I’m pretty sure it started with Snow White. I saw the classic Disney film when I was about five, courtesy of a pirate video copy my parents had got hold of (this was back in the days when the House of Mouse refused to release many of their titles for home viewing). The scene that stuck with me wasn’t the cheerily singing dwarves, but the evil Queen taunting the skeleton of a prisoner who had died of thirst in her dungeon. It was a scary moment because whoever this man was, he had clearly suffered before he died. And then, just add to things, she kicked him to pieces. A proper villainess that one. Or it may have been the scene in Doctor Who when a monocular alien pretending to be human caused a hapless scientist to age in seconds, leaving only bones. Wherever it came from, I have been fascinated by skulls and skeletons for as long as I can remember.
If fear was a part of the equation to begin with, it didn’t last long. By the time I was nine, I was profoundly annoyed that the skeleton army in Jason and the Argonauts were cut down by the Greek heroes. Like most boys of the right age in the 80’s, I was a fan of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe. I was never in any doubt that Skeletor was the best character.
In adulthood, these structures of bone have retained their aesthetic appeal for me. I once attended an interview for an internal job position, having got the date wrong and wearing a t-shirt covered in bone faces. Fortunately the lady conducting the interview knew me and wasn’t surprised.
The skull, memento mori, has cropped up in several of my own attempts at digital design.
Metal Death Dream
What’s the root of their allure? We I think it can be best summed up by a quote by Rudi Fuchs from the book accompanying Damien Hirst’s beautiful, diamond encrusted piece For The Love of God:
I tend to see the skull as a glorious intense victory over death – at least over the temporal, physical and ugly aspect of it: rotting decay.
While human bones might be a reminder of the fate that awaits us all, they are also a solid relic that survives that fate. In some ways, the skeleton is the ultimate abstraction of the human form, stripped down to the very basics. It represents transformation from one state to another – the meaning of the Death card in tarot – and an endurance long after everything else has fallen into disorder. Our bones contain both our frailty and our strength. A skull, home of the brain and a profoundly physical object, is also, I think, the perfect symbol of the transcending of the organic.
Maybe this is why so many images of skeletons possess a perverse elegance. They have escaped the limitations of the flesh. Skulls are forever and are forever cool.
Image is Everything