Saturday, June 14, 2008
Memento Mori or Just a Joke?
David Sedaris's new book features a cover image that most people wouldn't immediately recognize as a van Gogh: "Skull of a Skeleton with Burning Cigarette," undated but attributed to Vincent's stay in Antwerp in the winter of 1885-86. Sedaris became fascinated with the image--more accurately, a postcard of the image--during a trip to Amsterdam (the painting is in the Van Gogh Museum and is fairly small at 32 x 24.5 cm).
"Skull of a Skeleton with Burning Cigarette" is a perfect example of the pitfalls of art historical analysis. Vincent doesn't mention it in his letters, so we have nothing from his own voice to help us interpret the painting. It's virtually unique in his oeuvre, with only two other paintings and one drawing using skulls as a motif (from the same period). What was he trying to say? There have been many interpretations, many stemming from hindsight of Vincent's troubled later life or from awareness of his difficult circumstances at the time (while in Antwerp he was experiencing poor health). It's definitely not an anti-smoking message, for Vincent was an avid smoker until the day he died (although he preferred his pipe over cigarettes). Was Vincent influenced by 17th-century Dutch vanitas paintings, in which skulls serve as a "memento mori," a reminder of mortality? Was Vincent commenting on the fragility of life and the passage of time?
The Van Gogh Museum curators present what I think is the most convincing interpretation: it's just a joke. The choice of a skeleton was likely inspired by Vincent's classes at the Antwerp Academy of Fine Arts; skeletons were used to teach students about anatomy and give them drawing practice. But Vincent was hardly a dutiful student: both his letters and anecdotes from others record that he sparred with his drawing and painting teachers and was scornful of conservative academic practice. His time at the Academy lasted only weeks; he felt he was learning nothing and later proclaimed academic training "damned boring." Taken from that perspective, "Skull of a Skeleton with Burning Cigarette" could be read as a thumbing-of-the-nose at "the establishment."
The van Gogh of myth is a serious, troubled soul. But the "real" Vincent had a sense of humor that you can find if you look closely: sometimes self-deprecating, sometimes playful, sometimes wicked. "Skull of a Skeleton with a Burning Cigarette" seems to be an example of the latter.