Ever since Hamlet cradled poor Yorick’s remains, the skull has served as a reminder of death – a prop that is its own propaganda. And long before Paul Cezanne surrounded it with pretty peaches, an entire Dutch art movement – Vanitas – arose around its gloomier meanings.
In the 1600s, such artists as Adriaen van Utrecht would ominously insert a skull into a still life, a Baroque reminder that all things come to an end. In those times, death’s presence permeated everyday life: the average life expectancy in the developed world was 36 years. Today, as we expect to live into our eighties, and watch horror films for fun, Damien Hirst can get away with making For the Love of God, an ostentatious statement on earthly riches conquering mortality.
Unveiled in 2007, his modern, diamond-encrusted memento mori went on the market for £50 million, and was instantly and generously lampooned. Among those taking aim at Hirst, Peter Fuss would unveil For the Laugh of God (above right) with a much more affordable price tag of £1,000.
In the 1900s, Antoni Gaudí also saw beauty in bones, masterfully translating his Baroque and neo-Gothic sensibility into stunning architecture. To this day, his inimitable buildings captivate. Gaudí was known for turning to organic structures for inspiration, and has been widely quoted as saying that there is “no better structure than the trunk of a tree or a human skeleton.” In Barcelona, his Casa Batlló – known locally as the House of Bones – features balconies that resemble skulls and window mullions invoking femurs.
In fashion, the baroque is embodied in Alexander McQueen – from the late designer’s fantastic gowns to his brand’s ongoing penchant for dark imagery. McQueen might be credited for bringing the skull mainstream, unshackling it from niche heavy-metal imagery to take over designer clutches, scarves, and jewelry. Soon the symbol trickled down to housewares: rugs, pillows and wall coverings adorned with chic craniums. In 2007, the New York Times reported that we had reached peak skull.
But skulls are eternal. Polish fashion designer Malgorzata Dudek takes a page from McQueen and draws from recently deceased artist H.R. Giger, the man who designed the alien in the movie Alien. Her Giger’s Goddess dress is influenced by the latter’s melding of human/animal and machine. Meanwhile, Iris Van Herpen has devised dreamlike 3D-printed intricate dresses based on skeletons.
If McQueen made skulls fashionable, Studio Job has elevated the motif in the art-design world. From the Jolly Rogers engraving on their Biscuit ceramics for Royal Tichelaar Makkum to the fossilized animals on their marquetry patterns in the Industry Series of dividers, cabinets and tables, the edgy Dutch-Belgian duo of Job Smeets and Nynke Tynagel have subverted surface decoration. The duo recently collaborated with Piet Boon on transforming an Antwerp military church into a restaurant, complete with stained glass windows and a glowing skull installation (right).
Now that skulls are everywhere, designers are doing more interesting things with the imagery. From damask wallcoverings to graphic papers (like Wall&Deco’s Skulls) that nestle them in flocking or flatten them in saturated hues, there are a number of sleek design options for adding a bit of edge to a room.
Even furniture is getting fancy with the skull, as in Pool‘s lawn chair turned statement piece. Its name – Souviens toi que tu vas mourir – literally translates to “remember that you will die.” Another French designer, Harow, recently released the Skull Armchair, a glossy black faceted throne, whose function is to “establish its domination.” The skull is now winking at us.
If in North America skulls are either dark or ironic, in Latin countries, they have a joyous meaning. The Day of the Dead is a huge celebration in Mexico and Spain, and even though it is more intimately associated with death – over the course of three days, families pay tribute to their deceased loved ones – it is one that is observed with joy and merry-making. Ghoulish costume and makeup and vibrantly beaded skulls come together in wonderful ways. (Shingo Shimizu‘s poster art, left). Beauty never dies.