Skull Series Etchings
with essay below
By Donald Kuspit
Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Art History and Philosophy at the State University of New York at Stony Brook
December 7, 2015
Diane Thodos’ series of prints of skulls are masterpieces of expressionistic art. It is an art of great intensity, full of so-called “Sturm und Drang,” emotionally complicated, at once anguished and elated. Expressionism aims to make unconscious feeling and fantasy conscious, and Thodos does so with a vengeance. In her prints the emotionality has become more excruciating and raw, the handling more dramatically complicated and paradoxically subtle, than in the seminal German expressionism of “Die Brücke.” She has re-originated the spirit of early German expressionism, not only breathing new life into it, but giving it new aesthetic pungency and expressive power. She carries expressionism—hers is at once figural and abstract, an ingenious synthesis of competing modes--to an imaginative extreme. There is no other expressionist, living or dead, who has made works, in whatever medium, that so relentlessly expresses what is seemingly inexpressible in the unconscious.
Many of her figurative skulls are composed of slashing gestures and raw colors, others are all black and white in violent tension. The tension between abstraction and representation in the prints adds to their unnerving intimacy. Often flush with the picture plane, her skulls confront us, as though mirroring our death—the death within us that is our skull. Freud said we cannot imagine our own deaths; Thodos imagines it for us. Her skull is more nightmarish and intimidating than the figures of death Hans Baldung-Grien painted. It has a greater affinity with Hans Holbein’s anamorphic skull in The Ambassadors, 1543.
Death is always a timely theme, for it always awaits us. It has become all the more pertinent in a world saturated with it, in a world in which World War III has in effect started, as Pope Francis recently said, in a world beginning to produce it on a mass scale not seen since the holocaust. In “Studies in American Literature,” D. H. Lawrence, writing about Cooper’s novels, argued that the American was a natural born killer. The number of guns and killings in American society suggests as much. The momento mori of the skull is the appropriate symbol of our times, and of America at war with itself and the world, and no contemporary artist, American or otherwise, has made it as nightmarishly memorable and fiendishly expressive as Thodos.
Skull Series: thoughts by the artist
The seed of silent pain
Of its nothingness
Grief strikes like lightning
The place where thunder grows
- Diane Thodos
There is nothing new about saying we live in a time of increasing environmental peril and corporate domination that has corrupted our politics, destroyed civilian rights and spurred relentless military conquest for dominion over global resources. It is redundant to say that everywhere the venal proliferation of advertisements project the illusion of a happy society under the somnambulistic spell of endless consumption. It is repetitive to emphasize that the art world itself has provided the expensive ceremonial finish to the smooth plastic facade of this spectacular consumerism by becoming speculative commodities for the super rich. The age of Trump merely unveils what its true form has been all along: and the alliance of absolute corporate power with the democracy eradicating force of fascism. Yet the sheer intensity of this unfettered corporate, financial and militaristic onslaught hides what it fears the most. What must be banished from discussion, even censored from thought itself, is to express this tragedy which lies in heart of contemporary existence.
The traumas of the new century began with the terrorist attacks of 9/11, followed by the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the destabilization of the Middle East and economic depression following the stock market crash of 2008. It saw the embroilment of conflicts transpiring on a global stage that brought to light the existential threat of global warming with all of its consequences. These changes came to reflect a tragic frame of mind that seeped into my work, becoming traumatic images that gained primal intensity and over time. The Skull series developed through a subconscious volition of its own as abstract work from 1990’s gave way to fragmented faces of intense emotion. In retrospect I recognize how several major influences propelled me down this Expressionist path.
The evolution of my work began with experiments in automatism I completed when I entered the print shop of Stanley William Hayter in 1984. These Surrealist exercises revealed the potential of the Abstract Expressionist field which combined with the discovery of uncovering subconscious imagery. This eventually merged with German Expressionist influences in later decades. Writing about this combination of influences regarding the Skull series the New York art critic Donald Kuspit stated “These works are a unique achievement within the expressionist tradition, not only because of their emotional impact but because of their innovative composition.”
In 1992 I was befriended by the art collectors Marcia and Granvil Specks and became intimate with their internationally renown collection of over 400 German Expressionist prints. I learned firsthand the expressive array of graphic techniques which artists like Emil Nolde, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and Erich Heckel innovated in their woodblocks, etchings, and lithographs. These works were forthright in their pathos, emotional courage and expressive provocation, igniting a similar expressive freedom in my own art. This included the use of jagged contours carved from the grain of woodblocks and ragged lines etched into intaglio plates. Some of the most powerful images in the Specks collection were prints of skulls from Otto Dix’s 1924 etching cycle Der Krieg [War], a series that recollected the artist’s traumatic memories of WWI trench warfare. The repulsiveness and anger embedded in these works connected with my own instincts about the present, inspiring the outrage and intensity contained in the works on these pages.
Another important event happened in 2004 when I visited the Anthropological Museum in Mexico City. Works of Pre-Columbian art were filled with skull motifs, especially artifacts from the Mayan and Aztec periods. The Aztecs were well known for their rituals of mass human sacrifice. I was movingly disturbed by the display of real skulls with sacrificial daggers in embedded their mouths. Here was the unforgettable shock of violent ritual death which became the disturbing subject of the 2006 etching The Ancient Anguish. In time I became equally interested in tribal art from Africa and Oceana, works that combined innovative geometric and biomorphic plasticity that was often accompanied with a sense of darkness or threat. The etching El Muerte from 2014 bears a stylistic relation to Aztec art, but also to the masterful rhythmic curves of tribal canoe carvings from the Trobriand Islands. Many works from the Skull series were exhibited at the Traeger/Pinto Gallery in Mexico City in 2007 where the audience was familiar with the art’s mood and theme, not only because of their ancient cultural roots but also through the work of Mexican Muralists like Jose Clemente Orozco.
The skulls speak their own disruptive language about the present regardless of whether or not the times deem them proper or acceptable. They exude a messy existential pessimism which the the slick facade of contemporary consumerism has banished from consciousness. There is no appeal to reason in them, only a disturbing presence that haunts the unspoken darkness hidden behind contemporary life, recalling the irrational, violent and dark forces embedded in the tribal and expressionist art which inspired them. It is all too apparent that many institutional forces in the contemporary art world and in culture - ranging from the higher education system to the museums and auction houses - have disconnected art from the realities of life, particularly regarding the existence of pain and suffering. Reinhold Heller is a professor of art history and a specialist in German Expressionism. He had written much on this subject in a 2009 catalog essay for my retrospective at the Hellenic Museum in Chicago.
[There remains] a persistent expressionist undercurrent refusing to die, that prioritizes the individuality of the artist, the artists’ personal interaction and response to the experience of existence in society…For them the image and the means through which it is achieved retain, regain and are reinvested with the inescapable power of significant meaning…..To generate her images, born in the aftermath of the World Trade Center attacks and the awareness of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, born from her television-empowered witness to multiple massacres and scenes of disease, starvation, and willed holocaust, born during the presidency of George W. Bush whose policies angered her and whose ideology morally outraged her, born in the early years of a new century never hopeful, Thodos’ art finds satisfaction in the traditions of art making, and she seeks to continue them originally, shaped by the experience of the present alone but always aware of the past.
You can read the complete essays by Reinhold Heller and Donald Kuspit by clicking Here