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I was intrigued by the poster for Death: A Self-Portrait, the current exhibition at the Wellcome Collection, as well as the title of the exhibition itself. I visited the exhibition on Saturday with two of my friends, after having lunch at the African Kitchen Gallery next to Euston Station (which I highly recommend).

I had to laugh at the sign outside the exhibition door. It read:

No photography is allowed in Death

Well, I can’t imagine it’s easy to transport cameras to the other side.

The exhibition is based on the collection of Richard Harris, a former antique print dealer based in Chicago. He has amassed a diverse and fascinating collection of objects and artworks exploring attitudes towards and the iconography of death. The collection prompts questions about the role of art in exploring attitudes to and ideas about death, and the existence of a collection at all suggests a desire to somehow escape or transcend death.

For a free exhibition, Death: A Self-Portrait is extremely comprehensive, containing about three hundred artefacts spread over five rooms.

 

Contemplating Death

The first room looked at how death and mortality might be contemplated. It displayed several memento mori (Latin for “remember you must die”) artefacts, including Adriaen van Utrecht’s 1643 painting, comprising a skull set in the midst of assorted items including flowers and a pocket watch. The desire for personal possessions seems to contradict the knowledge that we are all going to die: it is commonly said that “you can’t take it with you”, whether the ‘it’ is money or valued possessions. Perhaps our love for things is a way of fighting against the idea of mortality?

 

The Dance of Death

I found this section bizarre, but brilliant. The Dance of Death, or Danse Macabre as it is more commonly known, appeared first in the medieval period when death was at the forefront of peoples’ minds: plague, famine and war conspired to kill off individuals in their hundreds. Death was the ultimate leveller: it came to peasants and nobles alike. I have come across images of the dance of death before, in the course of my historical studies. Pictures of grinning skeletons dancing with humans are both amusing and morbid. My favourite item on display was a giant skull made largely out of plasticine during the last few years in South America. Looking more closely, you can see the shanty towns of South American cities, crushed by capitalism and Western culture: tiny books with recognisable covers – Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Great Expectations, Catch 22 – lie in layers at the skull’s eye level.

 

Violent Death

This section was, I thought, the most disturbing. Here, images showing violent death, often in war, were displayed. I studied the First World War for A Level English Literature and one of the ideas that came out of my studies was that World War I was the first in which the horror and violence of war were truly condemned: before that, the honour and glory of soldiering was emphasised. Francisco Goya’s ‘Disasters of War’ series, produced in the wake of the Napoleonic invasion of Spain in 1810-20, seem to disprove this theory. They are disturbing, vivid and brutal images; at the beginning, only the invaders are violent, but towards the end brutality is evident from both sides. Jacques Callot’s ‘The Miseries and Misfortunes of War’ of 1683 also contributes to the debate, while Otto Dix’s ‘The War’ of 1924 is equally violent, but in a way less immediately disturbing, given that the horror of World War I is well documented.

 

Eros and Thanatos

Eros and Thanatos are the contrasting instincts towards life and towards destruction, according to Sigmund Freud. In this room, our fascination with death, pain and disturbing phenomena is examined. Anatomical studies reflect the knowledge gained from the dissection of the dead, while postcards of lovers, or of friends playing cards, have been made to look like skulls. I found this room intriguing too, and especially loved the postcards, which were very clever.

 

Commemoration

The final room examined the ways in which we commemorate the dead, suggesting that the varied ways different cultures achieve this have one thing in common: to connect with the dead and our ancestors. From the Day of the Dead celebrations in Mexico, to the American families posing with skeletons, they are all about exploring our relationship with the dead. Other interesting artefacts in this room included Tibetan ceremonial cups and Aztec vessels, as well as a rather frightening grave guardian from a Pacific island.

 

Conclusion

I thought this exhibition was excellent: well put together, thought-provoking and varied. At the end, there is a video which shows Richard Harris discussing the exhibition and there is also a chart which provides much food for thought, showing the ways in which people died during the 20th century. The larger the circle, the greater the number of deaths, and related methods of death are linked together. Some of the results were to be expected – the high proportion of deaths from cancer, for example – but others I found surprising, such as the huge numbers dead from diarrhoea. A few I actually found reassuring: the number of deaths caused by air travel accidents is tiny by comparison to most other causes.

This free exhibition is on at the Wellcome Collection, near Euston, north London, until 24 February 2013, and comes highly recommended.

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