Death takes us all in the end. We fear it, and yet are inexplicably fascinated by it, contemplating what will become of us once we draw that final breath.
Retired antique print dealer Richard Harris has spent the last 12 years amassing an incredibly diverse collection of hundreds of treasures all with death as their muse. A carefully curated selection recently went on show at The Wellcome Collection, a gallery notorious for it’s often morbid displays exploring medicine, art and science, so when the two came together for ‘Death: a Self Portrait’ the result is, unsurprisingly, spectacularly macabre and utterly captivating.
The five rooms of death explore our relationship with the subject through art, historical artefacts, scientific specimens and ephemera from all around the globe. Rare old masterpieces are mixed in amongst human remains, family snapshots and more contemporary works. Our mortality and inevitable fate has been a powerful source of inspiration for artists throughout the centuries, each artist and culture putting their own unique stamp on what it means and how to deal with it. It has been used to inspire faith in religion, provoke anger, sadness and serenity, as a way to mourn, commemorate and celebrate and as a warning that death does not discriminate and shall come for us all eventually.
It is little surprise that there are many memento mori pieces scattered throughout the rooms, inviting the viewer to reflect upon the transient nature of life and inspiring a desire to make the most of the now. Adriaen Van Utrecht’s Vanitas still-life perfectly captures this, minutes tick by on the pocket watch, the flowers droop and the sand slowly drains from the hourglass, time passes all whilst the hollow-eyed skull lies frozen in the midst. It is a beautiful comment on the continuous struggle between the ephemeral versus the eternal, in which death is ultimately triumphant. Alongside this, a carved wooden okimono by Japanese artist Izumi Sukeyuki shows a snake coiling around a human skull, illustrating the Buddhist vision of the ongoing nature of the soul, perpetually transforming into new states of being, just as the snake is believed to be reborn each time it sheds its skin. Death has no dominion here.
The contemporary pieces tend to be the most visceral and arresting and they take center stage in the rooms that house them. John Issacs grizzly sculpture ‘Are you still mad at me?’, draws you in for further inspection, the dismembered carcass posed sitting upright is frighteningly realistic and the inner anguish is palpable in its hunched form. It also alludes to an uneasy truth, that the way we first came to understand medicine was from hacking up the bodies of the deceased. Then there is Jodie Carey‘s bone chandelier, made from 3,000 handcrafted plaster bones, from a distance it is awe inspiringly beautiful, but it’s only as you get up close that you realize those elegantly draped garlands are actually vertebrae and the hanging pendants are femurs, tibias and humerus.
In the 3rd room ‘Violent Death’ are some of the most powerful anti-war manifestos ever made, including rare pieces from masters such as Jacques Callot and Goya. However, the room is dominated by the wall crammed with 51 pieces from Otto Dix’s ‘The War’ series, it is nightmarish, shocking and moving all at once. His harsh, scrawled lines and unflinching depiction of the horrors of war showing dead, dying and decomposing bodies, agony etched on their faces, are brutal and could only have come from the tortured mind of a man who had experienced these horrors first hand. They serve as a permanent and grotesque reminder of our unending inhumanity toward our own kind.
Deaths indiscriminatory nature is also a key theme throughout, a stand of ceramic ‘dance of death’ figures show kings, bishops, pretty girls, small children, peasants & paupers all being lead spiralling downwards towards the grave by the gleeful skeleton death. Then there’s the Mondongo Collective’s large scale plasticine collage ‘Calavera’ full of numerous references to western culture; classical architecture, famous literature and scenes from nursery rhymes are all heaped on top of a nameless South American shanty town, crushing the life out of it under the weight of our excess.
Whilst the majority of the works are sombre and reflective in nature, there is the occasional shot of dark humour and light-heartedness too, photographs of 19th century medical students posing satirically with flayed cadavers sit alongside ritual masks, papier-mâché skeletons and personal photographs of mourning and celebration. The bright colours in objects and photographs from Mexican ‘Day of The Dead’ celebrations reveal a lighter, optimistic take on what is usually considered to be a dark, melancholic subject.
Beautiful, thought provoking and captivating the objects in these rooms challenge our attitudes towards death and the way we deal with it. There is no escaping death, no one gets out of here alive, and the sooner we are able to embrace that fact, the sooner we can start truly living.
[Editors note]You can read Art Editor Stephanie Brown’s full account on Death: A Self Portrait in the forthcoming debut print issue of Stylenoir Magazine