Thou madest Death; and lo, thy foot/Is on the skull which thou hast made – Alfred Tennyson, In Memoriam A.H.H.
The argument could quite safely be made that the image of the skull is not only the most commonplace in art, architecture, religion and society throughout history, but it is also the the most potent and universal of symbols.
From prehistory through pirate flags to Damien Hirst’s £14 million platinum and diamond-studded cast For the Love of God (2007) we have surrounded and adorned ourselves with their images with sculptures, and often with actual human skulls. Military units from the British 17th Lancers to the Nazi SS have adopted the death’s head or totenkopf. Cemetery walls and gravestones bear carved stone reliefs; ossuaries, catacombs and charnel houses across the world house thousands of skulls arranged to remind us that the tomb awaits us all.
The Vikings were rumoured to have made drinking goblets from the craniums of their conquered foes; certainly the poet Lord Byron owned one, fashioned from the remains of an ancient monk. The monks themselves throughout history often had a skull upon their desk or table as a memento mori, a remembrance of the imminence and permanence of physical death.
In the Aztec and Mixtec cultures of South America human skulls were adorned with turquoise mosaics to represent the faces of gods, and skulls carved from single blocks of quartz crystal purported to be thousands of years old and possessing mystical qualities found their way into the august collections of antiquities in the Smithsonian and the British Museum. Later proved to be modern frauds, the desire for them to have powers over life and death serves only to prove the potency of the symbol.
“Life’s true face is the skull,” wrote Nikos Kazantzakis, the author of Zorba the Greek and the The Last Temptation of Christ. And for Julie McLaren, curator at the Art Gallery of Ballarat, past conversations with gallery director Gordon Morrison about the prevalence of the skull appearing in Australian art led to the upcoming exhibition Romancing The Skull.
“It was huge in contemporary art there for a while, and it still is; it comes and goes in waves,” says McLaren.
“They’re such a big part of popular culture. You can buy anything from t-shirts to tattoos with skulls, almost any product with a skull or skeleton image on it. So we looked at some of the origins of the skull in art, and one of the most important is the danse macabre, or dance of death.”
The dance of death reminds us that everyone from the greatest potentate to the lowliest peasant, from pope to pauper, faces the same fate, says McLaren.
“Death is the great equaliser, and the danse macabre has been used by artists for centuries since.”
“Obviously in a single exhibition we can’t cover every single culture, so instead we’ve honed in on some major themes and depicted these mainly through Australian contemporary art.”
The themes selected by the gallery include science and medicine, pirates and other ‘roguish tattooed characters’, memento mori, and Dia de los Muertos – the Mexican Day of the Dead celebrations, held on October 31 and through the Allhallowtide.
McLaren says the Mexican celebration of deceased relatives has become popular as a cultural phenomenon in Australia and as part of the exhibition MexVic, the Mexican cultural association in Victoria, will be holding their official Dia de los Muertos celebration in Ballarat this year.
Previously the celebrations had been held at Federation Square.
“We are incredibly lucky to be working with MexVic,” she says. “They will put on a family fiesta on November 4 with face-painting, traditional musicians and food. They want to educate people about the traditions of the day.”
Some of those traditions represent the impermanence of life, such as the alfeñique calaveras or sugar skulls that are painted and consumed, dissolving in the mouth; and the fluttering of flags symbolising the ethereal presence of dead forebears moving through the world.
A more permanent tradition that skulls are very well-represented in is tattooing. McLaren says many of the works in the show have been inspirational in providing designs for tattoos, while artists in the exhibition such as Rona Green have incorporated tattoo images into their art.
“Her images include cats and dogs that are covered in tattoos like they are gang members. So they refer to death, but they’re also extremely humorous.”
Some of the artists appearing in the exhibition include the famed Mexican printmaker and cartoonist Jose Guadalupe Posada, whose wildly prancing and dancing images of skeletons were often combined with poems to skewer the pretensions of his time, and whose influence can still be seen in artists varied as Frida Kahlo through to modern graphic novelists; Fiona Hall, Australia’s representative at the Venice Biennale in 2015; and Sally Smart, whose series Exquisite Pirate looks at female buccaneers, female rebellion and Eureka.
Tickets for Romancing the Skull are on sale now, available from the Art Gallery of Ballarat and through their website. There will be a 30 per cent discount on ticket sales to anyone displaying their (real, not stick-on) tattoo of a skull when they purchase a ticket.