Often pictured with a skull, as in this Life Magazine photo, 1944.
Life magazine, May 22, 1944, “Photo of the Week,” by Ralph Crane: Her hair is perfectly styled, pinned up behind her with a huge flower. She wears a blazer, rests her chin on her left hand while her right hand holds a poised pen. In a perfectly proportioned composition, her head and right hand make two points of a triangle; the third, connected by the diagonal of her left arm, sits on the table in front of her: a human skull.
Subtitled “Arizona war worker writes her Navy boyfriend a thank-you note for the Jap skull he sent her,” the photograph seems to offer yet one more instance of man’s inhumanity to man from a war notable for its unparalleled destruction and brutality. The underlying rhetoric of racism that determined World War II (on all sides) is well known, including the differing American attitudes toward the Japanese and the Germans. As one marine told John Hersey in 1943, “I wish we were fighting against Germans. They are humans like us. … But the Japs are animals.” It is in this culture of pervasive racism and dehumanization that the problem of Japanese war trophies arises. As James Weingartner puts it, “If as a Marine Corps general noted, ‘Killing a Japanese was like killing a rattlesnake,’ then it might not seem inappropriate to detach something comparable to the reptile’s skin or rattles for the pleasure of the victorious combatant and entertainment of his friends and relatives back home.” The collection of Japanese war trophies—which included various body parts, including skulls—was, by all accounts, endemic and uncontrollable. Charles Lindbergh noted numerous such instances in the diaries of his travels to the Pacific theater: “It is the same everywhere I go,” he wrote. The problem was so widespread that when Lindbergh returned to the States, he was asked by customs officers—almost as a matter of course—if he was carrying any “human bones” in his luggage. Crane’s photo, appearing in one of the most popular magazines of the day, was only the most visible instance of a much deeper problem, one that was rooted in a long-standing program of propaganda that stretched back over a decade.
But Crane’s photo stands out in its composition, which evokes the tableau of the memento mori, particularly Georges de La Tour’s Penitent Magdalen. De La Tour painted this subject at least four times, each painting composed slightly differently, but always the silent, contemplative woman gazing at a human skull.