Vanitas and Milton's Paradise Lost Print Series
At first glance, the Vanitas prints look back to the mid 19th century - the world of Baudelaire's Les Fleurs du Mal, and the paintings of Henri Fantin-Latour or even 17th century Holland. Yet the Vanitas prints emerged from contemporary technical experiments.
John Phillips' prints combine photographic and digital techniques with the manipulation of light. His print series 'Vanitas' is the culmination of recent experimental work in his studio. Each of the Vanitas images is a technical tour de force, in which the artist combines up to 1400 image components to imbue his subjects with an eerie hyper-reality. Early prints from the series roused public interest and Phillips’s Vanitas XVII sold out at the 2016 London's Royal Academy Summer exhibition.
All prints in this show, some large scale, some small, reflect Phillips' current subject of discarded flowers.
John Phillips says 'Much of the photography I've done has had a very strong social subject. I wanted to move away to give myself a simple stage in which I could experiment, so I retreated into the studio. I used flowers partly because of the feedback from other people. People seem to gravitate towards flowers. I've never made images that resonated with so many people - from different backgrounds. Strangely, while I have moved away from social subjects, I have been gravitating towards a social response.
I'm an image maker and I use different processes to construct images. The changes happening technologically - camera and phone merging, mean that photographic images - often of trivia - are present in everybody's life and I wanted to explore the possibilities of the new technology. I wanted to make images that are arresting - so many photographic images have become trivialised. The Vanitas prints seek to reclaim the discarded and overlooked, and reference a tradition of Western genre painting. Still life and its metaphorical meaning nature morte is the theme of Vanitas, redolent with fading beauty and mortality.
There's a conundrum - visually, these prints look like paintings but actually they are photographs with a hyper real quality. The flowers are dead but alive; the colours have been manipulated - the flowers have faded but the colour has been intensified. There is a series of polarities. You can ask questions about the images, but they remain visual puzzles. '
The 'Paradise Lost' print series is from flowers taken from the garden of the poet Milton's cottage. Phillips was particularly inspired by Milton's writing on loss - from Paradise Lost to Milton's loss of sight.
For his prints celebrating Miltons Paradise Lost, John Phillips has created a series of 'Vanitas' images, each hinting at or confronting loss. All but one image features flowers. Using his extraordinary photographic technique, and working through hundreds of different stages, Phillips has built up his images to embrace the range of colours, light, dense detail, and masqued allusions that reference the 17th century Vanitas paintings created by Dutch and English masters when Milton was writing.
Vanitas themes in Art History
'Vanitas' (the Latin term for vanity) was a genre common in Holland and Flanders in the first half of the seventeenth century. Vanitas paintings are often an appreciation of everyday household objects, or fruit and flowers. These apparently simple subjects give rise to a comparison with vain and futile human ambitions. The genre may have been inspired by a phrase from the Bible:- Vanity of vanities; all is vanity. 'Vanitas vanitatum omnia vanitas' from Latin, vanitas- may equally be translated as 'futility'. Ecclesiastes 1.
More information from londonprintstudio