 1633 .          

Fig. 8 Jan Miense Molenaer, Allegory of Vanity, 1633 .          

The skull introduces the more severe side of the Vanitas theme: Memento mori, remember, you must die.

This austere warning is often expressed in the most uncompromising visual terms, as in a page from a book of hours belonging to Joanna of Castille (Figs. 9 and 10) illustrating the mirror of conscience. Here a grinning skull is reflected in a convex mirror, with the implication that it is the viewer’s own reflection.

Fig. 9 Gerard Horenbout, Speculum Conscientiae, c. 1500 .                          

Fig. 9 Gerard Horenbout, Speculum Conscientiae, c. 1500 .                          

Fig. 10 Gerard Horenbout, Speculum Conscientiae (detail), c. 1500 .              

Fig. 10 Gerard Horenbout, Speculum Conscientiae (detail), c. 1500 .              

The objective of this blunt depiction is, ultimately, redemption, but it is an unflinching and unsympathetic message. The Memento mori explicitly confronts the viewer in a way that literally confronting oneself in the mirror without introspection does not achieve.  In the tradition of Memento mori imagery, the woman in Pontuti’s film, heedless of her imperiled soul and self, is akin to a chilling figure painted in an historiated initial from the Hours of Dionora of Urbino (Fig. 11).  In the image, a grey skeleton, stripped of all flesh, sits clothed in lavish robes and precious jewels. The painted jewels and the gold leaf on the border of the manuscript page underscore the richness and allure of earthly wealth. The smiling skeleton retains its long, golden hair, the only outward remnant of its earthly self, and gazes admiringly into a mirror. But even now she does not clearly see the grisly image before her. In Pontuti’s film, as the woman disgorges and then consumes the detached parts of her physical self, a thin smear of blood coats her mouth and chin. As she returns to the hypnotic motion of brushing her hair before the mirror, she seems unaware of the gore that stains her face and her reflection. Both Pontuti’s film and this grim skeletal figure show the strong seduction of one’s own sense of the physical self. But in reality, the reflection we see in the mirror is not physical- it’s as insubstantial as dust, and that should cue us to the reality of our mortal state.  But both the blond, bejeweled skeleton and Pontuti’s blood-smeared woman fail to see reality, to look inside, beyond the surface.

Fig. 11 Memento Mori Initial, c. 1480 .  

Fig. 11 Memento Mori Initial, c. 1480 .  

This dedication to vanity and the persistent blindness to the danger it poses the soul, is described bluntly in Hans Baldung Grien’s Death and the Maiden (Fig. 12). Here a skeletal figure with wisps of hair still attached to its skull suggestively caresses a nude woman whose fleshy form draws a stark contrast to the wasted figure of Death. She holds a mirror to her face and draws her fingers seductively through her hair. The implication is clear: preoccupation with earthly passions will not help the soul in the face of death’s imminent embrace.

Fig. 12 Hans Baldung Grien, Death and the Maiden, c.1515 

Fig. 12 Hans Baldung Grien, Death and the Maiden, c.1515 

The dire consequences are spelled out in no uncertain terms in Hans Memling’s diminutive triptych showing Earthly Vanity and Divine Salvation (Fig. 13). In the center panel a nude woman stands in a lush landscape, and holds a mirror with her reflected image clearly visible. She is flanked, though, by a gleeful figure of death, whose desiccated flesh is stretched taut across his bones, and by a harrowing scene of Satan dancing on the backs of condemned souls in the gaping mouth of Hell. The scene of Heaven and divine salvation appears only on the exterior of the triptych; in this view only the threat of eternal damnation is shown. In the pre-Modern world the horrors of Hell were routinely represented in all their ghoulish glory.

Fig. 13 Hans Memling, Triptych of Earthly Vanity and Divine Salvation, c. 1485

Fig. 13 Hans Memling, Triptych of Earthly Vanity and Divine Salvation, c. 1485

And in many depictions the condemned sinners are subjected to punishments that artfully fit their crime. One poor soul who persisted in her self-admiring vanity is visible in a detail from Giotto’s Last Judgment in the Arena Chapel in Padua (Fig. 14).  Her fate is to hang from a dry branch, suspended by the rich, luxuriant hair that she prized in life, alongside other naked sinners who hang by the physical emblems of their corruption. In Pontuti’s film the implications for the fate of the woman, who likewise persists in her self-admiring but not self-reflecting gaze, may be just as dire.  The scene of Hell from the Garden of Earthly Delights Triptych by Hieronymous Bosch (Fig. 15) contains a sinner who vomits into the deepest pit under

Fig. 14 Giotto, Last Judgment (detail), 1305

Fig. 14 Giotto, Last Judgment (detail), 1305

the throne of Satan, the same pit into which devoured sinners are expelled like excrement. Pontuti’s disquieting scene of the woman who painfully and unexpectedly vomits up parts of her physical self recalls this hellish vision. In vomiting up her physical self, the hair and the finger, the woman has the opportunity to free herself of the painful physicality of her past. Instead, she condemns herself to her own earthly Hell by resorbing the disgorged parts, and by blindly admiring a face that is now visibly marred with the residue of her all-consuming self-absorption. The detail from Bosch’s Hell scene may hint at the ultimate fate of the woman in Pontuti’s film, for a concave mirror attached to the backside of a demon reflects in its dark surface the face of a seated woman whose shimmering hair reaches to the ground at the foot of Satan’s throne.  She gazes on, through the glass darkly, with no hope of illumination. Pontuti’s film ends lingering on the woman at her dressing table in the dim and sparse setting, unillumined but perhaps not without hope.

Fig. 15 Hieronymous Bosch, Hell (detail) from the Garden of Earthly Delights Triptych, c. 1510 . 

Fig. 15 Hieronymous Bosch, Hell (detail) from the Garden of Earthly Delights Triptych, c. 1510 . 

ONERE on tao films by Kevin Pontuti

Starting July 1, ONERE is available on tao films VoD

ABOUT tao films

tao films is a new distribution service for films which are worth slowing down for.

tao films is a curated VoD platform. Every three months, we offer a new programme, consisting of a mixture of feature and short films from countries as varied as Mexico, Colombia, the UK, Italy, Morocco, Nepal and the Philippines. We offer you an international wealth of film.

tao films is different from other platforms. We doesn't impose geo-blocking. The films we show are available worldwide. We bring filmmakers and viewers together without imposing borders at the same time. We believe that films should be available to the many, not to the few.

Our distribution service is aimed at giving a platform to talented filmmakers from around the world whose work has so far been widely overlooked. We work as a team with the directors we select for the platform. We negotiate directly with them in order to keep our costs low and the profits for the filmmakers considerably higher than elsewhere. It is our aim to support our directors' future project as best as we can.

Join us on a slow journey around the film world!

 

Summer News by Kevin Pontuti

SUMMER NEWS

ONERE wins awards in France
June got off to a great start with ONERE winning best short film at the Solaris Film Festival in Nice, France. Lead actress, Alexandra Loreth, also won best actress for her performance. The Solaris Film Festival is dedicated to the late Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky.

UPCOMING SCREENINGS
We've had many inquiries regarding where to see ONERE and we’re pleased to share the following venues and platforms where ONERE can be viewed this July:

tao films VoD
Starting July 1st, ONERE will be available on tao films VOD. This limited release is part of a curated program of contemplative films and slow cinema by Nadin Mai. An interview with director Kevin Pontuti accompanies the film. 

Vienna Independent Film Festival
ONERE will screen at the Vienna Independent Film Festival on Wednesday, July 5th. Schedule and tickets can be found on the festival website.

San Francisco Frozen Film Festival
Join us at the famous Roxie Theater in San Francisco on Saturday, July 17th
for the West Coast premiere of ONERE. Director Kevin Pontuti and actress Alexandra Loreth will be attending. Tickets can be purchased on The Roxie Theater website.

NEW FILM — VANITÀ
We have have finished post production on a new film — VANITÀ. This film is the third installment in our Poetry of Penance project, which uses magical realism to explore themes related to resilience and self-acceptance. VANITÀ was partly inspired by the historical tradition of Vanitas painting. The film explores topics related to obsessive compulsive behavior, notions of self-image, and destructive behaviors relating to vanity. More information can be found on the project website
 

WEST COAST MOVE
Kevin Pontuti’s new appointment as director of the Media X program at University of the Pacific in Stockton, California starts July 1. Read the press release here.

Pescare Essay by Kevin Pontuti

Richness in Austerity and Cleansing with Blood: the Roots of Visual Imagery in Kevin Pontuti’s Pescare

By Sarah Diebel, PhD

May 15, 2017

Pescare, 2016, film still by Kevin Pontuti

Pescare, 2016, film still by Kevin Pontuti

In Kevin Pontuti’s Pescare, a rich visual poem that maintains a patient focus on the starkly repetitive motion of a woman gutting fish, the long tradition of still life painting is captivatingly brought to animation.  The contradiction inherent in that thought is mediated by the length of the film maker’s gaze which lingers on a simple action, and allows the viewer to regard at length the details of texture, color, light, and mood.  The last frames of the film finally resolve the scene into true still life, when the woman, in whose work we have become absorbed, leaves the scene and the viewer is left alone to contemplate- in Baroque lighting- the fish, their viscera, the knife, the stone slab, the silence, and the sudden absence of human presence. The film, in essence, fulfills an absent action that precedes and follows the scenes we see in paintings (Figure 1), and by doing so deepens the possibilities for both meaning and ambiguity.  

Fig 1. Goya, Still Life with Golden Bream, 1808

Fig 1. Goya, Still Life with Golden Bream, 1808

In Pontuti’s austere light the silver-skinned fish gleam in the darkness, but the image is unlike the plump, intact bream in Goya’s painting, which are presented straightforwardly, in a matter of fact pile.  Pontuti’s animated “still life” shows us not only fish, but also their preparation.  But the real focus is on the hands performing the action.  Those hands progress from clean to increasingly bloody as the work continues. The viewer is spared neither the gore nor the woman’s mild distaste of her task.  Painters have not typically turned their attention to the bloody process of evisceration, but rather to the before and after states, as in Goya or in the still lives of Pieter Claesz (Figures 2 and 3), where elegantly dissected fish have been gently poached and are offered invitingly with capers and lemon. 

Fig 2. Peter Claesz, Still Life with Fish, 17th century

Fig 2. Peter Claesz, Still Life with Fish, 17th century

Fig 3. Pieter Claesz, Still Life with Herring, Wine and Bread, 17th Century

Fig 3. Pieter Claesz, Still Life with Herring, Wine and Bread, 17th Century

Knives are present in these scenes too, but only for the pleasant task of consuming the feast, and there is no echo of the visceral and violent action of gutting fish. Pontuti’s consideration, though, ends with the gutted fish without suggesting the sensual pleasures of cooking or consuming. This abrupt conclusion removes the woman’s action from the realm of mundane activity, and suggests that the patient act itself is the purpose, and is the justification for the camera to focus our attention on it.  The bloody hands, then, take on greater significance, suggesting guilt, vengence and patient penance at the same time.

In Pescare’s dark, confined setting with its stark, Baroque light the woman’s long red hair balances the dark red viscera that stains her hands. This austere mingling of blood and beauty in the cell-like setting suggests the Christian balance of sin and salvation.  And the fish the woman manipulates can, ironically, also suggest both states. This is borne out in the imagery of art where, for instance, at the very bottom of the extraordinary Garden of Earthly Delights (Figure 4) by Hieronymous Bosch, a strange

Fig 4. Hieronymous Bosch, Garden of Earthly Delights (det.), 1510

Fig 4. Hieronymous Bosch, Garden of Earthly Delights (det.), 1510

vision of wanton and sinful humanity, lies an enormous fish with a huge, cloudy eye that stares out at the viewer.  The cloudiness in the eye means this fish is no longer fresh. It is already physically corrupting just as the earthly sinners surrounding it and caressing it are morally corrupt.  But balancing this image of corruption is a much longer and stronger salvific tradition of the fish in Christian imagery (Figure 5). Linked with the very name of Christ and with his earliest miracles, the fish in Christian iconography and imagery is a symbol of hope and redemption. 

Fig 5. Early Christian Fish mosaic (c. 3rd century AD)

Fig 5. Early Christian Fish mosaic (c. 3rd century AD)

In Pescare, the fish that are flashing in the darkness, and that are the focus of penitential action are also the vehicle of salvation, but it is a salvation gained only through the intense contemplation of her past.  In this way Pontuti’s image of the woman at work also links to the earlier tradition of painting, though it veers in a darker direction. In the Baroque tradition of genre scenes, market and kitchen maids were popular fare, and while some are portrayed straightforwardly, as in Adriaen van Ostade’s Fishwife (Figure 6), in many an underlying theme is the freshness and availability of the young woman, who is shown as equally delectable as her wares, and as equally available to the buyer (or the viewer).

Fig 6. Adriaen van Ostade, The Fishwife, 1673

Fig 6. Adriaen van Ostade, The Fishwife, 1673

In a painting like Vincenzo Campi’s The Fruit Seller (Figure 7), the blushing round cheeks of the girl reflect the soft, flesh-toned skin of the peaches that fill her lap, and the abundance of perfectly ripe fruit hints at the Biblical temptation and its consequences for all mankind.  This link between the sensuous enjoyment of foodstuffs, and the potential (perhaps probable) enjoyment of the maid who serves them, can be made more apparent in works like Vincenzo Campi’s The Cheese Eaters (Figure 8), where the mound of fresh cheese is, in effect, a surrogate for the girl’s rosy cheeks and bulging breasts. 

Fig 7. Vincenzo Campi, The Fruit Seller, c.1580

Fig 7. Vincenzo Campi, The Fruit Seller, c.1580

Fig 8. Vincenzo Campi, The Cheese Eaters, c.1580

Fig 8. Vincenzo Campi, The Cheese Eaters, c.1580

Here also, the uncouth nature of the men, who shovel the cheese toward their mouths in large, greedy spoonfuls, suggests a brutishness in their nature, and in the nature of their intentions toward the girl.  

In Pescare the woman’s preoccupation with the fish and her task offers a similar potential to suggest her past availability to men.  Here, though, the lightness of the genre scenes is replaced with a stark austerity that addresses the woman’s own feelings in a way the genre scenes never do.  In the Baroque paintings, targeted toward the male viewer, the girls are always outwardly cheerful and inviting. In Pontuti’s scene it is the woman’s inner life that matters, and it is not her availability to men, but her exploitation by men, that is revealed through her task. And in her revulsion, and yet in her steadiness in completing that task, her feelings and her fortitude are revealed.  Exploitation and abuse by the powerful is certainly addressed in the earlier visual tradition, as in an extraordinary print after Pieter Breugel, title Big Fish Eat Little Fish (Figure 9).  Here a monstrously large fish lies on shore while a small man with a huge knife slices open its belly.

Fig 9. Pieter van der Heyden, after Pieter Bruegel, Big Fish Eat Little Fish, 1557

Fig 9. Pieter van der Heyden, after Pieter Bruegel, Big Fish Eat Little Fish, 1557

It disgorges smaller fish from both mouth and gut, and in turn those disgorged fish give up still smaller fish.  Bruegel’s moral is a sobering one, suggesting all humanity are prepared to prey upon those in a weaker or lower condition than themselves.  In the act of gutting the fish, opening it to the light, this exploitation is revealed. But in Bruegel’s print the image we are left to contemplate is the grossness of human nature and human failure, while in Pescare, the scene has a resolution, though a bloody one, that is both revealing of the woman’s past, and empowering for her future. She addresses her past and her bloody task with directness.  And in that increasingly matter-of-fact approach, she resembles the Judith of Artemisia Gentilleschi (Figure 10), who calmly but determinedly slices off the head of Holofernes.  Pescare’s exploration and resolution of the sins of the past is quieter in tone, but no less deeply conveyed.  

Fig 10. Artemisia Gentileschi, Judith and Holofernes, c.1612

Fig 10. Artemisia Gentileschi, Judith and Holofernes, c.1612

Sarah Diebel is a writer, art historian and professor at University of Wisconsin—Stout. She received her Ph D from Rutgers University and specializes in Italian Renaissance Studies.