Still Life with Three Skulls is now exhibited at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. This piece can be regarded as an example of expressionist art. The artwork can also be regarded as an example of figurative painting. The piece reveals the horrors of the work and can be seen as a reminder created to warn people and help them prevent wars or gambling with death.
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The painting was created during the last months of the Second World War (1945) by the German artist Max Beckman (1884-1950). The painting’s dimensions are 55.2 x 89.5 cm and the medium is oil on canvas.
The still life has quite peculiar objects: skulls, trumpets, cards (diamonds, hearts and spades). Clearly, three skulls as well as the ace of spades are central to the painting. The objects are located on a desk with a tablecloth. It is also possible to see stained-glass window in the background. It is important to note that bright colors prevail in the picture. Black and red are dominant. Rich orange and brown hues are a very good background for these colors. Thick rough paint creates a very special impression.
To analyze the painting, it is essential to plunge into the epoch the painter was working. First of all, he lived through the First World War and he also saw the way his country was developing. In 1937, he had to flee from the Nazi Germany and he came to Amsterdam. Of course, the painter understood the wrongs of the regime and he experienced the horrors of the war. The painting is very symbolic and evoking.
First, it is important to consider the role the color plays in the artwork. There is certain contrast of black and bright. This contrast can be a symbolic representation of life experiences. Admittedly, people living in the 1930-1940s in Germany (or in any other country of Europe) had dozens of contrasting experiences. There was the hope of the better future in the early 1930s and German people believed that the national idea (which was in the air) could save them. At the same time, there were horrors of the Nazi regime (the brown plague) when people were killed and forced to leave their home country. There could be some personal happiness as people still met and tried to build their lives. There were also horrible war crimes when thousands and millions of people were killed.
Some colors have a particular meaning. Obviously, black stands for death, destruction and nothingness. The color of the table (brown) can stand for Nazism. The color is the ground for the skulls, cards and tablecloth. Hence, it is possible to assume that the painter sees Nazism as the reason of all horrors and destruction. The red color used stands for blood, war and death.
As has been mentioned above, skulls are central objects in the still life. These are universal symbols of death. It is possible to find numerous meanings in the piece. Again, there is a contrast of the death represented by skulls and feast (or, at least, glorification represented by trumpets). It is also possible to assume that this can be an allegory. Thus, some people proclaim different things and articulate various ideas but this, eventually, leads to death and destruction. Of course, the number of skulls also has certain meaning. The number 3 is very important for Christians (and the painter was a Christian), as this is the number of Holy Trinity. The skulls have quite a demonic look. It seems they are laughing at their power over other. This can also be a laugh at the face of the death.
Cards are very important for the painting. Cards are conventional symbols of gambling. In this case, this is gambling with death. The look of the skulls may show that they are not afraid to lose and they do not care about life. As has been mentioned above, the ace of spades is in the center of the painting. This card has its meaning in the western culture. First, it is the highest card. More so, this card is often referred to as the card of death. Hence, the painter uses the highest card to show that the stakes are very high and the result is quite predictable as the death inevitably wins.
In conclusion, it is possible to state that the work was created during the deadliest war in the history of humanity. It can be regarded as a bright reminder of what happened in the middle of the twentieth century when people were gambling with death and many lost their lives. When looking at the painting, contemporaries of the artist brought back sad memories. For people living in the 21st century, the artwork is a warning as the painter depicted what can come of certain ideas and how horrible the war is. Bright colors and memorable imagery guarantee that the viewer will remember some historical facts and will try to avoid mistakes of the past.