Romancing the Skull: Art Gallery of Ballarat

Above: Jose Guadalupe Posada, Calavera del Cine, print on woven paper. Private collection
Right: Jose Guadalupe Posada, La Calavera de Cupido Cupids Calavera, c.-1905. Relief engraving on typemetal woven paper. Private collection
Below: Jose Guadalupe Posada, La calavera de Emiliano Zapata, 1912. Print on woven paper. Collection of David Hulme and Brigitte Banzige

Andrew Stephens finds out what is so alluring about skulls, with the new Art Gallery of Ballarat exhibition.

Curator Julie McLaren went to Mexico in 2015 to experience the Day of the Dead for herself. She knew the festival had the same origins as Halloween, but that the two events had branched off from each other to develop completely different meanings. During the visit, she went to the town of Aguascalientes, birthplace of Jose Posada (1852-1913), the artist now famed for his broadsheets of skulls, skeletons and cadaverous ghouls. She fell in love with his works.

In putting together the exhibition Romancing the Skull for the Art Gallery of Ballarat, McLaren was aware that Posada had been an artist whose life had ended with him being poor, and an unknown talent. It wasn’t until decades later that he was re-discovered by artists such as Diego Rivera. The grounding idea for Posada’s work was that although some of us are rich and powerful and others are not, underneath we are all the same because we have a skull and skeleton.

‘That is a really beautiful concept,’ says McLaren, who has taken that foundation through the entire exhibition, tying it in with ‘dance of death’ imagery from the Middle Ages and works as diverse as those by contemporary Australian artists Fiona Hall, Sam Jinks and Sally Smart.

One of the things McLaren admires in Posada is his ability to make what might be a grim concept into something that is fun: ‘He portrays everyday people going about their business as a skull—from a garbage collector and water collector to political figures and anyone else you can think of. When placed alongside more recent works, they have a really contemporary feel.’

They are such charming images that the enlarged versions on posters at the front of the Gallery have been attracting passersby to pose for selfies with them.

The gallery is showing 20 of the Posadas which are on loan from a Sydney collector-couple who McLaren says were more than happy to lend the original prints along with original woodblocks.

Another exhibition highlight is a woodcut print from the renowned Nuremberg Chronicle of 1493 depicting one of the earliest Danse Macabre (Dance of Death) images. ‘It is really playful, with skeletons and some rotting corpses having a jolly old time dancing over a grave. A number of other artists have replicated this playful aspect.’ There are specially commissioned works for the exhibition by Fiona Hall, Reko Rennie and Sally Smart, as well as works by contemporary Australian artists Sam Jinks, Rona Green, and Ben Quilty. Shaun Gladwell’s Virtual Reality work Orbital Vanitas 2016, which debuted at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, is also showing.

McLaren’s excitement in curating the show was amplified by her awareness that in popular culture, we can buy almost any product with a skull on it. ‘The skull used to have so much meaning to it as a “memento mori” and knowing that you will die; this has been diluted in a way, and people are now attracted to the symbol as one of rebellion,’ she says. ‘It is a safe way of rebelling, wearing skull clothing.’

As she moved through the curatorial process, however, McLaren found that what she had initially interpreted as the primary symbolism she associated with the skull—death—began to change. ‘I have really turned around completely and now see it as an image that represents life.’ After all, the “memento mori” tradition wasn’t intended to make us think about death in a negative way but to remind ourselves that because we will inevitably die one day, we should therefore make the most of life while we are living it.

‘We live such fast-paced lives and we are always connected to social media and we are always having to do so much,’ McLaren says. ‘The skull could be seen as a reminder to sit back and think “Am I living my best life”?’ – Andrew Stephens

Romancing the Skull is at the Art Gallery of Ballarat until 28 January.