Smoking Skulls

The skull has long been used to represent reflection, death or vanity. Consider for example the graveyard scene in Hamlet (Alas, poor Yorick), the raucous celebrations of Dia de los Muertos, or Gilbert’s eerie drawing “All is Vanity”. We present here a small subset of this form of symbolic art—the smoking skull.

Amidst the vast literature on human skull symbolism, only a small subset depicts skulls smoking a cigarette. Of these, most are uninventive. But a few are of particular interest—those by Van Gogh, by MC Escher and that on the album art of Warren Zevon. What is instructive about these images, from a historical perspective, is that the artists’ messages may not be what you might think.

Van Gogh
Head of a Skeleton with a Burning Cigarette. 1886

According to the notes from the Van Gogh Museum, this painting was not simply a memento mori (“reminder of death“).

"This skeleton with a lit cigarette in its mouth is a juvenile joke. Van Gogh painted it in early 1886, while studying at the art academy in Antwerp. The painting shows that he had a good command of anatomy."

Apparently Van Gogh chafed at the rules that required drawing skeletons as an academic exercise.

Head of a Skeleton with a Burning Cigarette

Van Gogh

Van Gogh

Skull with Cigarette. 1917

Better known for tessellating geometries, Escher did explore other art forms. According to one review of an Escher exhibit: 

“There is a dark side to Escher’s work that a quick dismissal misses. Death is a recurring theme, starting with his leering Skull with a Cigarette (1917)…Describing the skull in the center of his 1946 print Eye, Escher refers to ‘Good Man Bones, with whom we are all confronted, whether we like it or not.’”



With Surgeon General Warning

With Surgeon General Warning

Learning To FlInch. Album Art. 1993.

On the back of Warren Zevon’s last album, The Wind, can be seen a small image of a skull smoking a cigarette. He died of mesothelioma, not a smoking-related cancer*, in 2003, just two weeks after the album was released. One might think the smoking skull was intended by Zevon as a farewell salute.

Perhaps. But, ten years earlier a smoking skull was prominently featured on the back cover of Learning to Flinch (Werewolves of London). In Rolling Stone his son explained that Zevon "always had a gorilla skull with wire-frame glasses hanging around. But he's not a morbid person. He actually told me some really good advice: 'Whatever you do, wherever you go, make yourself happy.’”

He also said things like “ Life'll Kill Ya” and “enjoy every sandwich.”

Zevon - Learning to Flinch

Zevon - Learning to Flinch


So the brief lesson here is that historical artifacts must be regarded in historical context, relying on primary sources whenever available. For example, in the United States the dangers of cigarette smoking were not a matter of public warning until 1965. Van Gogh and Escher were probably not delivering public health messages. And, it seems to me that Zevon did not promote his artist's rendition of the smoking skull simply to warn about cigarettes. I think he meant to say that drawing pleasure from life is a defiant, and the best, answer to the inevitability of death.

*An unusual link between smoking and mesothelioma is the use of asbestos in Kent's micronite filters from the 50's. Asbestos is the greatest environmental risk for mesothelioma. 

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Skull Sourcebook: Over 500 Skulls in Art & Culture

From the origins of Aztec skull art and the Jolly Roger that was hoisted on pirate flags, to the sugar skull for Mexico's Day of the Dead, there is a wealth of history and culture behind the skull. And, of course, a long artistic tradition.

Skull Sourcebook is the first deep look at one of art’s most iconic symbols: the human skull. Author Adele Nozedar explores its ancient meanings and symbolism with over 288 pages and 500 color photos of incredible artwork throughout history. Learn more...

Medical History Tour - Medical Papyri
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For discussions of artistic representations of the skull, see Memento Mori and the very complete pictorial catalog Tracing the History of the Human Skull in Art. (The latter paper is on which requires signing up for a free account).