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EXHIBITION: Johannes Scott

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On View: 3 February - 30 March
The Enduring Skull

by Johannes Scott


The artistic skull dates back to archaeological findings at the ancient Canaanite city of Jericho, about nine thousand years ago. Known as the first Homo sapiens settlement, the city was built as fortress during the New Stone Age by hunter-gatherers. Within the protection of the city walls, they stored harvested cereals, domesticated dogs, and established homes with memorial graves. Burial findings suggest a developing practice of handling human remains ensued. Before the corpse was discarded outside the city walls to decay into bones, the head was first carefully removed and stripped of flesh until only the clean skull remained. It was then plastered with clay and modelled to resemble the facial features of the deceased with shells placed in the eye sockets. While the bones were collected later and buried beneath homes, the artistic skull was kept as memorial display. The practice spread not only throughout the Levant, but later as far as the Mesoamerican cultures where ivory, bamboo, and minerals like turquoise jade were used to decorate preserved skulls.


Another Mesoamerican practice was that of constructing scaffold-like rows and columns of skulls, known as tzompantli. These skull racks alongside Aztec festivals that celebrate the dead were witnessed by the Spanish conquistadors during the 1519 Mesoamerican invasion, and later amalgamated into Roman Catholic convention such as Day of the Dead (Dia de Los Muertos) festival. This celebration has become popular globally and primary source for the commercial production of skull-themed art such as sugar skulls, skull masks, make-up, tattoos, and skull dolls.


Many Roman Catholic ossuary chapels in medieval Europe followed a skull rack design similar to that of the Mesoamerican observed by the Spanish conquistadors. One such example is the Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini, commissioned for Rome in 1631. The crypt contains the remains of thousands of individuals. Their skeletons were sorted and grouped by anatomical shape to create, for example, hundreds of pelvic bones for elaborate Baroque designs, delicate spine bones for rococo styled chandeliers, and masses of skulls to create eerie walls of skull racks. The marble floors of these medieval cathedrals are often inlayed with delicate mosaic skull designs.


The Dance Macabre, first recorded in 15th century France, is an artistic genre of allegory on death. Its literary and pictorial form represents a Dance of Death in which different characters such as servant, child, king and pope dance together with skeletons at the grave site. The aesthetic function was to bring the audience to contemplation about the certainly of death – momento mori, as phrased in Latin. In the 16th and 17th centuries a similar aesthetic convention followed in Flanders and the Netherlands. Called Vanitas, after Latin for vanity, this form of still life painting usually combines a skull with a range of symbolic objects, such as a book, rotten fruit, hourglass, and instruments of time and music.


After Renaissance artists such as Giovanni Bellini and Leonardo da Vinci, Paul Cézanne and Vincent van Gogh were some of the first modern European artists to return to the skull as subject. As a devout Catholic, and skulls being a familiar object in Catholic homes, Cézanne’s series of skulls painted between 1898 and 1905 must be seen as revised tradition. It is reported that he kept three human skulls on a mantelpiece in his home, and commented that he finds it beautiful to paint a skull. Pablo Picasso followed by appropriating the Flemish Vanitas format. He produced many still life paintings showing the human skull, such as Black Jug and Skull (1946). Modern artists such as Frida Kahlo, Salvador Dali, and Andy Warhol, and contemporary artists such as Mark Ryden and Laurie Lipton all famously incorporated the skull image in their work.


In the world of fashion, after contemporary British designer Alexander McQueen stylised the skull image at the turn of the century, skulls have become the most enduring insignia on accessories such as handbags, scarves, and jewellery. In the world of interiors, the famous Goldbar restaurant-lounge in down-town New York City is well-known for its life-size casted, floor-to-ceiling skull rack, plated in gold. The work resembles both the Mesoamerican tzompantli and medieval skull crypt.


In contemporary art, Damien Hirst’s platinum cast of an 18th century human skull, encrusted with thousands of diamonds and a large, pear-shaped pink diamond on the forehead, became the most expensive 21st century skull artwork. Titled, For the Love of God, and inspired by a Mesoamerican turquoise skull at the British Museum, the artist sold the work in 2007 for 50 million pounds.

Johannes Scott
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