Unlike “is there any milk left in the fridge” and “what appalling concoction did I drink last night that resulted in this horrific headache”, the question posed in this article is not one that regularly troubles me. However a couple of weeks ago, as oppose to the regular dinner discussions of politics and current affairs (read: ex-halls gossip and complaints about our degrees), my house were united in a joint quest to identify the world’s most iconic image. This mission was not one of self-fulfilment or even for enjoyment; it had a purpose behind it. The raison d’etre for solving this problem and to the highest possible standard was to secure one of my settlement sisters a grad job at the best advertising agency in the country. Meaning this answer could possibly be the difference between her living the yuppie, cosmopolitan dream in London or moving back home with her parents in Maidstone. So as you can tell, there was a lot resting on it. Sadly at the time my contributions were limited, whilst she wrote an eloquent piece on the icon of a heart all I could think of was the McDonalds’s ‘M’ or the Christian cross; both very endocentric answers when put up against the global appeal of the most important organ.
The French have a term, l’esprit d’escalier, literally translating to “staircase wit”, but in reality it defines that frustration we all feel when we come up with the perfect response to a question days after it has been posed. Therefore for me this article has taken the form of self-indulgent cathartic therapy, in which I have given myself the arduous task of attempting to answer the above question. Just with a little less pressure than the previous situation, because this time nobody’s future is on the line, just my pride and your time well spent.
Whilst the love heart is unquestionably iconic, the image I am suggesting as the ultimate superlative is the ying to its yang. Although they are both based on our anatomy, whilst my housemate’s conveyed messages of love and vitality, in juxtaposition mine is all doom and death. This graphic effortlessly links prostitution in Elizabethan England, Nazi SS insignia and Venetian painters alike. Its flag can be flown anywhere from a small child’s fantasy ship to a boat infamous for acts of robbery and criminal violence. This cranium based creation, when used to label a small glass bottle of liquid can often be the big difference between life or death, also pays a starring role in one of William S’s most famous soliloquies.
As I am sure you have all guessed by now, the image I am referring to is of course the skull.
Although not one know to adorn Hallmark cards, or be the first choice of doodlers at the back of Geography class, the skull has received a revival in recent years mainly due to the fashion maverick that was Alexander McQueen. No longer reserved to the jackets of Harley Davidson driving, tattooed, middle-aged outlaws, now the skull inhabits the wardrobes of society’s chicest and richest. Whether it be printed numerous times in varying colours on a square of silk softer than butter, or sculpted out of gold and encrusted with the finest diamonds, perching delicately on top of the knuckle duster handle of a two grand clutch, this skull signifies Britannia, grunge and consumerism all at once.
However it is not only the fashion world that has long had a love affair with the bare bones that protect our brain, anyone with an inch of knowledge about art should be able to reel off numerous famous depictions of the skull at ease. And for those of you that can’t may I suggest Pyramid of Skulls by Cezanne? Or how about a rebellious and dramatic piece by Van Gogh in which, as the name states, he beautifully portrays a Skull of a skeleton with burning cigarette? If these big names didn’t do it for you then how about Picasso’s still life, in which the skull is placed in great company alongside a leek and a pitcher. Or Dali for the modern art aficionados in which the naked form effortlessly illustrates the curvaceous nature of this hunk of osseous matter. And as a girl who grew up in Rome I can tell you that the city is scattered with Catacombs in which monks of the past decided that skulls of ancestors made perfect trinkets when decorating new premises. All I need to say is you haven’t lived until you have seen a lampshade made out of 2nd century bone. This however is child’s play when comparing them to the Polish ‘Chapel of Skulls’, Czermna in Kudowa- Zdrój.
The examples given so far are all very Eurocentric, but the skull has been an interior design choice across the world. In Mesoamerican architecture stacks of skulls were used to present human sacrifice, and amongst the Indian population skull necklaces are worn to remind people of ‘memento morti’ [that you must die], so basically a more sophisticated version of a #YOLO tattoo. And you only had to look to the recent fiesta that was Halloween to understand the obsession we all have with the Mexican festival ‘Día de Muertos’. It’s easy to say that these overly decorated skulls have knocked slutty zombie off the top costume choice charts.
So there you have it, an iconic image that globally represents life and death; whether that be on Tibetan bead bracelets, post-Bubonic plague posters reinforcing how short life can be or as an integral part of the Kabbalah’s Tree of Life. It can represent the ultimate in clandestineness when used as an icon for secret societies (cough, cough – Masonry), and has been the long standing face of both Halloween and Heavy Metal. It can excite and kill, delight and dissatisfy, and if it’s good enough for Jolly Old Rodger then it should be good enough for us!