To die for: Inventive and playful artworks that frame death as a happy ending

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

A show titled Death: A Self-Portrait might sound morbid. But the colourful, inventive and playful artworks make for an approachable, even life-affirming, exhibition, as Adrian Hamilton discovers

Death and taxes are no longer as certain as Benjamin Franklin’s famous saying would have it. Taxes aren’t paid by the rich. Death in a secular and medicalised world has been made into something to be put off.

All credit then to the Wellcome  Foundation for holding a show that  reminds us that death has been an  intrinsic part of life through most of human history. Plague, famine and war made certain that it was all around the living, something to be feared,  embraced and prepared for. Take heed of death, said the late medieval church, for judgement will surely follow.  Embrace death said the Mexican  celebrators of the Day of the Dead, for through it you honour your ancestors. Accept it as a good thing, taught the Buddhists, for it will be followed by  rebirth in an endless cycle until you can break free of it altogether.

Wellcome Death may not be the best image to draw in the crowds. But in fact it is a surprisingly approachable exhibition, full of colour, inventiveness and occasional fun. That is primarily due to the private collection from which the show is drawn. Over the last dozen years, Richard Harris, a Chicago print dealer and book collector, has amassed some 2,000 artefacts, paintings, memorabilia and ephemera devoted to the subject, of which some 300 are on display here.

His collection was less the product of personal concern with the subject, he explains, than a desire to build a holding for public display in his retirement years, inspired by a small show of memento mori objects seen at the Maastricht Fair. “I went back to Chicago,” he recalls, “and sought the advice of an independent art expert who said ‘yes, we could find some  40 works to make a gathering of masterpieces’. But I came away thinking, no, that’s not what I want. What I  really wish is to gather everything about it, great and small, without  regard to prestige.”

The result is a collection filled with Harris’s sense of opening avenues and new finds but carefully selected and spaciously displayed by the curator, Kate Forde. As a book dealer, Harris started with a volume of the Nuremberg Chronicle published in 1493 containing engravings of the Dance of Death theme that so obsessed the art of the late Middle Ages. Sometimes playing a violin, sometimes just dancing, death as a skeleton steals up on rich and poor, regardless of rank or virtue. On show also are the complete sets of Jacques Callot’s Miseries of War, Goya’s The Disasters of War and Otto Dix’s War – surely the greatest statements on the horrors of conflict ever made in art. How anyone could go to war after seeing Goya’s agonized depictions of the inhumanity it brings on all sides or Otto Dix’s visions of death and destruction in the First World War in which he served is something that only the politicians who lead us there could answer.

The violence of death is never far from its treatment in European culture nor the yearning for a “good death” in bed, surrounded by family and priest to see the soul on to its next world. The grinning skull behind the painted face of fashion and youth is a constant theme of painting. Go to the more popular ephemera of playing cards, puppets and prints and it is treated more humorously. There is a group of US puppets to remind one that skeletons are part of the play of children, no more so than in the burgeoning celebration of Hallowe’en.

Other cultures have taken death to heart as part of popular belief in spirits and the worship of ancestors. There’s a splendid papier mâché mask by a notable “cartoneros” sculptor, and a series of pictures, to remind one of Mexico’s Day of the Dead festival. The demons of the Himalayas are just as ferocious in aspect and ritual, representations of the sorrows and evils of the world that have to be conquered. But then a wonderfully cheerful Japanese painting, Frolicking Skeletons by Kawanabe Kyosai (1831-1889) can’t fail to raise a smile with its jangling, dancing and chasing skeletons as a seated guardian figure from South Sulawesi in Indonesia – a recent purchase – looks positively serene in its unblinking gaze.

Not the least of the virtues of the Richard Harris Collection is that it  includes contemporary art and works commissioned by Harris himself. A one-ton chandelier made up of plaster casts of bones, In the Eyes of Others, by the British artist, Jodie Carey, presents both the air of luxury with the reality of bone. A startling life-size plaster and wax image of a truncated torso figure on a crate addressed to the artist by the British sculptor John Isaacs, Are You Still Mad at Me? shocks you into questioning pain inflicted, while an installation by June Leaf, Gentleman on Green Table, is of a skeletal figure in tin and wire leaning forward in pain and uncertainty. In a series commissioned from the Mexican Marcos Raya, the artist pastes on skulls and empty eye sockets on to family photographs, while another commission, by the Hungarian artist Balint Zsako makes a collage of all the bones in a body as engraved by a 17th-century artist.

However wide-ranging, no exhibition can be fully comprehensive on a subject as big as this. One could have done with some Egyptian objects to reflect an obsession with death and  afterlife that survives to this day in the City of the Dead. Although the exhibition touches on it, there was something supremely sentimental, perverse even, in the 19th-century fascination with beauty in death and its place as the highest expression of love. The agony is there in the prints of Käthe Kollwitz’s Tod und Frau from 1910 and the prints of James Ensor but not the unsettling eroticism of the corpse in Klimt and the Pre-Raphaelites.

But then that is the beauty of the Harris Collection. It makes you think positively about our final end. For us, as for Harris, the gathering of objects becomes a means of exploration not revulsion. Has he finished with it? Stupid question. He’s just bought an old Chevy Impala painted all over for the Day of the Dead. And it runs. One can see that there is no end to it until the skeleton with the violin comes to dance with him.

Death: A Self-Portrait, the Richard Harris Collection, Wellcome Collection, London NW1 (020 7611 2222) to 24 February

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
    Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

    UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

    Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
    John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

    ‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

    Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
    Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

    Let the propaganda wars begin - again

    'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

    Japan's incredible long-distance runners

    Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
    Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

    Tom Drury: The quiet American

    His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
    Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

    Beige to the future

    Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

    Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

    More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
    Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

    Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

    The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own