From Dante to Lovecraft, our passion for the occult has been a recurring theme in artistic expression. Perhaps humans, curious by nature, have the need to keep searching for something new or an explanation for everything around them. This curiosity is a quality that drives us to search for an answer to all mysteries the universe has yet to unveil.
Despite our effort to encompass all fields of knowledge and nature, there is a mystery that still no one has been able to crack: Death. This event of life where we leave behind our corporeal state has fascinated thousands of intellectuals throughout human history, and across the globe people ask what happens after death, yet no one has been able to see beyond this gloom.
Humans have shied away from the belief that death is the end of everything. The Aztecs believed death was merely a passage to another dimension where human beings could possibly maintain direct contact with the gods. This is why this vital phase of the cycle was celebrated by our ancestors. That’s why skulls, as a definitive representation of death, have a profound importance in Pre-Hispanic societies and can be seen portrayed in the most precious materials available in each region.
All cultures around the world have developed their own view of death; this concept depends directly on the context in which it was developed.
As many of these ideas have been extrapolated in books and treatises on the subject, they have also been portrayed in works of art whose main characters are skulls, reminding us the fragility of our existence with a friendly smile.
Mexican people's view on death has never been negative, and that’s what Posada wants to emphasize in this engraving. Painting death as someone beautiful and smiling gives us the peace we need in anguished moments, as we consider our imminent end. This work eases the inevitable embrace of this elegant depiction of death.
This triptych has two faces: the front reflects the passions of the flesh and how they can lead to the gates of hell. The figure of death, which during the Middle Ages was represented with some traces of flesh and skin on their bones, indicates the transition between the earthly and the spiritual life.
In the back of the painting you can see how a life full of virtues is the true path to God, who will save us from death on the day of final judgment.
Just as if they were fruits on a table, these stacked skulls represent a kind of still life. The monotonous image that Cézanne had about life turned his interest to death, which is why we often see in his work many allusions towards this mysterious transition.
As a result of mental illness, Vincent lived much of his life in melancholy and immersed in thoughts about life and death. This picture is not the only one where he depicts his interest in the transition to the other side; in fact, he painted at least three other pieces in which skulls are the main characters.
Witnessing the atrocities of World War II, Picasso observed the fragility of life. Like Cézanne, this Spanish painter believed that every living being was like a fruit destined for death. Therefore, he didn’t hesitate to place skulls in his representational still lifes.
Most Mexican artists paint death with a touch of joy and festivity; Frida is the exception to this rule. Her paintings reflect her anguish with death, something she felt very close to due to the multiple diseases afflicting her body and her inability to be a mother.
Not even contemporary art avoids having death as one of its most endearing protagonists. In this painting by Mark Ryden death is no longer portrayed as that macabre and stalwart figure that we are used to, but is a kind of friend whose arrival we look forward to.
Death is a mystery for which we will never have an explanation; however, we still hope there exists a purpose behind this process. It’s difficult to imagine our existence in the universe just ends the moment our eyes are closed forever. Artists will continue to express ideas about a phenomenon as fascinating as it is macabre, even when it ceases to be a source of anguish for us.