Before becoming art, visual images were an instrument by which human beings attempted to domesticate nature. On behalf of magic, religion or science, western man used images - visual reproductions - as a means to either exorcise the demons, implore the gods or to understand the world that surrounded them and ultimately to dominate it.
Represented images are necessarily selective and hierarchical, and, therefore, incomplete: they emphasize certain aspects of reality, hide others, and create an artificial set of values that stand between man and the world as a screen: they discover and obscure at the same time. Only certain images of the world are projected on the screen, but they are seen as if they were a totality, while the screen, itself, hides at the same time that it illuminates.
Truth is always in shadow and if a sector is illuminated, the shadows move to another place.
But art pretention is even greater since it aims to develop a superior reality, real but intangible, visual but invisible, material and spiritual at the same time. That is so because art attempts to recreate reality through form, and it is, therefore, founded in art itself and not in the world which it tries to represent.
Even when the stated purpose of art was to be an open window to reality (which each period defined differently), it was always sustained by a system of conventions, well known to members of the group to which it was directed.
Form is the instrument by means of which the artistic work refers the spectator to areas that are outside its frame, to immaculate strata, clean of brushwork layers and paint, and covering with nostalgia the abyss between them.
Of all pictorial genres, Still Life was considered to be the one of the lowest hierarchy, at least until the 16th century. Unlike other pictorial genres that were meant to be a faithful representation of something external and independent of the same work, Still Lives represented natural or manufactured objects already domesticated and intentionally arranged.
The obvious distance between the natural environment of objects and their intentional organization - the stage scene of the picture - adds a new reference angle, it turns the attention of the spectator towards intentionality.
The greater the attempt to resemble reality, the more the picture differs from the reality it tries to represent. It becomes more pictorial and more aware of its artificial condition.
The "Vanitas" ("...vanity of vanities, all is vanity...") is a Still Life sub-genre, a memory aid whose role is to remind the spectator how fictitious is the human pretension to control the world and conquer the future. It points out how superfluous material things are, how transitional beauty is, how fleeting time is and how inevitable death is. The iconography of this type of art contains skulls, the sweet aroma of flowers and fruits in the peak of their maturity just before their inevitable putrefaction, extinguished candles, clocks and such devices.
During the 20th century, especially in its second behalf, a Vanitas of another type developed, a less dramatic, almost funny, more secular with a new decadent flavor. We find here a world made of images, hyped by the technologies of their diffusion – advertising billboards, cinema, TV and computer screens – that show us how to dress and behave, what to eat and where we should go in order to be.
The image world is now the real one and the daily life will try (must try) to look like it.
Those artifices, colorful and unrecyclable, cover our eyes like contact lenses. The mediated images act as an imaginary defense against natural forces and social change process: moulds and models, institutes never aging images of consumption, standardized and interchangeable as they are.
These images have been signed and elevated to the field of fine arts by Pop Art, closing the circle by which a society based essentially on marketing and consumption has managed to install merchandise as a unique object of a monotheistic "worship" in a way that unifite elite and masses as members of an apparent collective.
These images are artificial but not virtual since their eternal synthetic youth – and the massive diffusion of their invasive and imperishable beauty – aims to flatten the profound differences between individuals, between classes and between cultures for the sake of a similar appearance, for the sake of a similarity that is only apparent.