More skulls: The Culture of Excess or The Return of the Sublime?

Posted by Monica Germana on March 01, 2010 in Dr Monica Germana, Guest Blog tagged with

There is nothing new in the reproduction of Gothic motifs and certainly nothing new in the exploitation of death for business. What I am interested in, however, is to consider the deeper impact of consumerism, with its focus on desire, on the consuming self in relation to the cultural commodification of Gothic motifs. Gothic is excess and we live, apparently, in excess times: excessive eating, excessive dieting, excessive fandom, excessive hatred. In an article reviewing the ‘Return to the Baroque’ exhibition currently hosted in Naples, Rachel Spence briefly discussed the significance of Damien Hirst’s diamond-studded skull amongst other contemporary artworks, in relation to a claim that contemporary art shares the excess aesthetic of Baroque:

‘A plethora of socio-historic parallels suggests why this should be the case. No scientific revolution since that of Galileo and Newton has been as profound as that wrought by Darwin and Einstein, the consequences of which we are still working through. Advances in biotechnology mirror 17th-century physicians’ groundbreaking investigations into human anatomy and physiology. The current rise in religious fundamentalism shares common ground with the frenzy of the Counter-Reformation’.

When I managed to catch up with Damien Hirst’s latest exhibition at the Wallace Collection in January, excess is not what I was led to experience. Quite the opposite, in fact, the exhibition left me with an extraordinary sense of lack. Lack of colour, lack of form, lack of detail (for all but two pieces in the exhibition), lack of talent, too, according to many; Hirst seemed to have moved into minimalist vision of monochromatic (Gothic) themes.

The exhibition, ‘No Love Lost: Blue Paintings’, was, in the gallery director’s words, ‘a bold new direction in the artist’s work’. The exhibition consisted of 25 canvases, of which 17 represented white/blue skulls against a deep blue background. Many of the canvases also presented other elements, linked – more or less overtly – to the question of mortality that the skull is conventionally associated with. The overall effect was one of repetition, of obsessive replication as the viewer was faced with very similar images, forced, in a sense, to spot the differences, to compare and contrast the items from everyday, domestic life – lemons, ashtrays and water – to the more surreal depictions – a shark’s open jaw – that accompanied the skulls in each painting.

On closer inspection, many of the paintings revealed visible lines, dissecting, so to speak, the canvases and creating an effect of fragmentation. This became particularly evident in the series of paintings that didn’t in fact reproduce skulls, offering, instead, what seemed to be the monochromatic shadowlands that you would find in the middle of a forest: ‘Woman of the Woods’, ‘The Birth of the Medusa’, ‘Witness at the Birth of Medusa’, ‘Guardian I’ and ‘Guardian II’ were more intriguing, because – unlike the more ‘obvious’ skull paintings, they did not visibly represent anything. What these paintings were simultaneously suggestive of was in fact an uncanny absent presence. The elusive subjects of these paintings somehow offset the pregnant centrality of the skulls, which, particularly in ‘Floating Skull’, drew attention to their solitary positioning: as Hirst claimed in interview, in this first painting, the skull looks like a planet, an other world, we could say. In their solipsism, Hirst’s disembodied skulls seem to invite a reflection on the self, particularly where, as in the Shark’s Jaw sequence, the solidity of the skull is juxtaposed to the negative space of the fish’s mouth: the all-engulfing void disturbingly threatens to swallow the skull into oblivion. The question is what are we afraid of? The death of self or the self of death? Is it annihilation itself that threatens our being? Or is it the lack of knowledge of what is beyond life?

Along with ‘Floating Skull’ the most striking piece in the collection is ‘Requiem, White Roses’: visibly larger than the other canvases there is a quality of dark romance in this painting: the white roses, and the white butterflies that, surrounding them, look like disembodied rose petals, become simultaneous signifiers of love and death; the composition therefore suggests a sublime reading of the entire exhibition not in terms of the ‘memento mori’ tradition behind it, but, quite the opposite, a strange celebration of life, one lived in the consciousness of mortality, and made more beautiful by this awareness. Hirst’s return to the sublime is also underpinned by the sculpture of St. Bartholomew, a  bronze cast reminiscent of Gunther von Hagens’s Body Worlds human exhibits and placed at the entrance of the Wallace Gallery: most visitors will walk by it completely unaware that this is one of Hirst’s works – particularly in the hours of dusk, as I did.

But when you stopped to observe this stand-alone piece, ‘Exquisite Pain’ seemed to capture the essence of the entire exhibition: holding out his skin, St. Bartholomew stands, disembodied and, allegedly, happy: pleasure and pain, we all remember, are the emotions that, as Edmund Burke explained, coalesce in the most powerful of aesthetic responses, the sublime: ‘WHATEVER is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain and danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime’. I thought back of the dark voids bordered by the sharks’ open jaws in the canvases: the lack of definition joined with the notion of danger raised a definite sense of uncanny unfamiliarity.  But while the engorging mouths and insular skulls of the paintings suggested states of alienated consciousness in the face of mortality, St. Bartholomew’s flayed body restores a sense of strange, sublime, pleasure: in the age of excessive obsession for eternal youth and bodily perfection, staring at the shiny bronze cast we are allowed, perhaps, to rejoice in the saint’s paradoxical ecstasy, with a sense of wholeness derived from the pain of torture and the self-conscious awareness of man’s damaged condition.


Return to the Baroque exhibition:

Rachel Spence, ‘The new golden Age of excess’, Financial Times, 9 February 2010. Available at: Accessed on 13 February 2010

Damien Hirst, ‘No Love Lost’,

Adrian Searle, ‘Damien Hirst’s paintings are dead dull’, The Guardian, 14 October 2009. Available at:

Edmund Burke, A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of The Sublime and Beautiful (1757)

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