In this black and white photograph a human skull sits on a horizontal ledge near the centre of the image, angled so that it is in three-quarter profile facing towards the right-hand edge of the print. The eye sockets look upwards towards a light source outside of the picture from which beams of bright light stream forth, bisecting the image diagonally from the top right-hand corner to the lower left-hand corner. As a result, the upper half of the photograph is cast in shadow while the lower half is bathed in white light. The angle at which the light is directed emphasises the contours and crevices of the skull and its overall three-dimensionality, but also serves to flatten the space behind the skull by creating perfectly straight diagonal lines of light and shadow.
Mapplethorpe studied for a Bachelor of Fine Arts at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York, between 1963 and 1969, although he never received a diploma because he dropped out. During his student days his interest in skull imagery was aroused when he was assigned a project to create a musical instrument from a bone. At this time Mapplethorpe owned a monkey called Scratch, whose name derived from a nickname for the devil, chosen because the monkey was uncontrollable. However Mapplethorpe was a negligent owner and arrived home one day to find Scratch unexpectedly dead. With the assignment due the following day, Mapplethorpe beheaded Scratch with a kitchen knife, boiled away his flesh and created an instrument. Rumours about the monkey’s death spread throughout the college with students suggesting that Mapplethorpe had beheaded the monkey while he was still alive, or that he had eaten the flesh in a voodoo cult ritual. Mapplethorpe encouraged these rumours by keeping Scratch’s skull in his pocket, occasionally whipping it out to parody Hamlet. Many Pratt alumnae were convinced that Mapplethorpe’s later photographs of skulls were, in fact, pictures of Scratch, yet there is no evidence to suggest that these assumptions are true. However, Patricia Morrisroe, Mapplethorpe’s biographer, believes that the monkey’s death and the use of his skull encapsulated the photographer’s ‘preoccupation with images of death and violence; his fascination with the devil; his desire to transform the ugly, or freakish, into works of beauty’ (Morrisroe 1995, p.42). The same interests could be said to be reflected in this photograph of a skull, particularly in the way the angled light creates patterns of light and dark on the skull’s uneven surface.
Mapplethorpe revived his interest in skull imagery in the years before his death from AIDS related complications in 1989. For example, in Mapplethorpe’s final self-portrait (Tate AR00496) taken in the same year as this photograph, the artist sits holding a cane topped with a carved wooden skull. Gaunt and weathered, Mapplethorpe stares straight ahead as though he is looking death straight in the eye, an impression reinforced by the presence of the skull. Art critic Kay Larson has commented on the ‘new morbidity’ of Mapplethorpe’s work from this period, seeing this photograph of the solitary skull as one of his most macabre images (cited in Morrisroe 1995, p.335).
Although the skull’s significance as a symbol of death is central to the meaning of this photograph and is compounded by Mapplethorpe’s own ill health, it has also be considered in terms of its formal composition and relationship to sculpture. For example, art historian and curator Germano Celant has written about the way in which the subjects of Mapplethorpe’s photographs appear sculptural (Celant, Ippolitov and Vail 2004, pp.37-51), while Morrisroe has noted that Mapplethorpe considered the skull to be ‘the purest sculptural image of all; neither hair nor flesh spoiled its clean lines, and everything, literally, was stripped to the bone’ (Morrisroe 1995, p.335).
Patricia Morrisroe, Mapplethorpe. A Biography, London 1995.
Germano Celant, Arkady Ippolitov and Karole P.B. Vail (eds.), Robert Mapplethorpe and the Classical Tradition: Photographs and Mannerist Prints, exhibition catalogue, Deutsche Guggenheim, Berlin 2004.
Susan Mc Ateer
University of Edinburgh
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