Zdzisław Beksiński, Untitled, oil on fibreboard. 1984

by Maureen Fitzmahan

Momento mori –  “remember that you have to die.”  Momento mori  is an interesting facet of the still life genre.  The artist often places a skull in his still life among other symbols of life and death.

I must admit I find much of what I have seen in this genre to be quite disturbing.  Late 20th and 21st artists like to shock, so there are a lot of images that make me feel very uncomfortable if not disgusted.  I don’t like slasher movies or horror movies.  I don’t like violence (just murder mysteries without the blood and gore, thank you).

But, in the better pieces of art that represent this genre there are elements of spirit, poignancy, deep truths.  These pieces are also aesthetically beautiful.  Death and beauty. A powerful combination.

Originating from medieval Europe and the Catholic Church, Memento mori was very popular in Western art.  It was a part of the ascetic discipline used as a tool to perfect oneself by cultivating detachment and by reflecting on the immortality of the soul and the afterlife.


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Pablo Picasso. Goat’s Skull, Bottle, and Candle. 1952

Picasso seemed to love putting skulls in his art. Picasso’s Black Jug and Skull, made after World War II, is a modern momento mori – the book, the wine jug, and the skull..  All of which seems ironic since Picasso seemed to enjoy life to excess.  Maybe painting about death, exorcised the artist’s fear of death.  And, isn’t there some humor in the skull eating the book?  Does this mean that the artist was obsessed with reading (I doubt it) or that he is making fun of us that are.

Pablo Picasso
Black Jug and Skull

Otto Dix

Otto Dix
Skull (Schädel) from The War (Der Krieg). Etching.

Otto Dix,  after his experience as a German foot soldier in World War I, made 50 graphic images that portrayed the horrifying realities of war.

There was  lots of publicity around Dix’s art. The public was shocked!  After losing the horrific and pointless war, Germans were deeply humiliated and beaten down at the peace conference in Versailles.  The German world was turned upside down.  And now this young artist, one of their own,  attacked the well established German value of German militarism and strength.  Artists were expected to support their mother Germany and paint about the glory of Germany and its strength.  Instead, Dix portrayed the stark reality of the dead, the dying, and the futility of war.

A decade later, some of Otto Dix’s art were actually confiscated and destroyed by the Nazi government.  650 works of his and other artists’ art were featured in The Degenerate Art Exhibition and then destroyed.   “The day before the exhibition started, Hitler delivered a speech declaring “merciless war” on cultural disintegration, attacking “chatterboxes, dilettantes and art swindlers.”

Georgia O’Keeffe

Georgia O’Keeffe was identified as a ‘modernist.’  She painted bleached skulls of desiccated cows and desert animals.  She was “one of the first artists to render close-ups of uniquely American objects that were highly detailed yet abstract.”

Georgia O’Keeffe. Head with Broken Pot. 1943

The momento mori, as an art form, is not as popular today in the 21st century as it once was.  Admittedly, Hollywood and cable T.V. make lots of money selling death in the form of murder, war, violence, and horror.  But, the natural transitoriness of life and the last stages of life are generally avoided.  Too sad or morbid.  Too uncomfortable.  Too ugly.

Conor Walton

Conor Walton.  Lego Mondrian