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.

1 comment:

karebearcolin said...

Art is a mystical process even for the artist. Art rarely if ever has a singular focused intention. It often has many meanings on many levels - some that the artist is consciously aware of, and some that are buried at varying levels of individual and collective subconscious.

Science is beginning to catch up with the idea that there is much more to the universe than that which can be dissected and quantitatively measured. It is quite possible and likely that the art discussed in this article touched upon all of the meanings that were speculated here. Who best knows the effects of smoking than the cigarette smoker. The smoker does not need a modern scientific study to have felt the effects of addiction and degenerating health. Throughout history we find examples of innate wisdoms among individuals and communities that extended far beyond modern day knowledge and practices.

The "pitfalls of art historical analysis" are that it tends to support the mistaken belief held by some that there can be one true interpretation of an artist or artwork. In essence there is an attempt to 'objectively' assess that which is subjective, and in doing so, the effort lies in an attempt to take the mystery out of creation and separate it from the act of creativity. While historical analysis can provide some context for the art, it takes no special historical analysis to truly appreciate the beauty and wonder of creativity. Art is timeless, and knows no boundaries.