Head Trip

cjverb @ Paris Catacombs, Photo by jpverb (1997)-400px
cjverb in the Paris Catacombs, Photo by jpverb (1997)

Buckle up because today on Museum Bites we’re embarking on a head trip. I’ve come face-to-face with a lot of skulls on my travels and in the run-up to Halloween and Día de los Muertos, I’d like to share a few favorites. We begin with Cézanne…

Frightening Fact:  Memento mori is a Latin phrase that means, Remember you must die. It dates back to the late 1500s and was also used to describe ghoulish bric-a-brac such as skulls that were displayed as a reminder of our mortality.

Goldilocks and the Three Skulls:  Our first sample of skull art is on display at the Detroit Institute of Arts. The Three Skulls (c1900) by Paul Cézanne (1839-1906) is as advertised, a painting of three human skulls perched atop a table. Like a macabre version of Goldilocks, these tête de mort vary in size and color. The missing teeth and lower jaws, hollow, droopy eye sockets, and drab background make this version of Cézanne’s memento mori especially gloomy.

The Three Skulls (c1900) by Paul Cézanne, DIA, Photo by cjverb (2017)
The Three Skulls (c1900) by Paul Cézanne, DIA, Photo by cjverb (2017)

A prolific artist, Cézanne produced more than 1,300 paintings during his lifetime. In his younger years, he palled around with Édouard Manet, Camille Pissarro, and their fellow Impressionists in Paris. Cézanne eventually tired of city life and moved to his family’s estate in Aix-en-Provence where he cranked out plein-air portraits and landscape paintings. In his later years, skulls were commonly featured in his still lifes.

Cézanne’s bold style influenced Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse, and today he is considered the Father of Modern Art. If you’d like to view more of his work, click on this Paul Cézanne link courtesy of Google Arts & Culture.

Vanitas vanitatum, omnia vanitas.
Vanity of vanities, all (is) vanity.

Doom On You:  Our next skull hails from 17th century Flanders and is on display at the Flint Institute of Arts. A Vanitas Still Life (c1620) depicts in sharp detail another table bragging a skull. This time with an array of accoutrement that at first glance appear to be unrelated. But don’t be fooled! Each item is a cheery reminder of our mortality.

A Vanitas Still Life (c1620), Flint Institute of Arts, Photo by cjverb (2018)
A Vanitas Still Life (c1620), Flint Institute of Arts, Photo by cjverb (2018)

Still lifes during this era often featured material goods boasting wealth, such as Chinese porcelain, Persian rugs, and Venetian glass. The Church, however, took a dim view of this materialism and some artists began to juxtapose the bling with symbols calling to mind our imminent death.

Kalf-Still Life with Chinese Porcelain Jar-Netherlands-Baroque
Still Life with Chinese Porcelain Jar (1669) by Willem Kalf (1619-1693), Wikimedia Commons

A Vanitas Still Life is one such example. The skull signifies our mortality. The flower and fallen petals, hourglass, sundial, and candle are also reminders that the clock is ticking and soon we will be six feet under. And if that weren’t enough, the artist included text over each item (including a grim poem inside the book) to drive the dirge home. The script beneath the skull is particularly dreary…

I was as you are now; you will be in the future as I am.
~Text from A Vanitas Still Life (c1620)

One could take this as a strong hint to pursue a pious life or instead party like it’s 1999. You decide. If you’d like to feast your eyes on more still-life skulls, click on this vanitas still lifes link courtesy of Google Arts & Culture.

Mind Your Head:  On display at the Grand Rapids Art Museum (GRAM) is our final example of skull art. Here (1993-2015) is a cheeky collection of miniature skulls by Billy Mayer (1953-2017).

Here (1993-2015) by Billy Mayer, GRAM, Photo by cjverb (2019)-Bag Head
Here (1993-2015) by Billy Mayer, GRAM, Photo by cjverb (2019)
Here (1993-2015) by Billy Mayer, GRAM, Photo by cjverb (2019)-Taco
Here (1993-2015) by Billy Mayer, GRAM, Photo by cjverb (2019)

Over the course of 22 years, Mayer crafted 440 mini skulls with each sporting a different object on its head. The whimsical headgear ranges from bongos to bathtubs and represents what was on Mayer’s mind at the time of their creation. He even included a Grand Rapids staple, an Eames shell chair. My personal favorite is the cheesehead!

Billy Mayer began work on Here when he turned 40. An avid sculptor and musician, Mayer taught art at Hope College in Holland, Michigan for 39 years. He died unexpectedly at the age of 64, in 2017. Click on this Billy Mayer: The Shape of Things link, courtesy of GRAM to view more of his work.

That wraps up our look at skulls. I’ll be back next week with more Museum Bites. In the meantime, have a safe and festive Halloween and Día de los Muertos.

Skull with Eyeballs, Pixabay-100px Cover photo courtesy of Pixabay.


Art Institute of Chicago: The Three Skulls

Britannica: Vanitas Art

Detroit Institute of Arts

Detroit Institute of Arts: The Three Skulls

Flint Institute of Arts

Flint Institute of Arts: A Vanitas Still Life

Google Arts & Culture: Paul Cézanne

Grand Rapids Art Museum

Grand Rapids Art Museum: Billy Mayer

Hope College: Billy Mayer

J. Paul Getty Museum: Cézanne

Merriam-Webster Dictionary

MLive: Billy Mayer

Museum Bites: Coloring Outside the Lines

My Modern Net: Post-Impressionism



The Art Story: Paul Cézanne

The Art Story: Vanitas

Wikimedia Commons

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