Exhibition Review: Death: A Self Portrait, Wellcome Collection, London, until February 24 2013
© Mondongo Collective
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.
© Clark Gallery
© Mondongo Collective
© Wellcome Images, courtesy The Richard Harris Collection
© The Richard Harris Collection
© Jodie Carey