Death: A Self Portrait at the Wellcome Collection

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This quirky exhibition is at once a testament to one man’s obsession and an exploration of that most universal of human themes: death. It displays some 300 pieces from the private collection of Richard Harris, all linked through their treatment of the iconography of death, a concept most commonly expressed here through skulls, skeletons and decomposing bodies. These repeated motifs certainly lend an overarching coherence to the collection, lending a commonality to works from disparate periods and places, and creating the sense of death as a universal theme.

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Despite this, certain historical milieu dominate, and death ultimately appears as a concept that has held more importance for some cultural groups than others, for example appearing more regularly in the art of the Northern Renaissance than in it’s Italian counterpart. Perhaps for this reason, many of the more artistically important items in the collection are Germanic or Netherlandish, with an elaborate vanitas still life by Adriaen van Utrecht and a portrait by Barthel Bruyn the Elder, painted on the reverse with a skull and a mometo mori, among the more sophisticated pieces. Albrecht Dürer’s work is also well represented, alluding both to a particular preoccupation with death in the tumultuous world of reformation Germany, and to Harris’ own past as a dealer of antique prints.

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Another period in which Harris shows particular interest is the Weimar era, when artists so recently exposed to the horrors of the First World War struggled to reconcile their newly intimate knowledge of death and the human body with their return to civilian life. Their responses vary from George Grosz’s ‘Faces of Death’ collage (above), which wittily intersperses skulls into scenes of every day life, to the gory horror of Otto Dix’s ‘War’ series, which depicts the trauma of trench warfare with an unflinching brutality (below).

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Despite this more in depth analysis of certain periods’ attitudes towards death, ultimately the exhibition’s treatment of this subject feels a little superficial. It is impossible to stand before the war inspired art of Dix and Goya and feel unmoved by humanity’s fragility, but other pieces on display lack the same impact. Whilst a skull might have evoked profound feelings of dread to a devout sixteenth century German, used to high infant mortality and mass epidemics and concerned about the ever-lasting welfare of his soul, to a modern audience the skull has become little more than an empty symbol. In our own society we all too often brush death and dying aside, and as such it is hard to empathise with a culture like the German Renaissance, where death was an accepted and expected side of life.

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The popular image of death as a skull or skeleton continues to hold sway today, and could even be said to be going through something of a resurgence, with blogs like morbid anatomy feeding a desire for the macabre, and hipsters emulating a Mexican, day of the dead aesthetic each Halloween. However, this fashionable adoption of the iconography of death often feels false, as we struggle to believe that a fashionista’s skull print Alexander McQueen scarf truly betrays a morbid disposition. Ultimately this is the undoing of the exhibition, as without our own way of connecting to the reality of death, this exploration of morbid iconography becomes little more than a collection of painted skulls.

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