Death on display in new Wellcome Collection exhibition celebrating the inevitable

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

 

Celebrating death is an odd concept for an exhibition, but a new show in London on the topic that many people would rather avoid is at times beautiful, macabre, harrowing, comforting and funny.

Death: A Self-Portrait opens at the Wellcome Collection tomorrow and specialises in scientific and medical themes.

It contains around 300 paintings, puppets, models, drawings and artefacts from the collection of Richard Harris, an American antique print dealer who just over a decade ago decided to dedicate his time to assembling works of art related to death.

He has around 2,000 items in total, most of them in storage, and would love to display the collection around the world to help people come to terms with their ultimate fate.

"My real aim is to have this show all over the world," the 75-year-old said at a preview of the exhibition today.

"All the world needs to continue to promote the discussion and dialogue about this just to make it ...something that is not taboo and something that we cringe about and close our eyes and our minds to," Harris told reporters.

With a broad smile and jaunty manner perhaps at odds with his chosen obsession, he added: "Like it or not, we're not going to live forever."

Curator Kate Forde organised the exhibition around five themes, and sought to make the show feel as personal as possible rather than being a spectacle.

By placing artefacts from Japan and Nepal close to those from the United States and Mexico, the exhibition underlines how different cultures deal with death in radically different ways.

Mexico, with its Day of the Dead holiday, takes a more head-on approach than some cultures who seek to avoid the subject.

"It's an acknowledgement that death is there, it is a part of life and there is a way still of connecting with the dead and that can be joyous as well as full of grief and sorrow," Forde said of the tradition.

Dix's death drawings

Among the most disturbing works on display are 51 prints by German artist Otto Dix based on his time fighting as a machine-gunner on the Western Front during World War One.

Unflinching in their portrayal of agony, death, fear and rape, they are inspired both by Goya and Callot, whose works hang alongside them in the "Violent Death" section.

In Commemoration sits a "tau tau", an Indonesian "grave guardian", or wooden model of the deceased placed next to the graves of prominent members of the Toraja ethnic group.

The oldest item on display is the Nuremberg Chronicle, an illustrated adaptation of the Bible and world history from 1493, left open at an image of skeletons leaping and dancing frenetically beside an open grave.

The show also features contemporary works, including a 2009 giant "chandelier" by British artist Jodie Carey which comprises some 3,000 plaster-cast bones.

Harris said he was not obsessed by death, and did not know the value of his collection which includes works by prominent artists as Dix and Albrecht Duerer.

"As long as we don't go to the poor house," he joked. He continues to collect - his latest purchase was a 1969 Chevrolet car decorated with Day of the Dead motifs.

Next year, the Wellcome Collection will undergo a 17.5 million pound ($28 million) redevelopment after its exhibitions, talks and library attracted nearly half a million people over the last year compared with the 100,000 it had expected.

Forde put the success down to the combination of science, medicine and art. "I definitely think there's a hunger to look at science in that rounded way," she said.

The development is scheduled for completion in 2014.

Reuters

Arts and Entertainment
War veteran and father of Peter and Laust Thoger Jensen played by Lars Mikkelson

TVBBC hopes latest Danish import will spell success

Arts and Entertainment
Carey Mulligan in Far From The Madding Crowd
FilmCarey Mulligan’s Bathsheba would fit in better in The Hunger Games
Arts and Entertainment
Pandas-on-heat: Mary Ramsden's contribution is intended to evoke the compound the beasts smear around their habitat
Iart'm Here But You've Gone exhibition has invited artists to produce perfumes
Arts and Entertainment
U2's Songs of Innocence album sleeve

tvU2’s latest record has been accused of promoting sex between men

Arts and Entertainment
Alison Steadman in Inside No.9
tvReview: Alison Steadman stars in Inside No.9's brilliant series finale Spoiler alert
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

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

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

    Everyone is talking about The Trews

    Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living
    Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

    Homeless people keep mobile phones

    A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before
    'Queer saint' Peter Watson left his mark on British culture by bankrolling artworld giants

    'Queer saint' who bankrolled artworld giants

    British culture owes a huge debt to Peter Watson, says Michael Prodger
    Pushkin Prizes: Unusual exchange programme aims to bring countries together through culture

    Pushkin Prizes brings countries together

    Ten Scottish schoolchildren and their Russian peers attended a creative writing workshop in the Highlands this week
    14 best kids' hoodies

    14 best kids' hoodies

    Don't get caught out by that wind on the beach. Zip them up in a lightweight top to see them through summer to autumn
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The acceptable face of the Emirates

    The acceptable face of the Emirates

    Has Abu Dhabi found a way to blend petrodollars with principles, asks Robert Fisk