In art there are many different movements and time periods in which to immerse oneself and study. In such movements, one may come to the conclusion that often times, one art movement begets another-either as a way to reinvent that era as in the Renaissance touching upon classic Greek and Roman sculpture or in the case of Impressionism doing away with that classical canon for something new. This paper will discuss and compare two artists: Vincent van Gogh and Max Beckmann.
Beckmann’s painting Still Life with Three Skulls is directly influenced by van Gogh’s painting Skull (although skulls are a practice in the painting world and many such paintings exist in various eras). Van Gogh was an Impressionist. This means that he followed a school of thought that allowed for certain elements of the painting life to be directly involved in his work. Such a practice is shown in Skull (c1887). While the Paris school of thought was greatly involved with staying with that classical canon of beauty and representation of life this painting goes beyond those practiced boundaries.
The skull, albeit certainly a good representation of a skull has certain characteristics that were not the standard for painting human anatomy for example, the outlines and other lines of the skull are wavy something which classical beauty in the Paris School would not allow. Max Beckmann’s painting Still Life with Three Skulls (c1945) goes a step beyond van Gogh’s impressionistic painting and gives these three skulls the bare minimum of definition through the use of lines.
Not only are Beckmann’s lines wavy but they are also thick and not constitutional to the form of a typical skull. Another way in which van Gogh’s skull can be considered impressionistic is his use of shading. While classical shading portends to the subtleties of an object’s bends and breaks, van Gogh’s shading is an onslaught of thick color that seems to be placed in the correct places but which gives the viewer more of a feel of texture and not necessarily a feel for the bends and breaks of the skull.
In Beckmann’s painting as well, shading seems to be a formality best left to the classical artists. Beckmann’s shading is done in thick lines and exaggerated forms. His highlights as well give the viewer a striking contrast in the shape of the skulls. Since the skull is a metaphor for death another aspect of these paintings may be examined. Van Gogh’s skull gives a burst of highlighting color around its form which may make the viewer feel a certain boom with the presence of the skull – as though it had just manifested from thin air onto the canvas.
This startling affect is done in Beckmann’s painting as well. He has his three skulls surrounded by different objects: chief among which are playing cards (also the candle on the left of the painting is blown out). These items manifest the image of death to the viewer. Meaning perhaps life is a gamble, life is short (the candle which may be a reference to Shakespeare’s Hamlet when he says Out out brief candle). In any instance, either painting portends to death by the mere fact of the presence of the skull no matter in what aspect of art that skull is painted.