"More Matter, With Less Art" : Hamlet, Warhol, and Memento Mori
Posted by Andrea D. on April 23, 2010 - 3:43pm
Categories: On the Walls


In celebration of William Shakespeare's birthday (and death-day) today, I have a confession to make: every time I walk by Andy Warhol's Self-Portrait with Skull (1978), it reminds me of Hamlet.  

More specifically, it reminds me of the graveyard scene in which Prince Hamlet picks up the skull of his long-dead childhood companion, Yorick, and reflects that every person, whether royal court jester or Alexander the Great, dies and eventually turns to dust:

"Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio: a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy […] Where be your gibes now?" (Act V, scene 1)

Hamlet and Warhol both use the skull to great effect here as a memento mori, literally a "reminder of death." Memento mori symbolism has been popular since the Middle Ages, but has been used in more modern times by a variety of artists, from Paul Cezanne's Still Life with Skull (Nature Morte au Crane) (1895) and Gerhard Richter's Skull (Schadel) (1983) to Damien Hirst's diamond-encrusted skull, For the Love of God (2007). In fact, Warhol did a whole series on skulls themselves, and some art historians point to this particular series as the beginning of his "late work." In Warhol's Skull (1976), you can distinctly see the memento mori theme echoed in the skull's shadow, which strikingly resembles an infant's head.

While there are not many other similarities between Warhol and Hamlet (because, let's face it: Warhol didn't have NEARLY the dysfunctional family situation that Hamlet did,) a pre-occupation with death and its after-effects is a common theme between the two. Of course, Hamlet's dilemna wasn't so much about the act of dying, as it was about what happens after death: specifically, whether he would end up going to Heaven for revenging the murder of his father, or going to Hell for seeking revenge through killing his uncle. This was "the rub" that made Hamlet such an indecisive, angst-ridden character throughout much of the play: his immortal soul was at stake, and that's not something one gambles with lightly.

Warhol dealt with the question of what happens after death in a much more commercialized way. In particular, he did a series of black-and-white advertisements which echo Hamlet's uncertainty about the afterlife...in fact, the ads could practically be considered memento mori themselves: catchphrases such as "Heaven and Hell are only one breath away!" and "Repent and sin no more!" manage to be ominous yet kitsch at the same time. And Warhol's depiction of cheap steaks and a disembodied hand displaying the symbol of nuclear energy are both not-so-subtle reminders that our "too too solid flesh" is not as permanent as we would often like to think.