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Death: A Self-Portrait, exhibition at the Wellcome Collection

I LOVE the macabre, and so I was thrilled to come across this fantastic exhibition at the Wellcome Collection in London- a venue which explores the connections between medicine, life and art in the past, present and future. The exhibition runs from Thursday the 15th of November 2012 to Sunday the 24th February 2013 so people need to get their skates on to see it before it finishes!

Untitled (skulls with fingers and eyelash), Ray Johnson (1985-1995) collage on illustration board

Death: A Self-Portrait is the extraordinary collection of one man, Richard Harris. Apparently Harris fell into this area of collecting by accident. He had previously collected prints on the advice of experts, and had acquired works by artists such as Matisse and Rembrandt. However, he decided to trust his own eye, and moved into the area of 16th and 17th century prints of human anatomy.

This collection eventually morphed into objects relating to death. The collection ranges from etchings by Goya to anonymous photographs. The collection ranges from works dating from the 15th century to the present day, an extensive variety of works are therefore on show.

Mors ultima linea rerum (Death, the final boundary of things), unknown artist, copperplate print, c.1570

Calavera, Mondongo Collective (Argentina), plasticine on board, 2011

Skeleton Puppet, USA, Cotton and wood, undated

The exhibition itself shows 300 items out of approximately 1,500 in the collection Harris has amassed. The selected objects are displayed in five themed rooms. Four of these examine broad questions about our attitudes and relationship to death. The central room looks at a more specific feature.

The first room, Contemplating Death, exhibits a selection of objects reminding the viewer of the inevitability of death. The room includes memento mori- (reminders of the inevitability of death)- such Barthel Bruyn the Elder’s Portrait of a Man, which has the portrait on one side and an image of a skull on the other.

Memento mori, unknown artist (Germany), engraving, 18th century

Other pieces in this room examine the philosophical and theological questions about death and pose questions regarding the ‘after-life.’

The second room focuses on the certainty of death, which is seen through images of the ‘dance of death’ in which skeletons dance and play instruments.

Head Games, Susan Hardy Brown (b. 1947 USA), offset printed artist’s book

The third room examines violent death in war. Harris’s collection contains three series of artworks made in reaction to different wars: Jacques Callot’s biting critique of soldiers’ appalling behaviour in the 30 Years War, Goya’s depiction of the horrors of the Peninsula War, and Otto Dix’s memories of fighting in the First World War.

Plate 39: Grande hazana! Con muertos! (A heroic feat! With dead men!) from Los Desastres de la Guerra (The Disasters of War), Francisco Goya (1746–1828, Spain), etching, aquatint and drypoint, 1810–20

Within the fourth room the exhibition focuses upon the anatomical prints of the collection.

When Shall We Meet Again?, gelatin silver print, c.1900

The final room presents us with the flipside of the opening theme by considering how we commemorate death. It contains anonymous photos of people in the US posing with skulls, Marcos Raya’s family portraits in which he has painted skulls over the faces of those who have died, photographs of Mexican Day of the Dead celebrations as well as skulls from Peru and masks from Tibet and Cameroon.

La Vie et la Mort, Leben und Tod (Life and Death), postcard, c.1900-1910

Untitled (family portrait: wedding), Marcos Raya (b. 1948, Mexico), vintage photograph with mixed media, 2005

A thoroughly fascinating collection, and one that is definitely worth exploring. These works allow us to explore our fascination with death, and examine art that we may find shocking or macabre. I love how unusual this collection is, and how it explores how we view death, the after-life and also how different cultures explore this theme through art.

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2 thoughts on “Death: A Self-Portrait, exhibition at the Wellcome Collection

  1. Like life really – need to get your skates on before it finishes. Great post – looks like a fascinating collection (glad he trusted his instinct).

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