“To be, or not to be” is the most famous phrase uttered in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Whilst gazing upon a human skull Prince Hamlet contemplates life and death. A morbid presence, the skeleton of the human head has played an important role in Western art for centuries. Used famously as a vanitas in paintings such as The Ambassadors by Hans Holbein the Younger, and countless still life works, its eerie existence has historically been employed as a sombre reminder of human mortality: a memento mori. Although never fully ejected from the canon of art, the skull has recently experienced a revival. In contemporary culture, this macabre object has taken on an identity of cool. It appears in artworks from both the high and low ends of the spectrum, as well as in fashion; adorning everything from handbags and t-shirts to rings and other jewellery. It is also frequently present on the human body proper, in the form of tattoos. It’s resurgence begs the question: when did death become cool?
Making its first documented appearance in a creative context around 7,000 BC in modern-day Palestine1, the human skull has a particular impact on its viewers. It is eerie because of its simultaneous familiarity, yet other-worldliness. We can immediately recognise the skull as a human head, yet it seems far removed from the fleshy faces that pass us on the streets of our everyday lives. The skull is a reminder of both our present and future selves. Our capacity to distinguish facial features is one of the first systems that we develop as children. Infants younger than one are able to recognise expressions based on skull structure, an ability which is rooted deep in the wiring of our brains. It is this fact – our inherent connection with this object as being both inevitable and unimaginable, familiar yet strange – that makes the skull universally fascinating and fashionable.
The term vanitas comes from a bible verse which translates into ‘Vanity of vanities! All is in vain”. The purpose of this phrase is to highlight the transient nature of life. It could be likened to the Latin proverb ‘Carpe Diem’ or ‘Seize the Day’ in its encouragement to be aware of our mortality and thus our existence. ‘All is in vain’ has been translated in recent years into ‘who cares!’, the cry of the indulgent rebel. It was perhaps most prominently in the 1950s, following the two world wars, that this idea was first employed as a life-philosophy.
It is generally acknowledged that adolescence in the form of teenage-hood was an invention of this period. The Western youth had either survived or been born into a world experiencing turmoil, where countless young lives were lost to a bloody war. They were acutely aware that nothing could be taken for granted and that death could happen at any age. This realisation, paired with freedom from mandatory military service meant that they had time to express this sentiment through a challenging of accepted doctrines. The embodiment of these adolescent ideals was James Dean’s character in the hugely successful 1955 film, ‘Rebel Without a Cause’. This cigarette smoking, motorbike riding young man became the poster-boy for the new kids of the mid 20th century.
In the 1960s, the image of the leather-bound biker was embraced by the fashionable teens of Great Britain. These kids were known for their lawless behaviour and their ‘rocker’ lifestyles. A key emblem of this look was the skull. It was later employed by more brutal and less youthful biker gangs such as the Hells Angels. The skull was the symbol of saying no to consequences and responsibilities. Paired with the heavy smoking and drinking associated with these groups, the image became famous as an aggressive plea to seize the day. As with all successful trends, it was later appropriated by commercial and high fashion, perhaps most famously by the recently deceased designer and ‘fashion rebel’, Alexander McQueen, whose skull scarfs became a staple feature in the wardrobe of any film or music star in the early 2000s.
Just as famous – or infamous – was the work titled ‘For the Love of God’ (2007) by YBA, Damien Hirst. Glittering away like a bad joke, Damien Hirst’s ‘skull’ (2007) was a source of major controversy in the art world. Embellished with diamonds amounting to over £14million, Hirst’s piece was hard to ignore. The pairing of the skull (from the 18th century) and the extravagant precious stones not only teased the art market and the impending economic crash, but also manifested as a counter-intuitive representation of death and beauty together. The display of ‘For the love of God’ was ingeniously engineered so that it could not be viewed noncommittally. The piece was shown by itself in a darkened room on the top floor of The White Cube in London. Visitors were allowed to see it in small groups. There was little to distract them from the gleaming skull on its plinth: the viewer would have to come face-to-face with the object and thus, face-to-face with their mortality.
As one of the most recognisably human objects, the skull has maintained its position as fundamental in artistic representation. From the religious reminder of the afterlife, to the badge of the rebel youth, to the tongue-in-cheek pieces of contemporary artists, this object is not only historically important, but it seems to be gaining momentum within contemporary culture. It is the reminder of both our impending end and our current life which, in an age of the individual makes it very cool. There is little doubt that the skull will continue its reign in the realm of the living based on the tantalising duality of its existence. Its impossibility and undeniability feeds both our fascination with flirting with death and our crippling fear of it.
Image: Christine Zeides, (zeides-fotos.jimdo.com)