This skull that I'm contemplating, does it know that it reflects my certain death?
The inexhaustible symbol of the skull signifies life and its end. André Malraux considered that "A man is born when, confronted by a cadaver, he whispers, 'Why?'". Born when he becomes conscious of his death, from this point onwards death will be a constant source of wonder.
The iconography of the skeleton and the skull first appeared in the Middle Ages, reaching its first 'golden age' in the 15th century with the Vanitas of European Painting. In the second half of the 20th Century, it reappeared in almost obsessively.
In classical art, the representation of death portrayed by the skull is generally one that is serene and glorious, because death is promised by the church as a passage towards eternal life. However, this representation is radically challenged in modern and contemporary art, where the skull is de-pacified; now, it shocks us with its violence, and has become the enemy and aggressor.
The scenes of carnage from World War I, the influence of Marxism and Nietzsche’s “God is dead”, the Holocaust, and then the boom of consumerism, each dramatically changed western iconography. The skull, seen as it is today, speaks frankly and shamelessly of the absurdity of death. It accepts its fascinating ugliness, or its horrific beauty, or, even better, it screeches with a black humor that is often dyed with melancholy.
Superstition? Fear? A return to mystery? Or an ode to life itself?
For as long as the skull has been a part of us, we have been in want of a museum that would dedicate itself to the representation of the skull throughout the ages. The Musée Maillol's exhibition "C'est la vie! De Caravage à Damien Hirst" (Such is life! From Caravage to Damien Hirst) has been brought to life, with the collaboration of Elisabeth Quin, author of "Livre des vanités" (Book of Vanitas). In honor of the exhibition, Chanel has created a limited edition silk scarf, designed by Karl Lagerfeld. A playful thought, full of humor and elegance, and evoking both vanitas and vanity, the humility of the human condition is sketched in a Chanel suit, facing death. On a grid made of delicately crossed femurs, recalling Chanel's famous quilting, Gabrielle Chanel holds a skull in her hand as Hamlet once did. She seems to say, in her gaze, in her wink, in ictu oculi, "I know...a little more time, love, creation...But what good is vanity? I know....”
1000 scarves were made, and offered as gifts to friends of Chanel and of the Musée Maillol, the project being a way for the luxury House of Chanel to participate in the humor and lessons of wisdom apparent in this unique exhibition.
The exhibition illustrates the way in which man has expressed death over the centuries, and reflects on this evolution. Like an extraordinary box of memories, the exhibition takes us, first, up to the First World War, with a mosaic from Pompei, splendid dark works by Caravage ("St François"), Zurbaran ("St François"), and La Tour ("L'extase de St-François"), baroque still lifes by Miradori, and a striking Zigozzi. We then discover vanitas in modern art with, among others, a mysterious Picasso, "Still Life with Leeks, Pitcher and Skull", a 1947 piece by Bernard Buffet, a Cézanne that has been hidden in an American private collection until now, and an astounding and shocking crucifixion by Paul Delvaux, for which he could been excommunicated and burnt at the stake in earlier periods. Finally, contemporary artworks from J.P. Raynaud, Mapplethorpe, Hirst ("The Death of God", a skull with sea-urchin shell eye-sockets and a protruding steel tongue), the Chapman brothers, Barcelo, Penck, Basquiat, Richter, and Daniel Spoerry, come together to complete the greatest collection yet dedicated to the representation of the skull.
Throughout time, these artists have reflected on this oscillation between presence and absence, existence and oblivion. Their works are now on call, for operations without anaesthesia, at the Musée Maillol, 61 rue de Grenelle, Paris 75007, until June 28th, 2010.
Photo: drawing by Karl Lagerfeld