By Stanisław Rosiek
The only definite thing we can say about a skull is that it is just a residuum, a remainder of a live body that became a corpse and was irrevocably reduced to ashes. That is it. Nothing more. All the other things we say about and do with a skull (from the very beginning) have been motivated by fear. There is no hiding the fact that it is a fear of death, which is so often manifested and symbolically represented by a skull.
It is the fear experienced by Łukasz Huculak, who has been painting the portraits of skulls for a few years now. I am feeling this fear too as I am writing about Huculak's paintings. But it is not always like this. Even now, as I am working on this text and listening to Bach's Komm, süßer Tod, my fear is subsiding. It was by pure chance that I turned on Bach and that is happened to be the piece listed as BMV 478 in Schmieder's catalogue. However, it helps me to realize that this fear is laced with a vague, opposite feeling: come, sweet death.
Skulls exist in this world in a paradoxical way. They seem to be omnipresent while in fact they are inaccessible and hidden. What we normally see is a dummy, a copy, an inapt likeness of a skull, which does not do justice to its beauty. We find them everywhere. A skull and crossbones is a schematic icon, a popular warning of a deadly danger – poison, electric current or a brick falling from scaffolding. A skull as a carnival mask, worn by those who would like to nip off a small piece of its ruthless power. A grotesque symbol of Halloween – Jack-o'-lantern – a hollowed out, carved pumpkin, which is a parody and a negative of a real skull. Educational skulls – plastic human skeleton models in Biology classrooms. But they are just a school parody of death. The plastic skeleton lacks dignity, especially when students stick in between its teeth a cigarette made of a rolled sheet of paper torn from a Religion notebook.
Pervasive dummies block the way to the real thing. They stop us, the owners of our own skulls, from coming face to face with the skull of a dead person. This is why few people have ever seen a real skull.
A skull that performs its biological function is hidden underneath fifty-four facial muscles. The face protects the access to the skull. It is the skull's natural mask and it cannot be taken off. What makes the matter worse, we do not know our own skulls, although they are closest to us. The only thing we sometimes see is their X-ray. This X-ray image of us may be charming and appreciated by some, but it does not allow full visual contact. Only death exposes the skull and brings it out to the world. Yet when it happens, we no longer have eyes to look at the skull and to contemplate its (our own) beauty.
Other people cannot access the skull either. The skull, exposed by death and the decay of the face, is soon covered again. There is not greater taboo in European culture than an open grave and its human residents. Our culture has pushed the natural process of body decay beyond its borders. The access is strictly restricted at least until the corpse mummifies or its decay reaches the end, exposing the skull and the skeleton. Sooner or later soft tissues reveal the hard parts of the body, which are given some limited rights to be seen. Better this than nothing. Driven by curiosity, hundreds of people visit ossuaries – a few dozen places in Europe where skulls are exhibited and can be viewed by tourists.
To the inexpert eye all skulls are almost identical. They are easier to draw than faces. Anybody can do it. Two dark eye sockets, a black hole in place of the nose, and a straight row of teeth. It is the ideal pattern but one not far from reality except for a few small details. In order to correct one of them, we should know that real skulls usually retain only upper teeth (their number varies from skull to skull). The jaw is missing because it often gets lost when it detaches from the head and is treated like the rest of the skeleton (it ends up in a bag of bones).
Whether ideal or real, one skull always seems more similar to another skull (and all the others) than one face to another.
I remember my astonishment when I worked in my youth as a reserve for Musée de l'Homme. Hundreds of plaster head casts on the shelves, of living or dead people, collected by Franz Gall and his students, seemed to me like a varied crowd. Here is fat X, there is Z next to skinny Y. Each of them was unique. While the skulls of famous criminals of their time and of great artists and politicians all looked like they were stamped out by the same die. They were like two peas in a pod. They could only be told apart by a gentle and caring touch of a phrenologist, studying their surfaces in search of significant protuberances, which were to confirm their owner's criminal or genius gene.
The situation is much worse in ossuaries. Gall's skulls, being systematised objects of scientific research, at least kept their names. The phrenologist made sure they did. While the skulls that were used to build the chapel in Czermna at the end of the 18th century were the remains of anonymous victims of two wars (the thirty years' war and the seven years' war) and of numerous cholera epidemics that frequented Lower Silesia. All these crowded skulls, pressed side by side, at first sight looked like they were one multiplied creature. Who would be able tell them apart or give them names? Even the chapel's creator, Wacław Tomaszek, a priest, and his assistant Langer, a gravedigger, would have found this task extremely difficult.
But is it so? Apparently, not always. I open Wikipedia and this is what I find: 'Among the skulls exhibited in the chapel there are: gravedigger Langer's skull, the skull of Czermna village leader and the skull of his wife, a Tatar's skull (as suggested by its anatomy), a skull featuring some illness-induced changes, a femur that belonged to a two-metre tall man (who was most likely Swedish), and a improperly healed bone of a fractured limb. The skull of village leader Martinc bears bullet marks, since Martinc was shot by the Prussians during the seven years' war (1756-63) for leading the Austrian army through the Errant Rocks. His wife was killed by a blow to the head by a sharp object (as evident from marks on her skull) in an effort to shield her husband with her own body.' It is said that even priest Tomaszek ordered to have his bones deposited in the chapel twenty years after his death. However, these few names we know cannot counterbalance thousands of anonymous skulls lining the walls of the chapel in Czermna. There is no transition from those skulls to their names and individual lives.
Huculak's skulls are not like this. They do not toe the line. They belong neither with science nor religion. Maybe this is why they differ so much from one another. The painter made sure that each of them has its own individual physiognomic characteristics so we perceive them as multiple beings. There is no one skull. There are many of them. And every one of them is unique.
This individual treatment of skulls places them beyond the main current of iconographic tradition. Allegorical depictions favoured the skull stripped of as many individual features as possible. The skull was to become a sign. Huculak's painterly world is different because the artist paints the portraits of skulls. Not a skull in general, an allegorical skull, a skull that is a symbol of nothingness in a bigger system of meaningful depictions, but an individualised skull, a skull that has its own voice and speaks its own truth – unverifiable, irreducible to a chosen system of allegories. But does it mean that these portraits of skulls are painted from nature? I doubt that Huculak – following in Cézanne's footsteps – paints skull studies. These days it would be too difficult. It is much easier for a painter to find a live model than a dead one and in the state of advanced decay. There are no volunteers for this job. Therefore, painting a skull portrait in not an easy task and Huculak has no choice but to paint imaginary skulls.
But who knows? Perhaps the painter places his easels in ossuaries or in front of a collection of anthropological exhibits in his search for posthumous individualities. I find it hard to believe though. I think that Huculak – just like a certain dead poet – treats a skull like an inner soul landscape, rather than a (distant and inaccessible) model for a study.
The skull – as a residual being – is a form of protest against decay and nothingness of a once living body. Therefore we can assume that this remainder of a person's biological existence, even though irrevocably dead, persists on the side of life. Hence it is – following the title of Huculak's exhibition – an after-death symptom. Indeed, but let us face it: it is the last symptom. The last form of man. In the end there is complete decay, dust and nothingness. In the end there is Nothing.
Skulls belong to a place on the border of existence and nothingness (if it exists at all).
No living person can access nothingness. Nothingness is hard to imagine and consequently it is hard to write about. Even Saint Augustine had trouble with it. Nothingness (Nothing), towards which skulls lead us, is inaccessible and unimaginable. This is why, when we give it some thought, we are likely to err, to veer off course, to lay down our rationality and convert to the side of faith. So, let us start again:
Even though skulls do not belong to life (as they have lost their bodies, and especially their faces), they persist on our side (for which they pay a high price through reification), which is the side of visual forms of existence. Yet skulls do not come from here. They are strangers. They seem to belong to a different world. Which is why they are so often assigned the role of intermediaries between the world of the living and the world of the dead, who are no longer here with us.
Huculak's skulls embrace the role of a medium between these two worlds. When we look at them, it seems that they want to tell us something. Or at least they pretend to have an important message, a communication from 'there', from the world where we will all, sooner or later, go, and which is beyond our reach as long as we live. Huculak, like no other, puts his faith in skulls, and his paintings are an attempt to decipher and understand their message. And then to communicate it to us, even though, unworthy and earthbound, we turn our eyes away from death and its many manifestations, and look hopefully towards erotic bodies which are so full of life, craving for their approval of our carnality or at least an incentive to be together (which lessens the fear of nothingness).
What do skulls have to offer us? What can they tell us?
Their speech is dark and indistinct. It is difficult to understand what they say. It even seems that they do not speak in one voice. They differ from allegorical skulls. And they differ from tomb statutes and skulls in ossuaries, which always proclaim the same thing: 'You will die, just like I died.' And they repeat their warning in various languages. Skulls in the chapel in Mielnik say: CO JSTE VY, BYLI JSME I MY / CO JSME MY, BUDETE I VY. If you have not understood it yet, look at this translation: 'Traveller, I once was what you are / You will be what I am now / Let us pray for each other.'
Is that all? Repeating for hundreds of years and in hundreds of languages the banal truth that we will all die? Or, that everything is vanity from the perspective of eternity:
Vanitas vanitatum et omnia vanitas. Let us hope that there really is something that these skulls are telling us, only we cannot hear and understand them.
Huculak can hear better than the rest of us. He paints what he has heard and understood. His mute skulls communicate more than those on cemetery inscriptions or 17th-century Dutch still lifes. They convey even more than the skull held by Hamlet in Delacroix's painting, since this skull is only a prop around which various desires of living people revolve. Huculak gives back to his skulls their lost identity, and so they speak loudly and clearly: 'I was', which in our language – the language of the living – stands for 'I am'.
There is one more thing, it is unclear how exactly Huculak's talking skulls exist. Where do they dwell? Where do they speak from? How come we can hear their voice? We do not know. What matters is that – thanks to the painter who brings them back to the visual world – we can look in their dead faces and empty eye sockets and experience nothingness or come in touch with the afterlife (if we believe they exist).
Huculak's fascination is not surprising. And it is the fascination we share with him. His skulls are so beautiful or at least interesting as visual forms. Would they inspire the painter if he did not see in them a perfect form? The dome of the skull can compete with the dome on Saint Peter's basilica, while the human skeleton can contend with a Gothic cathedral. They are both obvious as forms and both equally perfect. All we need to do is accurately portray them in a painting. Without adding anything.
Huculak's skulls are naked and simple. The painter did not think it necessary to adorn them in any way. Instead he tried to capture and present in his painting their natural beauty. He resisted the temptation to decorate, even though in ossuaries and chapels we would find many examples of this practice: skulls adorned with floral motifs, and with an inscribed name on the forehead above the date of death; skulls studded with precious stones, painted skulls, mummies' skulls wearing hats, caps, and with braided hair. They want to look pretty and they do.
The gallery of portraits created by Huculak transcends the category of beauty. The painter regards skulls with a reserved and studying eye, he reduces the distance and places them in the centre of a narrow frame, and consequently the viewer feels like he or she is standing face to face with a skull. This apparent closeness is disturbing, even though it does not really exist. If Huculak's skulls were breathing, we would certainly feel the gust of tomb air on our faces. Luckily, residual entities cannot breathe. Besides, only eyes matter in painting, and they can look from the distance. And this exactly is what we do.
Some of Huculak's skulls cannot maintain the form they were given. They dissolve in the mist. Or maybe they emerge from the mist? Anyway, they are frontier skulls, signalling that the world of the dead exists somewhere (but where?) and that this world is trying to tell us something through skulls. Even though what they say may seem like usurpation.
Other skulls portrayed by Huculak claim that there is no eschatological perspective for them as things. They are satisfied with existing only as visual images. All they need is for the painter to define their existence in space as geometric solids belonging to the complex world of forms. These skulls have no message for us.
There is also a group of skulls in Huculak's paintings that lose their identity as a consequence of fragmentation or a choice of a different viewing position. They become abstract objects, irregular figures studied by the painter (in his imagination) and treated like a basic painting task: paint a vase, paint some fruit, paint a skull as seen from the side of the palate.
There are also a few skulls in Huculak's gallery that refuse to accept their state of existence and low social status. They pretend not to be affected by death. Or perhaps it is the artist who refuses to admit that his character is long dead and has gone to death's side. Some of these skulls resemble faces of dead people or rather their posthumous masks, which the living decided to preserve for immortality in plaster (or sometimes in bronze).
There are not many skulls that Huculak depicts in a classic macabre convention. But there some. I think that these skulls are most likely to draw the audience's attention as the viewer can recognise in them familiar figures from horror films.
What is in store for Huculak's eschatological painting? Not much. The painter of skulls, however skilful and talented he was, cannot hope to be very successful. He is doomed to fail, unless he puts his talent to the service of mass culture, of which the highest manifestation and luxury is the production of gruesome computer games. The painter working on a series of a few dozen skull portraits should not complain about his situation though. He only has himself to blame for not acting according to the dictates of his time. How could he not notice that almost everybody around him – irrespective of their gender, age and social class – push aside the thoughts of death, heralded by the skull, and that they all long for vital bodies, erotic bodies, bodies that would have us believe that they can last, perhaps for the whole eternity. Even the most beautiful and telling skulls will never satisfy this desire. So it takes a lot of determination to place the skull on the horizon of life, let alone on the horizon of erotic life.
I have almost finished. Having spent many night hours looking at Huculak's skulls, I am finally turning my gaze away from them. I have stopped listening to what they have to say and I am turning back to music. Komm, süßer Tod performed by Christoph Prégardien.