Spooky Art: Self-Portrait with Skull by Andy Warhol (Interpretation and Analysis)

Self-Portrait with Skull
Source: National Galleries Scotland

There are few twentieth century artists more famous than Andy Warhol. Warhol is famous for his iconic pop art, including Campbell’s Soup Cans and The Marilyn Diptych, which features movie star Marilyn Monroe. However, some of his darker pieces are relatively unknown.

Self-Portrait with Skull is one of Warhol’s most poignant and unsettling pieces. As the title suggests, the painting depicts the artist with a skull balanced on his shoulder. A red and black background gives the painting a sinister, violent aura. Warhol stares directly at the viewer with wide eyes and a slightly open mouth, an unsettling but also vulnerable expression.

The piece was created using one of a series of photos of Warhol posing with a model of a skull. The image was then screen printed and painted.

Self-Portrait with Skull reflects Warhol’s fascination with death, a trait that many artists share. Warhol also had a near brush with death in 1968 (ten years before this piece was created) when he was shot in an attempted murder. Warhol barely survived the attack and suffered from the after-effects of the injury for the rest of his life. The experience had a profound impact on his life and art. Speaking about the shooting, Warhol said:

Before I was shot, I always thought that I was more half-there than all-there — I always suspected that I was watching TV instead of living life. People sometimes say that the way things happen in movies is unreal, but actually it’s the way things happen in life that’s unreal. The movies make emotions look so strong and real, whereas when things really do happen to you, it’s like watching television — you don’t feel anything. Right when I was being shot and ever since, I knew that I was watching television. The channels switch, but it’s all television.

In my opinion, Self-Portrait with Skull is an attempt to confront and challenge this unreality. The piece seeks to overcome this inertia to access a higher, more authentic level of truth and reality. Simply put, the painting experiments with making death feel real, rather than something on a distant television program.

The piece operates in the long history of the memento mori in Western art. Memento mori paintings have one goal: to remind viewers that they are destined to die and to force them to reflect on their own mortality. Warhol’s Self-Portrait with Skull is a memento mori for the modern age, cutting through the hustle and bustle of twentieth-century life to offer viewers a stark and unequivocal reminder that, sooner or later, death is coming for them.

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