In the run up to Christmas you would hardly expect to see an exhibition focusing on death. During this festive period where most of us are at our merriest the Wellcome Collection are hosting the public with the gloomy collection of print dealer Richard Harris. The show is a fantastic insight into the place of death in art throughout history from renaissance prints full of memento mori to Spanish vanitas and Mexican work from the present day. Not a single tomb has been left undisturbed.
From Harris’s collection of over 2,000 works of death inspired art, the Wellcome Collection gives us a spectacular glimpse into 300 representations of death. Death is the one thing in life which always has and always will remain a certainty. It is unavoidable throughout contemporary life. Skulls are omnipresent throughout fashion, slaughter is heavily depicted in film and stories of the afterlife are a huge part of religion and literature. Historically, our ancestors were no less fascinated by death, perhaps even more so than now. Death was a reminder of mortality, to prompt people to live their lives well and ensure a positive continuation into the afterlife, normally in a religious context. This is shown from the illustrated Nuremburg Chronicle from 1493 and visible right through to the 2009 chandelier of 3000 plaster cast bones from 2009 British artist Jodie Carey.
Not surprisingly, the exhibition has an impressive display of northern European prints. As well as renaissance prints, there are 51 prints from German artist Otto Dix based on his time fighting in WW1. Included are works from Durer and Goya among etchings and engravings. Death is also displayed among sculpture, photography and books. Included are ancient and modern skulls, books of hours, examples of advertising, photographs of medical students posing with skeleton models and anatomical drawings from different centuries. We are also shown puppets reminding us that death is even present in childsplay. A further representation of the universality of death and how everyone must deal with it is shown throughout art from Indonesia, Tibet and Mexico.
This exhibition is a hauntingly impressive display of death and its universal presence in both history and contemporary life. I would go as far as to say exhibition of the year, definitely not to be missed!
Death: A Self-Portrait is on display at Wellcome Collection until 24 February 2013