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Skulls and the Art of Vanitas: A Macabre Revival

  • 3 min read

As the streets begin to fill with plastic pumpkins, polyester cobwebs and trick-or-treaters we have noticed a trend in skull imagery in our collection of limited edition prints. As well as being a Halloween favourite, these skulls suggest that an interesting revival of a historic art genre is taking place in contemporary art...

Vanitas art is an intriguing and macabre genre which features objects rich in morbid symbolism in order to produce in the viewer’s mind an acute awareness of the brevity of life and the inevitability of death. Skulls, hourglasses, extinguished candles, insects and rotting fruit, are amongst the common motifs that refer to the evanescence of existence.

It is a genre of still-life painting that flourished in the Netherlands and Northern Europe in the mid to late 17th century. Vanitas themes originated from medieval funerary art and evolved from simple pictures of skulls that were frequently painted on the reverse of portraits during the late Renaissance. Following devastating outbreaks of the Black Death in Europe, art became increasingly focused upon death and decay.

Vanitas, 1628, Heda, Willem Claesz (1594-1680) / Haags Gemeentemuseum, The Hague, Netherlands

The origins of the term date back to the Latin biblical aphorism ‘vantias vanitatum omnia vanitas’ (Ecclesiates 1:2), ‘Vanity of vanities; all is vanity’. In this sense of the word vanity means both ‘empty’ and ‘frivolous’ and refers to the meaningless of earthly life.

In the Vanitas tradition of the 17th century, skull paintings were considered to be both beautiful objects and works of spiritual contemplation. They represented the fleetingness of earthly pleasure in the face of unavoidable death. Since Damien Hirst’s diamond studded skull memento mori, ‘For the Love of God’ (2007) hit the headlines there has been an influx of artists returning to the Vanitas theme and the skull motif in particular.

Trafford Parsons has produced several striking skull prints. Pink Skull –Study shows how a contemporary artist has approached the Vanitas genre with the aid of modern technology. The image is taken from the CAT scan of a living person rather than an image of a dead skull. Magnus Gjoen similarly uses digital technology to build his beautiful delft skull prints. To create Delft Skull Descent of an Angel and Delft Skull Angels of Light & Dark, Gjoen built a virtual 3D base and then meticulously shadowed and highlighted in Photoshop original flat etchings onto the ‘moulds’, layering and blurring in a lengthy process to create the final effect.

Tom French produced an entire series of emotive skull images, including work such as Allusions. He has been described as “a master of mixing the macabre with the saccharine” because of the incredible skull illusions he creates by blending monochromatic, romantic figures. He hides the image of a couple within the eyes of a skull, perhaps suggesting the brevity and emptiness of human relationships.

New artist to artrepublic LG White explained her interest in skull imagery in an interview as “Vanitas... my muse and fear for human beings.” Her Captain America print brilliantly combines Vanitas with Pop art. Good Hope & Luck also explore the theme of mortality in their crisp and colourful work. They have said that Death Do Us Part “could be described as dark or morbid but really it is an expression of life, beauty and the inevitable... Tick Tock, Tick Tock.” Both prints are contemporary explorations of the evanescence of existence.

It appears artists are reinventing 17th century Vanitas, not just for Halloween, but to contemplate the beauty and brevity of existence. And, with the prevailing culture of materialism and disposability in modern life, it seems as relevant today as ever before. Happy Halloween!

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