In time for Halloween and the Day of the Dead, I give you a collection of skulls and other personifications of death and horror from the art of the past several centuries. If you’re sensitive to violent, creepy, disturbing imagery, don’t scroll down.
In the wake of the famines, plagues and wars of the late medieval period in Europe, there arose a genre of popular allegorical murals, prints, and plays called Totentanz or Danse Macabre, the Dance of Death. Often there’s a series of images showing corpses or skeletons dancing with commoners and kings, popes and peasants.
These images say life is fleeting and precarious, death is ever-near. High-born or low, Death will get you in the end.
Surely the Totentanz was an expression of something deeply felt by the people living in this time, who saw death everywhere around them. The priest could point to it to urge repentance, since the end could come without warning. The hedonist could see it as a spur to enjoy the pleasures of the flesh while they last.
Mortality is not simply an abstract fact for mortals, it is personal. It comes to take you away from your life and your loved ones. So it must be personified, and it is often shown as a skeleton or a decaying corpse that is animated, to show the horror we feel at the decay of the flesh.
Pieter Bruegel the Elder, a master of deep natural perspective and complex figurative compositions, transformed the simple Totentanz scenes into a panorama of war and executions, famine, torture, and madness. Click on the image to follow a link to a much larger version of this landscape of hell on earth, big enough to scroll around and see all the horrific details.
The sense of death as a corruption that devours life from within has been expressed by artists closer to our own time. For a 1945 movie, directed by Albert Lewin, based on Oscar Wilde’s novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, Henrique Medina made a straight portrait of actor Hurd Hatfield that was gradually, over the course of filming, transformed by painter Ivan Albright into this image of walking decay. Click here to see before and after versions.
Similarly, Francis Bacon transformed Velasquez’ strikingly realistic portrait of Pope Innocent X into a scream of modern existential dread.
A century or two after the era of the Totentanz, the omnipresence of death was perhaps felt with a little more distance, and the prevailing genre of painting meditating on death was the Vanitas, usually a still-life composition incorporating a skull or skulls. ”Vanitas” refers to the line from Ecclesiastes that declares “Vanity of vanities; all is vanity,” so it has some of the same meaning as the Totentanz, but considerably less of the visceral feeling of horror.
The Totentanz and the Vanitas are both considered versions of a more inclusive artistic motif called “Memento Mori” – Latin for “Remember you will die.”
Of course artists also study skulls and skeletons as part of learning anatomy, the better to depict the human form full of life, and many artists become fascinated with bones as elegant forms. Paul Cézanne, the post-impressionist “painter’s painter” made several Vanitas still-life pictures at the turn of the 20th century, as he faced his own mortality.
During a brief stint in a classical art academy in Antwerp, where skeletons were studied as part of the curriculum, Vincent van Gogh painted this mischievous smoking skeleton.
James Ensor, Belgian satirist and proto-surrealist, depicted pointless struggle in the form of skulls with mismatched jaws, wearing military garb and fighting over a bit of fish.
Contemporary sculptor Kris Kulski makes ornate monochromatic constructions, many of them incorporating skeletons. Here a giant skeleton appears to be building a city along its own spine.
Yet another often-revisited motif in the Memento Mori tradition is Death and the Maiden. This gives the artist the chance to contrast youth and beauty with repulsion and decay, combining sex and death in what artists found to be a potent thematic brew, pushing two primal buttons at once for a creepy frisson. Hans Baldung was an early master of the erotic horror genre.
Throw in morality and religion with the sex and death, and you can really have your cake and eat it too.
The Death and the Maiden theme has also survived into modern art. How could the famously death- and sex-obsessed Edvard Munch resist it?
Käthe Kollwitz sees the theme from a female perspective, and transforms the maiden into a mother holding a child in this image of death as predator.
For Hans Bellmer, mortality and sexuality are fundamentally linked in the depths of the psyche, and both are arousing and terrifying: Eros and Thanatos.
The medieval view of death and horror was of something intensely real and palpable. By the age of enlightenment, artists tend to express a romanticized fear of madness, of the unknown, of the supernatural – something we still feel in some part of our psyches where reason’s light fails to penetrate.
Goya obsessively depicted horror and madness and evil, both in the absurdities of human behavior and the very real devastation of war.
Japanese artists of the same period also display a wonderfully vivid imagination for visualizing the stories of ghosts and horror that abound in Japanese folklore and literature. Here are works from two masters: Hokusai and Kuniyoshi.
In the later nineteenth century, death is seen more in a mournful light than one of terror. No longer the dancing zombie of the middle ages, Death calmly ferries you to the set of a tragic grand opera.
Death is a symbol – the Grim Reaper, horseman of the apocalypse.
In our time, pop culture is full of images of avengers, terminators, furious warriors and inhuman killers, but it’s mostly fantasy, not our everyday reality.
I can’t think of a painting that gives a more realistic image of the act of killing than Artemisia Gentileschi’s Judith and Holofernes. It’s far more brutal and horrifying than Caravaggio’s great version of the same scene, and Caravaggio reputedly had real experience with killing. But Artemisia was an ambitious female painter in a time when ambitious women got no respect, and she must have put the real murderous fury she felt towards men into this chilling work.
The ancient Mesoamerican religions were based around human sacrifice, and figures of death and blood and the underworld abound.
The skull or calavera image survives in today’s Mexican culture in the jaunty decorative skulls and skeletons of the Day of the Dead or Día de los Muertos, November 1st, a time to honor ancestors and perhaps to be cheerful in the face of death.
Elaborately decorated calaveras are a tradition with endless variations, such as this visionary Huichol psychedelica.
Posada, a popular Mexican illustrator of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, used the calavera as a basic motif for social satire and political cartoons. This tarantula-skull is a caricature of General José Victoriano Huerta Márquez, Mexico’s brutal dictator at the time.
Through the twentieth century, much of the art of horror and death is about war. The Great War of 1914-18 harvested vast swathes of Europe’s youth and left many more maimed and traumatized.
The Victorian image of a dark angel, aesthetically romanticized, survived for a while as the predominant artistic depiction of Death.
At the same time, through this period, European artists like Picasso with his Demoiselles d’Avignon, composer Stravinsky with Sacre du Printemps, and writer Alfred Jarry with the play Ubu Roi, had been discovering the power of a rawer, more primal approach to expression, and many found it the only way to truly depict the horror of war.
Of the work below, full of chaotic energy, the artist said, “This is a painting I painted after the defeat of the Republicans in Spain. This is obviously an ironic title ["Angel of the Hearth"] to denote a kind of animal that kills and destroys everything in its path. That was the impression I had at the time, of what was possible to happen in the world, and in that I was right.”
I think the title “Angel of the Hearth” may refer to the fact that the violent ideologies of Fascism, Nazism and Stalinism begin from a claim to stand as protectors of the homeland, and of the purity of their cultures and races.
Mexican painter Siqueiros went to spain to fight against the Fascists. His painted response to the war, from the same year as Ernst’s, expresses a more emotional experience of devastation and loss.
Death taking his victims in his pitiless embrace is a timeless image. Here’s a version painted by Vietnam veteran William Myles.
Henry Moore’s sculpture “Nuclear Energy” is on the campus of the University of Chicago where the world’s first nuclear reactor was built. It is an abstract image of power, but it evokes both the skull and the mushroom cloud of the nuclear bomb, perhaps to remind the scientists working on that campus that Death is ever near, just as he was six hundred years ago in the time of the Totentanz.
All images in this post, except for one that is a photograph taken by me, were found on the web. Clicking on the photos links to the sites where the pictures were found, and in many cases, to larger versions of these images.