Sunday, 18 November 2012

Death: A Self-Portrait, at the Wellcome Collection

This Thursday I headed to the Wellcome Collection in London for the first day of an important new exhibition which tackles one of society's biggest taboos: death. Though we all know that death is an inevitable conclusion - the 'self-portrait' of the title refers to you, too - it's something which most cultures struggle to articulate and prefer to leave as an afterthought. The Wellcome does the opposite and confronts the Grim Reaper-shaped elephant in the room, which is both brave and eye-opening.

 La Vie et Mort postcard, c.1900-1910, with unforgettably clever imagery.
All images via the Wellcome Collection.

The exhibition is based on the huge collection of deathly artwork amassed by former art dealer Richard Harris (no, not the bloke who played Dumbledore), gathered over 12 years and covering all kinds of different cultures and time periods. From a 1300s skull sculpture to 1800s Japanese paintings, right up to an incredible plastecine piece (2011) by an Argentinian art collective, the theme of mortality is ever-present. If you're one of those people who finds morbid imagery a bit too creepy then this is a brilliant place to confront your fears and end up feeling a bit more comfortable with skeletons, bodies and rituals.

When Shall We Meet Again? Gelatin silver print, c.1900.

As someone who loves skull motifs and wrote an incredibly long art theory essay on anatomy in the art world, I was certainly in my element exploring the collection, from vanitas portraits to anonymous photos featuring people posing alongside skeletons. Death is one of those things that unites us all, rich or poor, and it completely goes against the kind of things I write about on this blog for the rest of the time - all those outfits and handbags mean very little once you're gone, except for maybe helping you to look your best in the funeral home. This exhibition looks at some of the ways in which people try and keep memories alive, through portraits and ritualistic altar building, and also the ways in which they begin to accept death, such as in the use of memento mori in imagery. There was also a lot of attention paid to anatomical discoveries and the advances that helped us to understand the body, which obviously involved cadavers, and there was a really touching sepia photo from an anatomy class that was titled 'When will we meet again?' that caught my eye. The contradiction of preserving bodies by exploring an expired one is something that anatomists are constantly aware of.

If you're at all interested in skulls and conceptual imagery then you need to pay a visit to the Wellcome Collection; it's free, fascinating and you will come away with some very big questions. There is also a series of events accompanying the exhibition, so take a look at the website and find out how you can get under the skin of this important topic. It definitely puts things in perspective.

Death: A Self Portrait - 15th November 2012 - 24th February 2013.

Wellcome Collection, 183 Euston Road, London NW1 2BE (nearest tube station is Euston Square).

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