This fascination is certainly still strong. In modern fiction, The Last Unicorn is one of the most popular titles in the fantasy genre. Written by Peter S. Beagle and published in 1968, the story features a talking skull; this skull is not alive but is not really dead, either. He has the answer to how the heroes can escape their prison, but all the skull wants is to remember life and talk about pleasures of the flesh he no longer has!
From’s Shakespeare time to the modern day, people did not lose their fascination with skulls and their symbolism. One of the stranger versions of this fascination is Les Diableries – a series of photographs taken in the 1860s. French publisher Adolph Block printed books of pictures taken of little scenes that were set up using miniature sculpted skeletons and small, grinning skulls in fancy dress clothing and in high-society poses and activities. The scenes were supposed to represent Hell and the corruption of the French court. Today they are rather bizarre testimony to our fascination with skulls and their symbolic meanings.
With all its baggage as symbol and actual artifact, the skull is a tool much beloved by writers.
In “the Scottish play” (theater folks know about the “curse” that is attached to Hamlet, and won’t say the title aloud), the hero, Prince Hamlet, is tossed a skull that has been freshly dug up from the cemetery. The Prince claims to recognize the fellow and proceeds to have conversation with the thing.
It just goes to show, you can’t kill off good art… or bury a symbol with the body!
The use of skulls as subject matter in art continues in today’s wide-open art scene. Techniques, styles, and media change, and today skulls in art range from the beautiful, slightly stylized animal skulls of Georgia O’Keefe’s paintings to a glitzy platinum-cast human skull covered with more than 8,600 diamonds by artist Damien Hirst (2007), but the meaning and symbolism have not been diminished by skulls’ long history or it varied applications.
Vanitas paintings are still lifes that also use skulls – and other objects with universally recognized symbolic meanings of passing time, the vanities of youth, etc. such as drooping flowers, hourglasses, watches, or nearly extinguished candles – to convey a message.
Danse Macabre, taking its title from and originally depicting real events enacted at some funerals, show a dance or parade of figures that may all be dead (skeletons) or alternate between the living and the dead, to show the leveling power of death as well as its inevitability for us all.
Paintings in the memento mori (Latin: remember that you must die) school depicted religious figures or events and featured items that show how fleeting – and vain – is earthly life. Saint Jerome, known for his writings about the rewards and punishments that await us, is often shown holding or sitting close to a skull.
During the late Middle Ages of Europe, skulls were such a popular subject that certain styles were assigned “schools” that focused on specific aspects of skull art; these symbols served as a kind of shorthand to convey meaning to the viewer.
In the New World, Aztec and Toltec cultures made use of the skulls of defeated enemies and sacrificed slaves in tzompantli (racks for displaying large numbers of skulls). The Toltec people used carved skulls in jewelry and also in depictions of their gods and goddesses.
The uses of skulls as art are in the earliest records of human expression. From Asia, ancient Buddhist and Hindu traditions include the use of skulls. Cannibalistic tribes from the islands of the East used skulls (mostly of their defeated enemies) for ritualistic use and for artistic expression, not to mention as a source of dinner.
They were right. But instead of packing up their canvases and sneaking away into oblivion, they moved from realistically copying actual objects, to depicting things not as they are but as they seem, or in conveying feeling and sensations, or in translating intellectual thought into visual expression. Symbols became even more important in artists’ work, and human skulls, that had been a subject of artists’ explorations for almost as long as there have been artists, gained even more importance.
Weigand’s line of 3D wooden skulls are beautiful, sleek (like his chairs). They make use of the figure, strength and carvability of native hardwoods. They are tactile and seductive. They are tied to history and culture and religion and dedication… and to good humor and the economics of having a tool and needing to use it. And they will be instantly recognized by everyone who sees them.
And he says, “That philosophy made me think of symbolic representations of death, and that led to skulls, and here we are.”
Richard says, “On the surface that sounds like something out of a kung fu movie, but the reality of that to them is that, if they confront a horrible death daily, only then can they lead a life of integrity. The general belief is that the worst consequence of most things could be death. If you are afraid of dying then you won’t take the risk, or stand up for what you believe, or take a daring chance in business or in life. That’s the point of it, that they must face what is scary to them and so overcome the fear.
Richard says, “I’ve always been interested in the Orient,” he said, “in the culture, spiritual and aesthetic expressions. The samurai are fascinating. They were warriors, dedicated to a master and totally loyal. Bushido is the code of the samurai, and in the Bushido the number one thing a samurai has to do is to confront a horrible death – daily.
It started with the economics-based decision to buy a Computer Numerical Control (CNC) machine in order to produce more of his signature chairs. Weigand explained, “A CNC is, basically, a computer-controlled router. You make an original item and then the machine can make copies of its pieces, drastically reducing the time involved in producing a series.”
Once the chairs were completed, Weigand considered what other project would make good use of the machine’s capabilities and fulfill his need to create in wood.