I don’t get down to the Wellcome Collection nearly enough yet it’s a gem. So, having battled through the snow to make it into town I decided to pop in after brunch on Saturday. How I was walking round with one boot cuff turned up and one down is still slightly beyond me – no-one mentioned it so perhaps people thought I was making a new fashion statement!
Death: A self-portrait is an exhibition showcasing the collection of Richard Harris, a former antique print dealer based in Chicago. The exhibition itself is an unusual portrait of Harris’s collecting and includes approximately 300 objects from his strange and unique collection devoted to death. It is incredibly diverse – there are paintings, drawings, artefacts, sculptures, photographs, anatomical illustrations and much more. His entire collection comprises over 2,000 objects and I’d love the opportunity at some point to get to see the whole of it. The collection is growing all the time and Harris regularly finds and commissions new items. It’s probably even expanding as I write this piece.
Advertising Death. Image via www.londonist.com.
This is a truly fabulous collection showing comic portrayals of death alongside the more serious and harrowing. The Wellcome hasn’t been precious about separating out the categories and they have celebrated its diversity. Rare prints by Rembrandt, Dürer and Goya are displayed alongside anatomical drawings, war art and antique metamorphic postcards; human remains are juxtaposed with Renaissance vanitas paintings and twentieth century installations celebrating Mexico’s Day of the Dead. There’s a group of Incan skulls alongside Jodie Carey’s In the Eyes of Others, a chandelier made from 3,000 plaster-cast bones.
Jodie Carey, In the Eyes of Others, 2009. Image via www.happyfamousartists.com.
One room focuses on the art of violent death communicating the dehumanising effects of war and the brutality of death on a gargantuan scale. Here, we find Goya’s The Disasters of War displayed alongside Otto Dix’s The War. Dix’s memories of fighting as a soldier provided the source material for these 51 prints, showing the depravity of war. He was wounded a number of times and the horror he illustrates is no doubt in part related to his own experiences.
Otto Dix, Stromtroopers Advance under Gas, 1924. Image via www.ottodix.org.
The John Isaac sculpture was getting a lot of attention – a life-size sculpture of a semi-dissected man missing both arms and one leg sitting on a packing case. In a room that focuses on our fascination with the disturbing or morbid, this work seeks to highlight the rawness of anatomical investigation and, coupled with some of the surrounding anatomical studies and engravings, reminds us that doctors first learnt about prolonging life through the study of death and the dead.
John Isaac, Are you still mad at me?, 2001. Image via www.huffingtonpost.co.uk.
The whole exhibition is a giant cabinet of curiosities. Harris never intended this to be a private collection and always planned for everything to be exhibited to ‘capture the essence of Death through its iconography’. I gave up writing down which works particularly intrigued me as the list grew and grew and we’d have never got out of there. There was a series of anonymous photographs from the 20th century showing people, in backyards, classrooms and studios, posing with macabre artefacts that perhaps foreshadowed their destinies. They are certainly worth very little commercially but together they make a wonderful and fascinating group – some comic, some serious, all engrossing. Three of these photographs conclude the catalogue – a beautifully produced small album of objects in the exhibition.
Unknown photograph, 20th century. Own photograph.
The thing that’s really great is that this exhibition isn’t morbid or depressing. Maybe I am alone in this opinion but, strangely, the exhibition didn’t make me dwell on death – of course this is the subject the objects all relate to but they’re so absorbing that we don’t have time to ponder our own morbid curiosities.
Ironically, my only criticism highlights the strength of the show; there’s actually too much to take in and I would have needed a good couple of hours to study everything properly.
June Leaf, No stomach for death: Gentleman on Green Table, 1999-2000. Image via www.standard.co.uk.
I don’t think the exhibition is trying to say anything particularly poignant. It’s not trying to look at what we think about death or about the experience of death. If they’d wanted to do that then this exhibition wouldn’t be a self-portrait of Harris. Maybe it’s making us think. Maybe it’s showing us the different ways in which death can be portrayed and considered. Or perhaps, as the pamphlet claims, it’s investigating the value of art in communicating ideas about death and the body. Whatever it’s up to, I’m on board.
Death: A self-portrait is at the Wellcome Collection until 24th February 2013, www.wellcomecollection.org.