Self Portrait of Death makes for a gripping exhibition at the Wellcome Collection in London

By Ben Miller | 20 November 2012
A photo of a sculpture of a skull made up of myriad silver and coloured carved pieces
Mondongo Collective, The Skull Series. Number eight from a series of 12. Plasticine© Mondongo Collective
Exhibition Review: Death: A Self Portrait, Wellcome Collection, London, until February 24 2013

If the buzz sweeping through the Wellcome isn’t quite what you’d expect for the opening day of a show crammed with images of the macabre, it at least reflects the spirit of this exhibition’s creator: the Chicago-based assembler of these five rooms of death, Richard Harris, has devoted an astonishing amount of energy to his collection, manifested in a tremendous breadth of exhibits.

Some – the clergy vestments from 17th century Spain, or the enormously detailed collage of a head made from plasticine by an Argentine collective last year – are crafted with immense intricacy; others, such as the 16th century oil painting by an unknown hand setting Old against New Testament, are great works of art.

And in perhaps the most explicitly evocative point of many, the colourful skeletons gripping one wall almost match the tactility of Day of the Dead skulls.

Death, as we know, is a chilling presence with many faces. Artists often represent it with skeletons, such as the one dividing heaven and earth with a sickle here, cut onto fruitwood by Johann Wolfgang von der Auwera, or the boney fiends Walter Sauer sends leaping wildly from graves.

But it’s often the smaller details which grip the most: the anonymous photos Harris picked up from flea markets are the least commercially valuable works of his spree, yet these tiny monochrome 1920s snapshots, of scientists clutching skulls, or a boy dressed in a comic skeleton costume, or a line of suited chaps placing a cigarette in a gaping forensic jaw, have a subtler, unspoken mystery to them.

They sparked Harris’ own obsession with mortality, circumnavigating all forms of art and ephemera.

The third room, on Violent Death, is perhaps the most forceful. Callot’s The Miseries and Misfortunes of War, Goya’s The Disasters of War and Otto Dix’s The War, from his relentlessly bleak series on conflict, remind us of a premature fate handed to millions by violence.

John Isaacs explores the theme in forensic anatomical detail. His gorey, emaciated corpse, sitting upright on a box, has intestines the colour of custard shooting down into a lopped-off upper leg. The other leg is as thin as an arching tent pole.

As is often the case at the Wellcome, the scope of this show results in a constant sense of wonder. No quest for it can ever be definitive, but this is an arresting, affecting portrait of a finality we all ponder.

  • Open 10am-6pm (10pm Thursday, 11am-6pm Sunday, 12pm-6pm public holidays and December 27-30, closed December 24-26, 31 and January 1). Admission free. Visit the Wellcome on Twitter @ExploreWellcome.

More pictures:

A photo of a South American sitting in a wooden house with a mud floor full of artefacts
Dana Salvo, Pilar with Ofrenda el dia de los Muertos (1990-2004). From the series The day, the Night and the Dead. Photograph© Clark Gallery
A photo of a series of small books with South American or Latin words on the front
© Mondongo Collective
A photo of an etching of a naked man sitting on a decapacitated tree in a depiction of death
Francisco Goya, Esto es Peor (This is Worse): Desastres de la Guerra (Disasters of War) (1863). Etching© Wellcome Images, courtesy The Richard Harris Collection
An image of a classic oil painting of skulls and flowers within a thick black square frame
Adrian Van Utrecht, Vanitas Still life with a Bouquet and a Skull (1643). Oil on canvas© The Richard Harris Collection
A photo of a white contemporary sculpture made out of bones to form a chandelier
Jodie Carey, In the eyes of Others (2009). Mixed Media: plaster, steel, wire, cardboard boxes, newspaper. Commissioned by Towner - The Contemporary art Museum for the South East, Eastbourne© Jodie Carey
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