Current Popular Taste: Skeletons and Skulls

Posted by cwagner on November 30, 2012 in Corinna Wagner, Guest Blog tagged with , , , , , , , ,

Since this is the last day of the month and the last day of my guest blog, I’m going to be a bit self-indulgent (but will move on, I promise!). Also, a response to my last blog (by Frederick) got me thinking…

So first: I’m going to talk about my own taste for skulls and skeletons. Much of my research focuses on the body and the history of medicine and the gothic. As a result, I have accumulated quite a collection of things skeletal. Allow me to share:

I have a ceramic skeleton pendant and porcelain skull sculptures from Australian designers Iggy & Lou Lou (the artist behind the company is Irene Grishin-Selzer).

A wonderful glass skeleton decoupage tray from the New York artist John Derian.  He has wonderful stuff for those who love nineteenth century architecture, botanicals and the like…

I could go on … there are so many wonderful things one can collect on a gothic theme!

The only problem is, I think the taste for this type of stuff is burgeoning and … well… is it becoming too ubiquitous?  I think it matters because that always seems to destroy the ‘aura’ of things (a nod here to Walter Benjamin and others).  Which reminds me … there is quite a bit of buzz about New York tattooist/artist Scott Campbell’s American dollar skull ‘sculpture’ (see below).  I’m intrigued by it, as I am intrigued by the idea of destroying something of ‘value’ (money) to create something of value (art object) but then haggling over the value of said object.  On a TV auction show, this piece came before four collectors. The valuing varied wildly, with one offer being £1 (‘this isn’t really my type of art’) and another being close to £10,000.  Of course, I am attracted to it, and I appreciate the old school tattoo styling, but…I feel like I’ve seen this before…

Speaking of skulls, they featured at a talk given a few months ago by art historian and trustee at the National Portrait Gallery Ludmilla Jordanova at the University of Exeter.  In discussion, we debated the concentration on the body, medicine, disease and decay in art since the 1940s or so.  What is it about modernism, postmodernism that has given rise to a desire to represent the internal body, the pathological body or the grotesque body?  I suggested that that interest started around the mid-18th century and has grown since then.  I referred, for instance, to the wide fascination with physiognomy, phrenology, and early photography used for criminological profiling purposes (things which appeared everywhere in Victorian gothic novels). Or how about Frances Burney’s early nineteenth century pathographic memoir, detailing her masectomy?

Jordanova disagreed with me. She said those examples were few and far between, and the explosion in interest in the body is about the twentieth century.

After having seen the latest installment at the Wellcome this past spring, the exhibition on Brains, I think she may be at least partially right!  I think it is one of the best exhibitions they have had, and it combines aesthetic representations of the brain and our relationship to mind, with the most graphic, realistic images and recordings of brain dissection and preservation.  This exhibition combines the imaginative with the empirical in marvellous ways. So, for example, viewing Katherine Dowson’s ethereal silk sculpture of the brain alongside slides of slices of Einstein’s brain (harvested against his will) decontexualizes, recontextualizes, defamiliarizes and familiarizes all in one go (if that makes sense!). Here are a few images (can we call them ‘gothic’?!):

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