Death: A Self-Portrait at the Wellcome Collection

-This exhibition is now closed-

The Wellcome Collection is one of my favourite galleries in London, and its new winter exhibition, Death: A Self-Portrait, does not disappoint. The show consists of part of the collection of Richard Harris, an American former antique dealer who for 12 years has been gathering artwork and artefacts relating to the theme of death.

By turns irreverent, moving, amusing and horrifying, the collection contains both contemporary and antique exhibits from all over the globe. Skulls and skeletons, icons of death, are everywhere in remarkably varied guises. The skull is a reminder of death’s inevitability in Adriaen van Utrecht’s classic 1643 still-life painting, while the 2011 Argentinean collaborative sculpture Calavera uses the skull as a symbol of the toxic influence of European and American culture on South America. Alfred Rethel’s prints characterise death in two distinct ways; in Death the Strangler (1831), the skeletal personification of death is a careless, indiscriminate killer, while in Death the Friend (1851), the figure of death is a solemn and respectful companion into the afterlife.

The most challenging parts of the exhibition explore death not as a symbol but as a physical, bodily experience. Otto Dix’s prints, for example Wounded Man, take a direct and uncompromising look at the horrors of death in the First World War, while John Isaacs’s Are You Still Mad At Me?, a hideous sculpture of a seemingly reanimated, partially dissected corpse, is a commentary on the visceral horror of anatomical studies.

Overall, the exhibition gives the feeling of breaking a taboo. The subject of death is normally framed in either solely scientific or religious terms and, while the show does not criticise specific beliefs or customs, it serves as an invitation to contemplate death in a more personal way. What I particularly love about this show, and it has this in common with the Wellcome Collection’s permanent exhibition, is that it is the result of the curiosity and generosity of an individual collector. In allowing visitors to see what he has collected over the years according to his own personal fascination with death, Richard Harris gives us the opportunity to open new discussions about death as an important, universal experience.

The exhibition runs until 24 February.

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