IoS exhibition review: Death: A Self-portrait, Wellcome Collection, London

2.00

A morbid obsession with the Grim Reaper: humorous, political and erotic

What is there to say about death? We know it will happen, like taxes, but we prefer not to think about it till we have to. But not Richard Harris. He's a former art dealer from Chicago who has spent the past 12 years collecting objects related to death. It began with a Dutch still life of a skull and blossomed into a collection of 2,000 objects ranging across all cultures and periods, all pegged to his one big theme.

Some of the collection was shown in Chicago earlier this year, in what sounded like a vast Addams Family orgy of skulls and coffins. The Wellcome Collection's show is more restrained: 300 objects divided between five themed rooms.

We begin with Contemplating Death, where a 1650 oil painting by Miradori, of a fleshy pink putto sprawling over a skull, hints at an eroticism linked with death. A photograph by the contemporary American artist John O'Reilly satirising the traditional "vanitas" still life includes the artist's dangling penis as part of its tableau.

The comedy of death is explored in a second room. Skeletons have always seemed faintly absurd, figures from the fairground ghost train, and they certainly look funny in a delicately executed woodblock by Walter Saner from 1925. Perhaps it's the grins. But they can also be made to look terrifying: two wooden, 18th-century Tibetan dancing skeletons, called chitipati, would have given the younger me nightmares for weeks.

There is more humour in a circa 1900 photograph of six medical students standing by a partially dissected cadaver – they're dressed for a Thames boating party, not the lab. Further sepia snaps of students posing with skeletons in classrooms reflect a human tendency to make light of death. One, in which a group of women peer at a skull, is, say the notes, the best summary of Harris's own morbid interest. Quite why he is so taken with the subject is never made clear: it seems he simply wanted to start a conversation.

Still, there's plenty to marvel at, such as the Calavera, a large and intricate plasticine sculpture by the Argentinian Mondongo collective. Symbols of western capitalism, such as banks, are stacked on top of symbols of South American struggle, such as shanty towns, and the whole is swooshed into the shape a skull. Modelled in plasticine, it oozes with political meaning.

Some older artefacts are hard to appreciate in the way they were when made, because the iconography has been hijacked by the Goth movement. So, a cabinet of 19th-century ex libris bookplates, featuring skulls and Grim Reapers, looks like the bumpf from a Guns 'n' Roses tour. Harris clearly wants us to engage with death in a way we normally wouldn't, but the motifs are so repetitive that the selection becomes a celebration of iconography rather than an exploration of the unknown.

In truth, death permeates all art because, as in life, it's always with us. As it is with science: what else is the Wellcome Trust about, if not funding ways of ameliorating and prolonging human life? The trouble with putting death centre stage is that you're left with no backdrop. An ideal treatment of the theme might include the tomb of Tutankhamen, the Pantheon in Paris and half the contents of the National Gallery. Since that would be a logistical impossibility, perhaps death is better left in the shadows.

To 24 Feb 2013 (020-7611 2222)

Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in Fifty Shades of Grey

film Sex scene trailer sees a shirtless Jamie Dornan turn up the heat

Arts and Entertainment
A sketch of Van Gogh has been discovered in the archives of Kunsthalle Bremen in Germany
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Eleanor Catton has hit back after being accused of 'treachery' for criticising the government.
books
Arts and Entertainment
Fake Banksy stencil given to artist Alex Jakob-Whitworth

art

Arts and Entertainment
'The Archers' has an audience of about five million
radioA growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is heading to Norwich for Radio 1's Big Weekend

music
Arts and Entertainment
Beer as folk: Vincent Franklin and Cyril Nri (centre) in ‘Cucumber’
tvReview: This slice of gay life in Manchester has universal appeal
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
‘A Day at the Races’ still stands up well today
film
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tvAnd its producers have already announced a second season...
Arts and Entertainment
Kraftwerk performing at the Neue Nationalgalerie (New National Gallery) museum in Berlin earlier this month
musicWhy a bunch of academics consider German electropoppers Kraftwerk worthy of their own symposium
Arts and Entertainment
Icelandic singer Bjork has been forced to release her album early after an online leak

music
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth as Harry Hart in Kingsman: The Secret Service

film
Arts and Entertainment
Brian Blessed as King Lear in the Guildford Shakespeare Company's performance of the play

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
In the picture: Anthony LaPaglia and Martin Freeman in 'The Eichmann Show'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Kirkbride and Bill Roache as Deirdre and Ken Barlow in Coronation Street

tvThe actress has died aged 60
Arts and Entertainment
Marianne Jean-Baptiste defends Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
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.

    As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

    As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

    Mussolini tried to warn his ally of the danger of bringing the country to its knees. So should we, says Patrick Cockburn
    Britain's widening poverty gap should be causing outrage at the start of the election campaign

    The short stroll that should be our walk of shame

    Courting the global elite has failed to benefit Britain, as the vast disparity in wealth on display in the capital shows
    Homeless Veterans appeal: The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty
    Prince Charles the saviour of the nation? A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king

    Prince Charles the saviour of the nation?

    A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king
    How books can defeat Isis: Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad

    How books can defeat Isis

    Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
    Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

    Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

    She may be in charge of minimising our risks of injury, but the chair of the Health and Safety Executive still wants children to be able to hurt themselves
    The open loathing between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu just got worse

    The open loathing between Obama and Netanyahu just got worse

    The Israeli PM's relationship with the Obama has always been chilly, but going over the President's head on Iran will do him no favours, says Rupert Cornwell
    French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

    French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

    Fury at British best restaurants survey sees French magazine produce a rival list
    Star choreographer Matthew Bourne gives young carers a chance to perform at Sadler's Wells

    Young carers to make dance debut

    What happened when superstar choreographer Matthew Bourne encouraged 27 teenage carers to think about themselves for once?
    Design Council's 70th anniversary: Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch

    Design Council's 70th anniversary

    Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch
    Dame Harriet Walter: The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment

    Dame Harriet Walter interview

    The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment
    Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

    Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

    Critics of Tom Stoppard's new play seem to agree that cerebral can never trump character, says DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's winter salads will make you feel energised through February

    Bill Granger's winter salads

    Salads aren't just a bit on the side, says our chef - their crunch, colour and natural goodness are perfect for a midwinter pick-me-up
    England vs Wales: Cool head George Ford ready to put out dragon fire

    George Ford: Cool head ready to put out dragon fire

    No 10’s calmness under pressure will be key for England in Cardiff
    Michael Calvin: Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links