Redemption and Transformation: The Imagery of Kevin Pontuti’s VANITÀ
By Sarah Diebel, PhD
October 15, 2017
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.