Art Abroad #10: Skullduggery
There is a good chance that, if you aren’t already, a visit to the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam will convert you into an fervent fan of the artist whose troubled nature (i.e., the severed ear lobe, suicide, et cetera) too often eclipses his brilliance in the minds of the general public. You probably won’t leave, however, with a single favorite work. Just when I thought I discovered a favorite, I’d take a few steps and find myself mesmerized by another Van Gogh creation. With such an extensive collection of one artist’s work to explore—from his landscapes and still lifes to self-portraits and peasant life depictions, spanning the various periods of Van Gogh’s life—selecting a lone piece to feature here is a near-impossible task.
Skull of a Skeleton with Burning Cigarette (above) stands out among the paintings in the Van Gogh Museum collection for its lack of vivid color and macabre subject matter. Largely self-taught after deciding to become an artist in 1880 at the age of 27, he produced some 900 paintings (along with another 1,100 drawings and sketches) until his untimely death 10 years later. This undated creation, thought to be produced in 1886, is the result of his brief stint (only a few weeks) at the art academy in Antwerp. Van Gogh enrolled to have the opportunity to draw and paint live models, but his wishes clashed with the school’s traditions. “Students…learned by copying prints and studying plaster casts,” according to the museum’s commentary. “After they had progressed sufficiently, they were permitted to study the live model. Skeletons were often used to help them understand human anatomy.” Van Gogh probably painted the skull with cigarette as a joke, lampooning the academy’s strict methods and staid practices.