Rocío de la Villa

«Marina Núñez, Vanitas»

«Vanitas», Ed. Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, 2021, pp. 1-120


«Untitled (sinister)», works from 1993 and 1994


In her early days, Marina Núñez painted still lifes on tablecloths and linen napkins. Some of them alluded to iconic female representations in the history of painting, such as Flora in Botticelli’s Primavera, or the intertwined hands of The Three Graces. She belongs to the generation of the 1990s, in which many young artists nourished their creative activity with critical theory readings. The influence of these readings provoked the irruption of gynocriticism in Spain.  Núñez recalls her motivation for those early works: “I painted flower paintings because of the feminist critical theory essays, which in those years I was beginning to read, that revealed to me that men were allowed to make heroic paintings, with their half-naked protagonists, and women, without access to academies and other obstacles were left with painting flowers.” In the history of art, the link between women artists and a genre considered minor, such as still lifes with flowers, was expressive of the devaluation of women and nature since the modern age, when men were identified with rationality (action and progress) and women with nature (objectified and primitive). Marina Núñez declared her feminist position by replacing the canvas mounted on a stretcher with old embroidered tablecloths. She thereby also replaced the critical theory that abounded in the erroneous distinction that arose during modernity between art and handicrafts, which, once again reaffirmed after the historical avant-gardes, had betrayed the longed-for union of art and life.


Later she painted other tablecloths and napkins in oval formats but with surrealist references that were read as sinister. In fact, the aesthetics of the sinister, which already impregnated some motifs, very soon took over the production of Marina Núñez, who in the mid-nineties focused on the iconography of Charcot’s study of hysterics. And from there, to the definitive impact on her work of Donna J. Haraway’s theory of cyborgs. Throughout two decades, her images of female-becomings located in architectures and fantastic landscapes have multiplied.  While developed in 3D technology, these works are always interspersed with an imaginary that continues the dialogue between art history and the representation of fluid women, her heroines. In her latest works, unfathomable holes attract these heroines with their gravitational force towards geological adventures, claiming the unity between humanity and its place, the Earth. We perceive today, that the survival of Earth (along with our own) is threatened with death in the face of the climate crisis (and eventual successive pandemics as a result of overexploitation).


It is not strange that Marina Núñez has returned to the representation of still lifes and vanitas from an ecofeminist position, with Haraway as one of her main referents in the dystopian horizon of the extinction of human beings and of our planet. In Staying with the Problem, Haraway presents her ironic and provocative notion of the Chthulucene, as “the utopia of a new alliance between species that organizes itself to revitalize a planet devastated by patriarchal capitalism” (in Paul B. Preciado’s synthesis). A symbiosis between humans and other living beings that require sim-poiesis, or making-with, rather than auto-poiesis, or self-making. Haraway imagines genealogies of kin (metamorphosis of becoming-women) in the Sisyphean but optimistic task of respons-ability to safeguard Life. Science fiction stories, a genre called SF, an acronym, as the philosopher emphasizes, “string figures, scientific facts, science fiction, speculative feminism, speculative fabulation, and so far,”, in which she highlights her inspiration in another author also very dear to Marina Núñez: Ursula K. Le Guin. In The Left Hand of Darkness, 1969, the author already formulated her narrative on the synthesis between opposites, which are reproduced at all levels of representation and of the represented. In the story that serves as an inspiration for Haraway, “’The Author of the Acacia Seeds’ and Other Extracts from the Journal of the Association of Therolinguistics”, 1974 Le Guin having first pondered about whether “art is communication” speculated on the future discovery of “plant art”. Plant art, according to the president of the Zoolinguists, is “probably an art without movement. It is possible that Time, that essential element, matrix and parameter of all known animal art, does not necessarily participate in plant art. Plants may well use a compass whose model is eternity. It is something we do not know.”  This he argues in a harangue before the challenge of opening the way to a future “geolinguist, who, ignoring, almost despising, the delicate transition to the lichen lyric, will want to apprehend languages even less communicative, even more passive, entirely timeless: the cold and volcanic poetry of the rocks, each of which will be a word launched by the earth from immemorial times, in the immense solitude, immense fellowship of the cosmos”. I believe that this imaginary “of the prose of the acacia seeds and the lyric of the lichens that give rise to the mute poetics of the rocks” (in Haraway’s summary) is the adequate framework to understand the topography of Marina Núñez’s poetics. And in a reversing of her process, a transition from her last “geological” stage to her current “botanical” series, which do not lack the epic fights and failures present in the “tentacular thought” that cross the stages of the Anthropocene, Capitalocene, and Chthulucene of the ecofeminist philosopher. That epic struggle, in synthesis, is what Marina Núñez presents in this exhibition entitled Vanitas, which today as yesterday signifies the ephemeral and banal nature of human life and the fragility of existence.



In a wide array of multidisciplinary work, Vanitas brings together some fifteen pieces: videos, drawings on printed wood and laser-etched glass pieces, most of them unpublished and created for this exhibition. And, exceptionally unusual in the recent years of Marina Núñez’s production, are three oil paintings made during the months of confinement due to the COVID19 pandemic. These pieces have been distributed throughout the Thyssen’s exhibition hall as interventions alongside works from the museum’s permanent collection.


«Nature (island)», «Nature (mountain)», «Nature (mangrove)», 2019, single-channel video, sound, 2´
«Vanitas (2)», 2019, single-channel video, sound, 1´22´´ (music: Luis de la Torre)

If we were to follow a narrative reading, in the exhibition hall we would have a story of what has befallen and of will become, represented as fights and duels. The Nature videos (Island, Mangrove, Mountain) allude to our colonial past, with their rococo vases containing idyllic, coveted, and lost landscapes. Once rationalism became the established underpinning and after the scientific revolution, which promoted the optimism of progress in human mastery of nature, our Western civilization spread across the face of the Earth to exploit both raw materials and the “savages” of other ethnicities and cultures. However, in these works the life of nature ends up overcoming greed, overcoming vain ornamentation. The other combat takes place in the 3D video, Vanitas. The busts of masculine and feminine liquid identities, facing off in confrontation, end up dissolving in the emergence of plants that arise from the same elemental matter as the busts, a material like the mineral kaolin on our planet.


«Swell (3)», 2020, pencil and print on wood (DM), 110×160 cm
«Flower painting (rose)», 2020, oil on canvas, 112×94 cm

In the large panels, Marejadas (Swells) float in the emptiness of their roots, but still without finding the links to their undulating spurs in search of the rhizome that all living beings share. But in the paintings, among the veiled mourning faces where irises, roses, and lilies appear, uncertainty and regret abound about and for the survival of nature that affects us today. Perhaps the dynamics of veils, of appearing and disappearing, is one of the iconic motifs most present in Marina Núñez’s career, which required a transition from painting to video to be able to represent the fluidity of the processes of metamorphosis and transformation.



For her interventions in the museum’s collection, Marina Núñez has created 3 Heroic Flowers videos that dialogue with some of the most beautiful paintings in the rooms of classic paintings. Perhaps the intervention in a classical museum is one of the most attractive challenges for contemporary artists whose artistic background is grounded in the immediacy of contemplating works in cathedrals and museums. In Spain, this means being familiar since childhood with northern European paintings from the International Gothic style to Renaissance or Baroque art.


«Heroic flowers (lilies)», 2021,  single-channel video, sound, 1´48´´ (music: Luis de la Torre)

Irises, roses, and lilies are flowers assigned a clear symbolism in our artistic tradition. For Heroic Flowers (Lilies) the artist has chosen one of the earliest still lifes in the history of painting. Dated ca. 1485, The Vase is on the reverse side of Hans Memling’s Portrait of a Young Man Praying. The still life emphasizes the faith and devotion of the praying man, as Mar Borobia explains, “the ceramic, a Majolica piece, bears on its front the monogram of Christ, and the flowers relate to the Virgin: the lilies allude to her purity, the irises symbolize Mary as Queen of Heaven and her role as Mater Dolorosa during the Passion, and, finally, the tiny columbine flowers are associated with the Holy Spirit.” The contrast between the balanced and serene floral composition of the panel painting contrasts with the romantic convulsion of the explosion of the heroic lilies in flames: a fire that resists the onslaught of turbulent waves, until its restitution.


«Heroic flowers (iris/rose)», 2021,  single-channel video, sound, 1´20´´ (music: Luis de la Torre)

The combat between the violet iris (spirit, religiosity) and the yellow rose (love, joy) opens up other interpretations of the Annunciation, from ca. 1520, by Jan de Beer, a composition that has in the center a vase with flowers, among which we find the irises. The painting is accompanied in the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum exhibition room by the Birth of the Virgin. It is believed that both paintings belonged to a larger set of episodes that narrated the life of Mary, in which she was humanized as a woman and mother. Body and spirit are celebrated in these works, as one of the mysteries whose acceptance demonstrates the Christian faith. However, as a cultural image, there is no doubt about the persuasive power of the model of Mary for men and, especially, for flesh and blood women, who are avenged on this occasion, as the end of the animation seems to propose.


«Heroic flowers (rose)», 2021,  single-channel video, sound, 1´43´´ (music: Luis de la Torre)

In the West, for centuries, faced with the exemplary figure of purity and compliance with the imposition of the (patriarchal) Father of Mary, there has always been the counter-model of the carnal and sexual woman. She is the protagonist in Paris Bordone’s Portrait of a Young Woman, ca. 1543-1550. As Mar Borobia describes, “the young woman shows in the palm of her other hand two roses that probably come from the delicate container with sculpted satyrs”, together with the fruits that the protagonist feeds the monkey chained next to her, reiterating the symbolism of vice and the lust that is already quite explicit in the very figure of the “girl dressed in rich fabrics and a very wide neckline that reveals her breasts.” All in all, a scene that recreates the vanity of the woman with an easy and luxurious life, sought by men, but without ties or servitude beyond the performance of her sexual role. Centuries later, the courtesan would be called femme fatale, because of the perversity that, for some men, typified the increasingly independent modern women. Marina Núñez’s Heroic Rose, however, maintains an inner fight, from which she tries to get rid of the many disguises, energetically expelling them until exhaustion and her subsequent “resurrection” (finally, free). The girl is almost a child, as naïve and fresh as the rose before the vicissitudes that await her.


«Portrait (1)», «Portrait (2)», 2020, crystal laser engraving, led light base, 20x10x10 cm

Is this account of Vanitas, then, on the whole, a certain amorous discourse? The last two interventions are located next to two betrothal portraits. For the occasion, the Self-Portrait by Joos van Cleve and to its right, as marked by the tradition of these pendants, the Portrait of a Woman by an anonymous German, have been brought together. (Possibly “Anonymous was a woman”, as Virginia Woolf said was the case “in most of history”) In any case, from this forced marriage we know that both are contracting parties because they hold a flower in their hands. The young woman holds a rosary and a bouquet with white and red petals. He, a carnation, which is a symbol of fidelity. In the adjacent version by Marina Núñez, her Portraits in cut-glass are reduced to the innervations that form a hand-tree. The figure of desire in this continuum seems to fulfill, as in a frozen instant, the dream of jouissance, the complete union with (beloved) nature.