Death: A Self Portrait @ Wellcome Collection

You, and everyone you love, will die. Wellcome Collection’s new exhibition reinforces this inescapable message over 300 times, with a macabre cluster of morbid art and artifacts.

Death: A Self Portrait draws on the private collection of Richard Harris (not that one), who’s assembled a unique necrocopia of paintings, prints, postcards and objects dealing with our ultimate fate. The exhibition tells us very little about the man or his motives, instead plunging six feet under into the deep end with a series of memento mori and art works portraying death and decay.

The exhibition is split into five rooms. After the morbid opener, we move on to the Dance of Death, a bizarre section that shows the use of deathly themes in playful situations. The Violent Death display, meanwhile, uses images from Goya and others to show the horrors of war. This gallery requires some persistence from the viewer — the often tiny black and white drawings are fascinating in detail, but can be difficult to absorb in an exhibition setting.

The Eros and Thantos section contains the most gruesome exhibits, including a dissection photograph showing the human form flayed almost beyond recognition, and a grotesque sculpture of a hacked up body. A series of ingenious postcard portraits that morph into skull-like forms is another highlight.

The final section looks at how different cultures around the world commemorate death, with ceremonial masks and grave guardians. One senses that much more could be made of this facet — perhaps a future exhibition.

Despite any number of intriguing artifacts from days gone by, the real highlights of the show are the modern artworks. In particular, Calavera, a collage skull assembled from everyday materials by Mondongo Collective, is among the most striking objects we’ve ever viewed. Its rich detail rewards a long, hard look. You wouldn’t want it sitting in your front room, mind.

While undeniably absorbing, thoughtful and sometimes comical — as all Wellcome Collection exhibitions are — we left feeling a little puzzled over the context. Who is Richard Harris and why does he collect this stuff? Why did Wellcome Collection choose to display his holdings rather than plundering its own vast archive of death-related material? As with the excellent Ansel Adams exhibition currently showing at the National Maritime Museum, the collection is left to speak for itself, while its originator is banished online and to the accompanying events programme. This straightforward ‘let the art do the talking’ approach might appeal to some, but we kind of like to get the extra context.

So go visit…you’ll certainly enjoy it. But watch this video first.

Death: A Self Portrait runs at Wellcome Collection until 24 February 2013. Entrance is free.

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