Wellcome Collection’s major winter exhibition ‘Death: A self-portrait’ showcases some 300 works from a unique collection devoted to the iconography of death and our complex and contradictory attitudes towards it.
Assembled by Richard Harris, a former antique print dealer based in Chicago, the collection is spectacularly diverse, including artworks, historical artefacts, anatomical illustrations and ephemera from across the world.
Rare prints by Rembrandt, Dürer and Goya are displayed alongside anatomical drawings, war art and antique metamorphic postcards; human remains are juxtaposed with Renaissance vanitas paintings and 20th-century installations celebrating Mexico's Day of the Dead. This singular collection looks at our enduring desire to make peace with death.
Over five themed rooms, the exhibition investigates the value of art in evolving ideas about death and the body. Contemplating Death explores the pressing of our own mortality upon us, through memento mori that range across media and centuries to include works by Warhol, van Utrecht and Mapplethorpe, together with exquisite netsuke miniatures and porcelain, bronze, and ivory skulls.
The Dance of Death focuses on the levelling universality of death. Death appears in various guises: triumphant at the head of a procession, as a benign skeleton playing a violin, as friend, enemy and lover, scything through crowds in James Ensor's fin-de-siècle engraving, and perched sadly on a table in June Leaf's delicate contemporary sculpture.
Violent Death is dominated by three groups of works: Jacques Callot's 'The Miseries and Misfortunes of War' (1633), Francisco Goya's 'The Disasters of War' (1810-1820, published 1863) and Otto Dix's 'The War' (1924) - compelling works of chaos, brutality and, more troublingly, aesthetic beauty. This room presents death on an industrial scale, asking how we should respond to art that bears witness to atrocity and horror.
Eros and Thanatos presents works that navigate our strange attraction to death, sexuality and pain: voluptuous nudes juxtaposed with cadavers, Death interrupting the embrace of lovers, amorous couples morphed into grinning skulls - all reflect the morbid excitement of death's proximity. In works such as Eustachi's 16th-century 'Anatomical Engravings' and John Isaacs' 'Are you still mad at me?' (2001), the dissection knife cuts across lines of desire, death and knowledge.
The exhibition finds beginnings in ends with Commemoration, which follows global and historical rituals surrounding death, burial and mourning. From pre-Colombian Aztec vessels to American photographs of individuals posing with macabre props, they all express a very human desire to connect with our ancestors, to sanctify the body and to feel intimately connected to people beyond death.
Richard Harris's collection is a modern-day cabinet of curiosities and an extended visual essay on our dealings with death across cultures and spiritual traditions. It functions as an autobiography of one individual and his collection but provides a remarkable opportunity to explore and interrogate our own feelings about mortality.
Richard Harris says: "The collection was from the beginning meant to be shown as an exhibition to the public, never as a private, personal statement for my eyes only. I hoped to create a body of work that would chronologically and culturally capture the essence of Death through its iconography, from masterpieces of fine art to the incidental.
"It is my wish that what started out solely as a collection of objects based on the theme of Death will become the visual component for a more serious conversation about the subject of death that we need to have in our society."
Kate Forde, curator at Wellcome Collection, says: "Richard Harris's remarkable collection brings together an extraordinary range of creative responses to death. The artefacts on display connect the living and the dead in a perpetual exchange underwritten by memory and mortality.
"The exhibition is a testament both to the keen and curious mind of a collector and our imaginative and unending fascination with mortality, across cultures and history. 'Death' challenges us to recognise the many faces of death."
'Death: A self-portrait, the Richard Harris Collection' runs from 15 November 2012 to 24 February 2013 at Wellcome Collection, 183 Euston Road, NW1 2BE. For opening times, please visit the Wellcome Collection website.
A full events programme accompanies the exhibition, along with a beautifully designed keepsake publication, featuring a selection of images from the Richard Harris Collection.