No matter if you see death as a shadowy cloaked guy holding a sceptre or a well dressed gentleman, death throughout time always had an extensive range of facades. Though what is more interesting is the way different cultures and times have celebrated, grasped and portrayed death and the new exhibit at the Wellcome Collection is acknowledging this with a show dedicated to death.
This show comes from the extensive collection of Chicago based Richard Harris and is curated by Kate Forde. These two have one of those partnerships that is intriguing and thought provoking as they bring together a mix of artistic masterpieces and low brow culture that results in a pretty provocative discernment. With around 300 pieces on show, it’s a pretty heavy hitting exhibit illustrating “the iconography of death and our complex and contradictory attitude towards it”
The show is divided into five sections and when first entering you are thrown head first into contemplation of death, not what I needed on a wednesday morning. There are some fine art pieces in here including the huge painting by Lucas Franchoys the Younger (1616-1681) painted in Belgium. On spotting the skeleton skull within this portrait you soon become aware of a few things. Though I first became aware of was that it seemed to demonstrate a sort of paradoxical notion of the doctors supposed knowledge of anatomy against the limits of medical knowledge at the time.
Though sharing this room were some of my favourite pieces, which were entitled “Skeleton Sketches”. These were originally calendars produced by a company called Antikamnia Chemical Company. What is amazing about these ridiculously hilarious sketches, is the fact they were part of a special marketing scheme and were all posted to physicians across the globe. Though the best bit is that these turned out to be made from toxic analgesics, which in turn led the company to be sued and then disappear, but boy am I glad they got the chance to make these as they are stupefying.
The second room is pretty grim and is somewhat a room to ease you into the horrors that lie within the third. The room beautifully entitled “Dance of Death” focuses on the universal certainty of death, irrespective of social status or country. This room brings together works from across the globe and shows whether you’re a pope, king, peasant, women, men, old or young death has your number.
It has some rather interesting little objects from the different traditions and cultures of years gone by, one being the Skeleton Puppet, USA (undated). The triumphant skeleton, a traditional feature of the medieval ‘Dance of Death’. The puppets are a constant reminder that death sets the pace of life’s dance, which is pretty macabre to think about, but when you look at this fella, you soon of forget all of that.
The next room in the exhibition is probably the most gut-wrenching of them all as the title probably gives away ‘Violence of Death’. I found this room weirdly interesting however, found that most of the pieces were aesthetically displeasing. Here you will find the 82 prints made by the great Francisco Goya titled “Disasters of War”. These go some way to describing the abuse, torture and killing conducted by Napoleon during his rampage through Spain.
The next offering is called ‘Eros and Thanatos’, which slightly less graphic and is inspired by the two coinciding and conflicting drives within ourselves and individuals identified by Sigmund Freud in his “The Resistances to Psycho-Analysis”. Eros, is widely regarded as the drive for life, love, creativity and sexuality whereas, Thanatos is the encapsulation of sadism and destruction. So you can already see where this is heading, as the room juxtaposes some of the lighter takes on death with the more macabre.
Included in here is one of the most horrifying pieces in the whole show, it is by UK born John Isaacs titled “Are you still mad at me?”. This intimidating piece is a representation of the early brutality of anatomical investigation throughout the early centuries. Its probably one of the most gruesomely attractive pieces, as the cadaver sits up and stares at you with hollow eyes and insides hanging out, it’s certainly not one for the faint hearted.
The final room comes as a bit of relief as you come to the end of your journey, and is a room of rituals associated with death, burial and mourning and how these ideas have changed over time. The pieces come from far and wide as there are offerings from Tibet right to Mexico.
The images from “The Day, the Night and the Dead” by Dana Salvo are my favoured works here. It examines the ancient celebrations in Mexico, including the creation of painstakingly intricate offerings to the dead, which are designed to welcome the spirits of those who have departed. These often include photographs, personal items and servings of food and drink. Though personally, the most interesting is the inclusion of marigolds, which are supposedly included to lead the dead to the altar because of their bright colour and strong perfume.
The images by Marcos Raya also excite as they remind us of the disquieting truth behind every photograph, which is the presence of death within our own lives and within the lives of our family. Though for me these mixed media photographs are they are nothing but skulls in wedding dresses that offer up a few cheap chuckles.
When leaving this show I instead was left not thinking about the works but was left pondering Richard Harris’ motives for collecting this material. Is this way of him staring death into the eyes and accepting his fate? But then I realised that death has no face, no eyes, no personality death after all is death. It seems everyone in this exhibition tried to give death a face and personality, but a sequence in our life and the lives of everyone around us. But then I realised if you choose to follow this train of thought it will lead you down a cripplingly narrow and haunting path, you may as well just get involved and go along with it. After all of that delight note I leave you with this, “memento mori”
This runs till until 24th Feburary and is situated at 183 Euston Road, so you can all take your valentine and make a date of it, unless you die before then.