Death: A Self-Portrait at Wellcome Collection

To consider one’s own mortality is a difficult thing, whatever one may believe in. But, it is a reality. Death comes to us all, or, as Shakespeare put it with poetic force in Hamlet, “Thou know’st tis common; all that lives must die, passing through nature to eternity”.
While most people like not to reflect too much on what is considered to be a sad consequence of living, it is a subject matter that has nevertheless fascinated man since time immemorial.
One such individual who has developed a certain preoccupation with death is Richard Harris, a former antique print dealer based in Chicago. Over his life, he has amassed a fascinatingly diverse collection of art, objects, specimens and ephemera that share this thematic.
For those curious about what such a collection would be comprised of, they are advised to head to the Wellcome Collection in London. The establishment has put on a brave, daring and absorbing exhibition that really reinforces the centrality of death in life.
“The collection was from the beginning meant to be shown as an exhibition to the public, never as a private, personal statement for my eyes only,” Mr Harris explains.
“I hoped to create a body of work that would chronologically and culturally capture the essence of death through its iconography, from masterpieces of fine art to the incidental.”
It isn’t meant to be exclusively macabre, though it is fair to say that it is an uneasy show, an explicit memento mori. This is especially true when it comes to works that are concerned with war.
For example, take three respective clusters of works: Jacques Callot’s The Miseries and Misfortunes of War (1633), Francisco Goya’s The Disasters of War (1810-1820) and Otto Dix’s The War (1924).
They are brutal, harsh and affecting portraits of the barbarity of humanity, reportage of a conscious animal’s ability sink into the kind of violence that was once only thought possible in the otherworld place known as hell.
Nevertheless, they are compelling, and like Picasso’s Guernica, indictments against the kind of death that shouldn’t be part of our species’ narrative. However, as history cruelly reveals, war has persisted.
As Mr Harris himself notes, what this does is open up a conversation. Not just about atrocities, but about death itself. Society still brushes it aside, replacing it with distractions that placate our senses.
With this collection, the opposite is true, illuminates Kate Forde, curator at the Wellcome Collection. What we get is an “extraordinary range of creative responses to death”.
“The artefacts on display connect the living and the dead in a perpetual exchange underwritten by memory and mortality,” she adds. “The exhibition is a testament both to the keen and curious mind of a collector and to our imaginative and unending fascination with mortality, across cultures and history.”
Death: A Self-Portrait at the Wellcome Collection runs until February 24th 2013.
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