Vanities past and present

From 27 November 2021 to 7 May 2022, at the Musée des Beaux-arts (Museum of Fine Arts ), artists through the ages raise questions about precious life and its inevitable end … 

 Archives | Last updated date : 10/05/2022

Vanity (Latin vanitas) - Larousse Dictionnary.
‘Vanitas’, a term used to describe a type of still-life artwork, is related to the word ‘vanity’, in the sense of ‘worthlessness’. 

Created against the backdrop of the current pandemic, this exhibition presents the way in which artists have depicted death over the centuries. 

From the Danse Macabre (or ‘Dance of Death’) and other triumphs of death from the Middle Ages to the sixteenth century – a period of ever-present death marked by plague, famine and war – there is a gradual transition to the different vision offered by genre painting, which evokes the different stages of life. Then, there were the highly refined and symbolic still-life paintings of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Right up to the animals and skulls that are frequently seen in contemporary artworks (at a time when death remains taboo), artists from all periods and parts of the world question death and express their vision of it, based on life. 

While representations vary greatly, artworks always show a stylistic pursuit and sometimes even a truly anatomical approach. They reflect the ways in which artists think about and deal with this question, which sometimes includes humour.

One of the most interesting features of this exhibition is the way in which it places artworks from different periods and continents side by side.

Some artists depict the excesses of life – games, feasts, and vice – showing how they affect health and bring the end closer. Others criticize the vanity of the sciences and arts, which cannot save scholars, authors and musicians from their inescapable end, through still-life paintings where symbols remind us of the transience of human existence. Such as this pure young girl, with her crown of wild flowers and wilting bouquet, with a broken stem, a faded flower… Everything subtly evokes youth’s brevity and fragility, and death… 

Over the course of a trail that includes ten themes, this fascinating exhibition presents numerous works that have never been exhibited, or have not been displayed for a number of years.

It is suitable for children. A booklet-game is provided for them.

One not to be missed.

The ten themes along the exhibition trail

The various sections of the exhibition invite us to question the meaning of existence and time's passing, as well as the vanity of human aspirations to transcend temporal limits, and present the artists’ celebration of the fragility and beauty of life.

  • Entrez dans la danse ! (Enter the dance)
  • Les âges de la vie (Stages of life)
  • Fragile jeunesse (Fragile youth)
  • Vanité des vanités (Vanity of vanities)
  • Vanité des arts et des savoirs (Vanity of the arts and knowledge)
  • Méditations (Meditations)
  • Des plaisirs qui partent en fumée (Pleasures that go up in smoke)
  • L’absente de tous bouquets
  • La vie précieuse (Precious life)
  • Le miroir animal (The animal mirror)

Nearly 160 prints, engravings, paintings, sculptures and installations from the late Middle Ages to contemporary art help understand artists' meditation on the finitude of human existence, ponder the meaning of life or the passage of time, and admire artists' celebration of the beauty of life over the centuries.

This exhibition is organized in the frame of Lyon's art museums hub, which draws together the museum of Fine Arts (MBA) and the Museum of Contemporary Art (macLYON) since 2018.

Admission to the museum and this exhibition is included in the Lyon City Card.

Mandatory sanitary pass to enter the museum.

Around the exhibition…

  • Two evenings 
    - Luxury, slam and voluptuousness on Friday 3 December 2021, from 6 pm to 10 pm
    - Annual Ball with the choreographer Joana Schweizer, on Friday 7 January 2022 from 6 pm to 10 pm. 
  • A special weekend around the exhibition (date to be determined). 


Isabelle, our editor born and bred in Lyon! She was born in Sainte-Foy-lès-Lyon in fact, studied in Lyon and now lives here. Territorial? Absolutely not! She loves travelling, widening her horizons, meeting new people and enjoys a change of scenery (without snow, if possible). Isabelle is curious and a people person, two attributes that often go hand in hand! Her favourite colour is green and her motto "a day without laughter is a day wasted!" 

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