Metamorphic Skull Illusions

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…

The Ambassadors

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.

Holbein's Ambassadors

And the skull looks like this from the side.

The anamorphic skull from Holbein's Ambassadors

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.

All Is Vanity by Charles Allan Gilbert
All Is Vanity by Charles Allan Gilbert

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.

L'amour de Pierrot
L’amour de Pierrot, 1905.

This metamorphic postcard of women making wine was published by A F Laglau of Toulousse.

Tete Macabre de Guillaume - skull optical illusion
La Guerre No. 40 – Tete Macabre de Guillaume.
Au Revoir
Au Revoir, circa 1905-1910.
Skulltur - skull postcard
S(K)UL(L)TUR, circa 1910.
Unidentified skull optical illusion postcard
Unknown postcard, circa 1905-1910.
Today And Tomorrow - skull postcard
Today And Tomorrow, 1908 by HM Rose.
Die geheimnisvolle Badezelle - metamorphic skull illusion
Die geheimnisvolle Badezelle, circa 1905-1910.
An ambiguous image of two lovers kissing and also a skull
La vie et la mort – circa 1908.
An ambiguous image of two young girls sitting and a skull
Unidentified postcard.
Pencil drawing of three naked women that also takes the form of a skull
La tete de mort!, 1910.
An opticall illusion that looks like two young girls and a dog and also a skull
Russian postcard, dated 1820.
An optical illusion that looks like a young couple on a sledge and also a skull
Tete de mort
An optical illusion that looks both like two men drinking and a skull
Unidentified postcard from 1909.
An optical illusion that looks both like a young couple and a skull
Blossom And Decay, circa 1870.
An ambiguous image that looks like both a boat on a river and a skull
Skull And Gondola


Of course, Salvador Dali was a master of this kind of pictorial illusion.

Naked women forming a skull - Salvador Dali
In Voluptate Mors, Salvador DalĂ­ & Philippe Halsman, 1951.
Salvador Dali - Ballerina In A Death's Head
Ballerina In A Deaths-Head, Salvador Dali, 1939.

Contemporary Metamorphic Skull Art

So the grand tradition of metamorphic skulls continues down to today.

Tom French

An ambiguous image that looks both like two young women and a skull
An optical illusion that looks both like two women and a skull
An ambiguous image that looks like both a mother and daughter and a skull

Hungarian artist 1951, Istvan Orosz works in a broad range of media. Every single one of his medieval-looking etchings from the series Ship Of Fools contains a hidden skull.

An ambiguous image that looks like both an old ship at sea and a skull
An optical illusion that looks like both a man on a horse and a skull
An ambiguous image that looks like both a man counting money and a skull
An optical illusion that looks like both an old man on the street and a skull
An ambiguous image that looks like both a man holding scales and a skull
A man sitting with a skeleton
An old man sitting in a chair

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