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The importance of skulls in art around the world

skull art

This article is part of the Roundtable, a group of bloggers passionate about art and travel. You can find out more on our Facebook page or scroll down to read the other installments of this month's theme: The Endings.

Symbols are one of the most powerful elements in the art industry, where a single object, no matter how simple it is depicted, conjures up a social problem, an emotion or a whole story.

Take the heart, for example. It's a simple shape, but it represents love, one of the most important and cherished emotions and feelings in the world.

Over time, symbols become more and more abstract as they change and transform over time, but their meanings remain etched both in history and in our collective minds.

Whenever you see a heart, what do you immediately think of?

But this message is not about hearts. This article is about almost the opposite: skulls.

For most countries of the world, skulls are a representation of death. They are a stark reminder of our mortality and one of the most powerful symbols on the planet.

However, while skulls can clearly have connotations of death, they also have hundreds of other meanings across the world and, more often, in the art world.

In some places the skulls represent transformation and change, while other times they can determine wealth, power, strength and protection.

As humans, we easily make sense of objects to make our understanding of the world much more fluid and to create “shortcuts” in our brains to make sense of everything around us.

But sometimes these associations just don't match from one corner of the world to another.

And, in some cases, they don't match from person to person. In addition to the universal meanings behind the most recognizable symbols, we create our own understanding of them through our personal experiences, learnings, and perspective.

The result is a multitude of depictions of skulls (and other symbols) scattered throughout history, especially in the creative realm.

To celebrate the dead

skulls in art

In Mexico, skulls are decorated with garish colors and patterns to commemorate the dead. The annual Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) is an opportunity for families to come together, dress up, party and celebrate the lives of those they have lost.

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Sugar skulls, as they are called, are the symbols of this time of year.

During the festival, decorated skulls are placed around the tombstones of the deceased to create whimsical decorations that celebrate death instead of mourning lost relatives and friends.

They are known as sugar skulls because they were originally made from molded sugar and decorated with shiny feathers, pearls and icing. Today they are made from all kinds of materials, but they all remain similar in design, recognizable by the flowers, bright colors, and intricate details around the eyes and mouth.


To signify vanity

At their core, skulls are the simplest representation of the human, including all of their characteristics and flaws. In his 1892 illustration, Charles Allan Gilbert used the shape of a skull to represent vanity. In the painting, a lady is shown seated at a dressing table looking at herself in the mirror. The way the image is put together means that the components come together to create the outline of a skull.

Skulls in art

At first glance, the illustration just looks like the outline of the skull. But take a closer look and you will discover the scene that takes place under the initial symbol of human life and death.

This clever representation encourages viewers to look under a room's surface value (much like looking under an individual's vain exterior), creating the idea that the subject AND the viewer are practicing empty ideals.
To show change and transformation

For many cultures around the world, death is not the end of life.

In fact, this is just the next step in the story, after which there are many more paths to take.

This is also celebrated in Mexico, hence the reason why Dia de los Muertos is a fun festival celebrating life and not mourning death like much of the western world.

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In this case, death marks a watershed moment in the life story, which is exactly what the skull represents in the death tarot card.

Now, I'm not a big fan of tarot cards, but it's interesting how the symbol of a skull is used in this regard - not just a work of art, but also a traditional symbol that stands for something. not so "traditional".
Simply macabre and original decorations

The symbolic meaning of a skull has evolved over the years and recently it has evolved into a 'cool' emblem tattooed on forearms, splashed on t-shirts, and painted on printed decorative items.

In these cases, the image of the skull may well represent something different to the "wearer" and the viewer. And, for many, it's just a stylish decorative element, much like a flower or geometric pattern.

Skulls in art

Just look at Damien Hirst's diamond skull to see the rise of the skull as a fashion statement.

But it was also used as a medium on which to create other motifs, as in the work of Sasha Vinogradova. She uses skulls as a canvas to showcase Russian artistic styles - skulls are kind of an afterthought, creating a macabre undertone to otherwise playful pieces.

Skulls still retain enormous symbolic status around the world, and I have no doubt that we will continue to see their engulfed forms appear in the art of all varieties.

That's the beauty of the creative industry - the idea that familiar forms can be used to embrace new, sometimes foreign, narratives depending on their societal context and the personal experiences of their creators.

skulls in art

Take Georgia O'Keeffe as another example of an artist who has inscribed her personal stories on a universal symbol. After moving to New Mexico, O'Keeffe came across hundreds of cow and horse skulls in the desert.

Not wanting to leave them out in the austere landscape, she brought them home and began painting them, immortalizing them in a way that would have been completely impossible in real life.

What do skulls mean to you and do you have a favorite piece of art that includes the symbol of a skull?

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