Representation of the human skull has a long and rich tradition in the history of art. The stark symbol of man’s mortality holds a perennial fascination for artists who return to it time and again down the generations. And viewers too. I mean come on, who doesn’t like a good skull picture?
One of the more intriguing ways that skulls have appeared in art is the surreptitious inclusion of a skull in a piece of work as an optical illusion, often in the form of an ambiguous image. It’s something that really gained popularity in the 19th century and continues to appeal to the imagination to this day.
Okay, grab a coffee and let’s take a look at some surreptitious skulls in the form of metamorphic optical illusions…
Probably the great-grandfather of the skull sneakily hidden in the picture is Holbein’s Ambassadors. Painted in the 16th century by German artist Hans Holbein the Younger, it really is a hell of a picture. Kind of a double portrait and a still life at the same time, there’s a lot going on in it. It’s bursting with symbolism and hidden meaning, everything is ripe for interpretation and it’s no wonder there’s a certain air of mystery around the painting. Oh, and as if that wasn’t enough, there’s this great big shape across the bottom. But not just any old big weird shape- an anamorphic skull. A skull set in such crazy perspective that only when the viewer approaches the painting from the side will they see the form morph into an accurate rendering of a human skull.
And the skull looks like this from the side.
All Is Vanity
Charles Allan Gilbert drew All is Vanity in 1892 when he was only eighteen. He sold it to Life Publishing in 1902 and the image subsequently spread all over the world in postcard form. Since then it has spawned countless imitations but the original continues to be the source of inspiration for artists to the present day.
Postcards And Prints
Things really kicked off in the late 19th and early 20th century with postcards of ambiguous images of skulls being the in thing.
This metamorphic postcard of women making wine was published by A F Laglau of Toulousse.
Of course, Salvador Dali was a master of this kind of pictorial illusion.
Contemporary Metamorphic Skull Art
So the grand tradition of metamorphic skulls continues down to today.