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Cultural Observations

Memento Mori, the skull in contemporary art

by Mireille Bourgeois, originally written October 2007

The popular symbolism of the skull in the culture of pop, neo-gothic, youth, indie, and gang body art, share a common representation of a personal or collective freedom from parental oppression, mass media influences, and political agendas.[1] Though the images of skulls and skeletons have been over consumed and are now regarded as cheeky emblems of false fear of death and dying/ghosts and goblins, it remains a powerful icon in the pictorial arts recalling roots of the classic representation of personal macabre.

hamlet

Well known imagery of the skull and skeleton can be seen in Shakespear’s Hamlet who allowed the skull to speak of the reminder of life, that which exists in memory. This also spoke to the concept of the 16th and 17th century depiction of the Vanitas, emblematic of “time” especially apparent in All is Vanity by Allan Gilbert. Benjamin Buchloh said of Mexican artist José Guadalupe Posada’s significant illustrations and lithographs “Allegorical perhaps also in his leveling of all class along the axis of death”[2] because of Posada’s use of the skull as a way of stripping the human of what defines him. The skull and skeleton is attributed a multitude of meanings in art aside from the above, depending on the context of the use; political satire in caricature, anthropological sculptures, religious or folkloric icons, cultural associations such as the Mexican Day of the dead. The icon has also appeared in empirical themes irrevocably tied to it such as; premonition of the death of others, or of one’s own, a fear of the tragedy, deceit, and sacrifice. In the same vein, the symbolism of the skull and skeleton allows the artists to indulge in a subject reminiscent of associations to poetry and the epic tragedy of the hero[3]. It could be suggested that the symbol has been revived in a fit of romantic contemplation of such legendary notions of love and death, if it weren’t for the fact that the skull and skeleton has not reappeared suddenly, but instead has continuously been depicted in a multitude of artwork separated by generations, art mediums and concept. Despite the weight of past artworks, there is curiosity about why the skull and skeleton still insists a haunting presence in contemporary artist’s work.

Three separate thematic exhibitions with variations of the skull and skeleton have appeared in NYC this month. Fabien Verschaere, a contemporary French artist is known for his representational use of skulls in his watercolor and marker paintings, drawings, and ceramic sculptures. Recently at the Brooklyn Parker’s Box, the artist showed his latest work, depicting a series, which evoked memory of the childhood nightmare. Verschaere’s style implies an otherworldly folkloric tale, questioning the universe that surrounds him often using scenes of the ritualistic, common to the symbolism of the skull, also recalling Posada’s concept of the satirical. It is almost impossible to separate the work’s suggestion of a dark autobiographical tale. When Verschaere says this of his art “There is nothing literal in my work, no target, no precise message- it’s just a proposition about existence”[4] one can assume he is questioning his own existence.

The well-received curated exhibition I Am As You Will Be, The Skeleton in Art at the Cheim & Read gallery in Chelsea combines iconic artworks from Picasso, Alice Neel, James Ensor, Francis Alys, Louise Bourgeois, Sherrie Levine, Sigmar Polke, and Andy Warhol, among other artists. In using the symbol of the skull and skeleton, these artists do not only ask us to contemplate our death and imagine the depth that this carries, but strongly suggest that death itself is on their minds. There is a strong vulnerability exposed when this symbol is used. One may attempt an analysis of the artist through interpreting a symbol that is as familiar as the skull and the skeleton; it is a most personal representation, and therefore remains challenging to interpret the exact meaning of the use of the abstract icon.

Though the skull is seen in the artists’ work, it’s important to notice that these pieces are mostly found as a single or very few pieces, and not necessarily a running theme through the artist’s body of work. The single representation of the artist’s skull or skeleton, can symbolize an epiphanic experience, one that shows a starker side or a visioning of the artist’s inner sight of him/herself. The varied artwork in this exhibition is tied together by this idea. The rarities of the singular depiction of a skull or skeleton in this case can be taken as meditations on the self-portrait.

Skull 1988, printed 1990 by Robert Mapplethorpe 1946-1989

Robert Mapplethorpe, The Skull

Another exhibition featuring the symbolic skull is at the Dinter Art Gallery in Chelsea entitled Death & Love in Modern Times. Featuring Michael Byron, Billy Copley, David Dupuis, Dan Fischer, Rico Gaston, Tomoo Gokita, Leon Golub, George Horner, Peter Hujar, Daniel Johnston among other artists, the group exhibition falls a little short from its counterpart, because of a shallow focus on the simple depiction of the skull in artworks, without connecting one work to another in reference to it’s deeper significance. Though reviews have been positive, it’s possible that this exhibition shows a lack of understanding in the theme and symbolism of the subject. The small space used for the volume of artwork did not allow for proper contemplation in the magnitude of the work.

The artist’s need to exist forever, and the eternal life within his/her work is a significant theme in the portrayal of the skull and skeleton in contemporary art. Though looking inwards is important to find one’s own concept of life and death, it is also necessary to look outwards, as the skull can also become an emblem for something much bigger than the self, which can speak for all humans.[5] An example of this is in Robert Mapplethorpe’s The Skull, which eerily pointed to his own disintegrating health due to AIDS and is part of an important mid-80’s roster of artists speaking to this issue through the use of skull and skeleton imagery. The menace of death is always near with constant threats of violence and crime, of self-annihilation and of disease, also of natural and war-induced devastation. There is however the inherent nature of the symbol of the skull and skeleton, that in depicting death, one also speaks to life as in; Memento Mori, which warns “remember that you are mortal”, an abiding human thought no matter the generation.


[1] http://www.designboom.com/history/death.html, Skull Symbol, by Arash Vahdati, June 23rd 2006

[2] Benjamin H.D. Buchloh, Refuse and refuge, Publisher; The Kanaal Art Foundation, Kortrijk,

[3] Plato, Republic II, 376c-III, 402c and Republic X, 595a-608b

[4] http://www.frenchculture.org/index.cfm?genre_id=1&sub_genre_ID=8&page_id=1226&sub_page_genre_id=0, The world of French culture in the USA, short review on exhibition.

5 http://www.designboom.com/history/death.html, Death’s Head Symbol, Robert Mapplethorpe

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