Exhibition: ‘Death: A Self-Portrait’ (Wellcome Collection)

Death: a Self Portrait

The universality of ‘Death,’ with the realization that we will all die, encouraged me to begin the conversation of my mortality visually, rather than talking or reading about it. – Richard Harris

For ages I’ve been trying to get along to see Death, the latest exhibition at the Wellcome Collection. I managed to get along this afternoon, with just two days to spare before it closes, and was glad to do so.

Over the past twelve years Richard Harris, a former antique print dealer from Chicago, has amassed a collection of 1,500 artworks and artefacts relating to the theme of death. Some 300 of these are included in Death: A Self-Portrait. The pieces exhibited are incredibly diverse, from antique paintings and prints by the likes of van Utrecht and Durer to more contemporary works such as Otto Dix’s disturbing series illustrating the brutality of the Great War; anatomical drawings intended for the wall of the doctor’s surgery to Mexican Day of the Dead folk art; and skulls – lots of skulls – from Europe, Mexico, Tibet and West Africa.

The exhibition is arranged around five themes, with a room devoted to each. ‘Contemplating Death’ includes a number of momento mori, inviting ‘reflection on the brevity of existence’. ‘The Dance of Death’ traces the history of the darkly humorous Danse Macabre which emerged from a Europe devastated by famine and plague, ‘powerful reminders of death as the ultimate leveller’. ‘Violent Death’ is to my mind the most disturbing and powerful part of the exhibition, comprising three series of prints with a strongly anti-war theme, by Callot, Goya and the aforementioned Dix. ‘Eros and Thanatos’ is more of a mixed bag, including everything from anatomist’s drawings to postcards depicting bare-breasted ladies morphing into skulls. Finally ‘Commemoration’ includes photographs and artefacts from a variety of cultures exploring ‘rituals associated with death, burial and mourning.’ I was particularly fascinated with the photographs of Latin American Day of the Dead ofrenda altars, highly elaborate constructions designed to attract the souls of the dead to the offerings placed upon them.

As so often with popular exhibitions, many of the pieces on display deserve more reflective contemplation than is really possible in a crowded room. Even so, Death: A Self-Portrait deeply challenges contemporary Western culture, which, despite its glorification of violence and death in movies and video games, is still uncomfortable about the reality of our mortality. We need to learn how to talk properly about death, and in this respect by sharing his remarkable collection with the public Richard Harris has done us a great service.

(All quotations are from the guide accompanying the exhibition.)

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About Holloway Rev

Paul Weary is a Methodist minister living and working in Holloway, North London.
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