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The Vanitas of Andy Warhol

By Aurora Garrison, Revolver Gallery Curator

Warhol surprises us subtlety with the obvious, and he hijacks the vanitas genre by clearing the table of all the symbols leaving us with just the skull—forcing us to confront our and his own death. Warhol, paints and portrays the essence of death economically, but with the whirlwind of color, outlining, angles and shadows making the traditional genre new, fresh and modernly relevant.

Vanitas is defined as a still-life painting of a 17th-century Dutch genre containing symbols of death or change as a reminder of their inevitability. Warhol makes us see Death in a new, Pop Art way in his 1976 Skull series which features Warhol’s update on the traditional vanitas genre of art and the subject matter of death.

Andy Warhol is pictured here with his human skull he purchased in Paris in 1975 and made his subject for his vanitas Skull series, with the theme as the contemplation of death. Warhol wears the skull like a crown.

With both his prized human skull and his near-death experiences in hand, Warhol resurrects the skull image to reinterpret the classical vanitas genre with a modern day Pop Art twist. Warhol’s hand-held inspired Skull is straight out the Hollywood prop department, invoking Hamlet’s soliloquy on Hamlet’s friend Yorick’s death in the infamous grave yard scene in Act 5: “Alas, poor Yorick, I knew him, Horatio.” But only Warhol can make Art out of a prop, or soup can, for that matter.

Historically in art, the human skull represented the theme “vanitas” knows as mortality or the shortness of life. It suggested that the skull is simply a motif: a part of Warhol’s desire to evoke the human condition.

 Vanitas, Campbell Soup Cans and the Art of Still-lifes 

The traditional vanitas still lifes were first developed in Europe as the art movement moved from Christian subjects to the paintings that poetically and metaphorically depict the transient nature of life, echoing Ecclesiastes 1, “All is Vainty: Vanity of vainty, says the Preacher, vainty of vanities! All is vanity. What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun?”

Warhol had a ready answer, “Being good in business is the most fascinating kind of art. Making money is art and working is art and good business is the best art.” Warhol sees art as an answer to Ecclesiastes 1. Perhaps his quip is better than the prior generations of art and artists artistic renderings on Death and vanity. Arguably, one the most celebrated vanitas paintings is “#9 Vanitas with Violin and Glass Ball”. Painted by Pieter Claesz in the Dutch Golden Age. He is foremost among the still-life painters.

Pieter Claesz.  Vanitas with Violin and Glass Ball (1628)

Notice the prominence of the skull in the painting, as Claesz manipulates the viewers eye from the shiny glass orb from left to right, from light into the dark visage or pools of dead eye sockets, looking back on life’s futile pursuits of music and life’s ephemeral pleasures to the terminus of the naked skull, death itself. The vanitas or still lifes which contain the skull of the penultimate symbol of death as a reminder of our inevitability. 

But Warhol sees and paints Death shockingly and startlingly differently. Like his Campbell soup can series, Warhol takes the everyday skull hiding in plain sight and transforms the obvious object into the sublime object of art. Under Warhol’s death-defying brush stroke, soup cans become art and a skull becomes a Pop Culture icon on life, death and the meaning of it all. This is the transformative magic of Warhol.

Warhol sees his art and the transformative nature of his artistic process as, “Once you ‘got’ Pop, you could never see a sign again the same way again. And once you thought Pop, you could never see America the same way again.” Warhol is transforming the way we see life. In the Skull series, Warhol is transforming the way we see Death.

Aurora Garrison is an art historian and curator with Revolver Gallery. Aurora can be reached at aurora@revolvergallery.com to discuss Warhol, his works and Revolver Gallery’s Warhol holdings and recent acquisitions.

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