You know, I wrote a whole opening gambit about the oddities of death for this piece, but I decided to remove it as actually it is something which so many people (including myself) struggle with immensely. The written word can, at times, seem wholly impersonal, and I don’t think any of my readers want to hear about the juxtaposition between human emotion and the natural cycles of life.
I have however had a little ponder over the use of skeletons, and death scenes in art, we perhaps don’t feel the same heart wrenching emotions when we view a painted skeleton or a body on a mortuary table because in our minds we don’t know the person that the bones belonged to, or the body laying on the table. I handle animal skeletons a fair bit in some of the hobbies I have, yet I don’t feel the same sorrow as when my own dog died. The emotions of death are by association.
This should be thought about when you view Van Gogh’s Skull and Cigarette. I definitely don’t feel sad when I look at it, in fact is is almost cheeky.
This was painted in early 1886 while Van Gogh was studying at the art academy in Antwerp. As was the practice then, artists learnt to draw the skeletal structure before they moved on to portraiture, so that they could understand the structures. Van Gogh was not a fan of this technique and demonstrated his distaste for it through his work.
I am a little ashamed to say that for a long time I didn’t think that this was painted by Van Gogh. It’s one of those paintings which I have always liked, but not so much as to find out who it was done by, and up until recently, Van Gogh had been dubbed a “scenery painter” by me… which I now very much know was a mistake.
I like the scratchy effect that Van Gogh has used to create the texture of the bone – not the smooth surface that we associate with bones usually, rather picking up on the porous nature of bone which absorbs light rather than reflects it – it is only really when bones have been polished or plasterised do they gleam. I like the shadows, which add a further dimension to the work, casting an eerie grin to the skull.
Anatomically, this is correct, although Van Gogh’s use of dimensions are a little fantastical, and the cigarette is his rebellion against the practice… along with other sketches such as “hanging skeleton with cat”
Van Gogh would later denounce this practice saying that the studies taught him nothing and the classes were boring.
Skull and cigarette is now on show in the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam and to see it in the flesh (so to speak) is really something marvellous as it sits within the diversity of range which Van Gogh had. I had never really understood the fascination with Van Gogh until visiting this dedicated museum, and there is something to his heavily layered oil paintings which just can’t be seen in prints or reproductions. The thickness of the paint adds a quirky character to each piece, adding to his eye for details. He would also add pieces of the surroundings to the paints (notably sand for a beach scene) to add a context to his work (you will be pleased to know that there are no skull shavings in skull with cigarette though).
To swing around to my opening paragraphs, its funny how looking at this painting, which has since been used for the cover of David Sedaris “When you are engulfed in flames”, I don’t feel sorrow or heart ache over the loss of a person, rather a little smirk comes across my face as I think of Van Gogh painting this with a childlike torment to his art lecturer…
What do you think about “Skull of a Skeleton with Burning Cigarette? Why not tell me in the comments? Like this post? Why not share it?