Secret Histories | David Orr Envisions the Human Skull as a Repository of Soul

Photo: Geza Uirmeny, m, 80 (attempted suicide at 70; lived until 80 without further melancholy) 2014 | Archival dye-infused aluminum disc | 30-inch diameter.

Viennese anatomist Josef Hyrtl (1810–1894) had the touch, such was his ability to work with human bodies after death. As a student, his dissections and injections were widely admired; as chair at the University of Prague, he authored Handbook of Topographic Anatomy, the first textbook of applied anatomy. A man free of mind, if you will, Hyrtl sought to discredit phrenology, an old fad that had come back into vogue, which supposed the shape and size of the cranium indicated the character and mental abilities of the brain within.

Also: See the Creatures of the Night in “Moths at LArge”

Hyrtl collected the skull of Caucasians across Europe, looking for diversity in size and structure to deconstruct pseudoscience with fact. How the skulls came into his possession was a mixed bag: some were criminals, some were poor, and others may have been dug out of their graves. Some are identified by name, profession, and age while others remain unknown, their conditions varying in terms of quality of preservation.

Milan Joanovits, m, 30 (robber + murderer; executed in Belgrade) 2016 | Archival dye-infused aluminum disc | 30-inch diameter

Milan Joanovits, m, 30 (robber + murderer; executed in Belgrade), 2016 | Archival dye-infused aluminum disc | 30-inch diameter

The Mütter Museum, Philadelphia, acquired 139 skulls from Hyrtl’s collection in 1874. Flash forward 130 years: photographer David Orr received access to the lot, creating portraits of a distinct and revealing nature. Each skull has been photographed head-on, then mirrored on one side, to create a vision of perfect symmetry. Orr photographed all the skulls, then made a selection of 22 for Perfect Vessels, at the Mütter now through January 5, 2017.

Speaking with Crave Online, Orr discusses the ways in which the skull meets the ideal conditions for a vessel, being a container, a craft in which to travel, a conduit for powerful energy, and a beautiful form that was once utilitarian but is now regarded as art. There is an elegant eeriness to this, something rather Gothic and Romantic about the idea of discovering a hidden level of beauty in the remains of strangers. We may never know this side of ourselves, never be able to see the face beneath the face and the home of the mind. This is where Orr’s photographs bridge the divide.

Photo: © David Orr.

Photo: © David Orr.

“The skull is a vessel. It contains the brain. It is craft for the seat of consciousness for our voyage on earth. It is a conduit for the life energy traveling through your body. There are layers to the vessel. There is spiritual energy, and literal energy with electrons firing,” Orr observes, before he confronts the macabre, adding, “Most religions talk about clay as what you leave behind. Clay is something you make vessels from—and skulls have been used as drinking vessels for over 15,000 years.”

It is strange to consider, is it not, the fact that your skull may live on long after you’re gone? Perhaps not as a cup but as a work of art, one that goes further by manipulating the conditions under which it was created. Consider Milan Joanovits, a robber and murderer executed in Belgrade at the age of 30. His is the classically proportioned skull, made al the more engaging by the fact it’s quite possible to imagine him. Yet, stripped of his earthly visage, we do not see a man but rather a form, one that speaks to the presence of death that casts a shadow over earth.

Milan Joanovits, m, 30 (robber + murderer; executed in Belgrade) 2016 | Archival dye-infused aluminum disc | 30-inch diameter

Milan Joanovits, m, 30 (robber + murderer; executed in Belgrade)

2016 | Archival dye-infused aluminum disc | 30-inch diameter

And yet, in the pursuit of perfection and the predilection for symmetry, Orr has discovered the unexpected revealing itself in the work: the presence of the aperture of Brahmin and the third eye, the top two chakras in our body, and the only ones on our skull. As energy points in the subtle body, chakras allow are points of access to the soul, allowing us to mediate between the physical plane and the spiritual world. This adds a deeper layer of meaning on top of the work, revealing the way in which symmetry brings us closer to an invisible world.

Manifest as dye-transfer prints on a 30-inch diameter aluminum disk, Orr envisions the photographs as a portal, where, “You are looking at history, and history is looking back at you.” But history is no longer the individual wo/man, but rather a portrait of what we do not see, every day of our life. Stripped of the face, the skull becomes an object of contemplation of life and death, a memento mori as the aluminum reflects our face back to us. And then finally, it all comes to this: the skull sits in mandala, transforming into universe unto its self. “I like the fact that it feels utterly contemporary while being, in fact, enduringly ancient,” Orr concludes.

David Orr install 1

Photo: © David Orr.

All photos: © David Orr, courtesy The Mütter Museum.


Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer, curator, and brand strategist. There is nothing she adores so much as photography and books. A small part of her wishes she had a proper library, like in the game of Clue. Then she could blaze and write soliloquies to her in and out of print loves.