Review: Death: A Self-Portrait

A bold art collection about death, assembled by the American collector Richard Harris

Wellcome Collection

15 November 2012 – 24 February 2013

A visual collection, which ranges from ephemera to photographs, sculptures and paintings, covering almost 300 years, is currently displayed at the Londoner Wellcome Collection. From the Japanese Floating world of Ukiyo-e to the Buddhist Okimono and humanised skeleton of Mexico’s Day of The Dead, the spectator is drawn to an unusual and spectacular journey into the macabre and sublime side of the death. None want to talk about death, but anyway everybody has to face it. Death: a Self-Portrait’s deals with the concept of death to discover how different cultures exorcise the end of life.

The exhibition offers a complete and exhaustive collection of rare pieces of art. Divided in different themed rooms, different topics are displayed like the medieval Dance of Death and the fecund bond between art and eroticism. The advertising picture of the art exhibition represents a white skull with a couple of lovers kissing, strong and controversial example of Freudian’s concept of Eros and Thanatos.


The collection opens with an oriental Okimono Curios snake exploring a skull, representing a skull encircled by a snake. This decorative object embodies the Buddhist vision of the on-going existence of the spirit, which is built on the idea of the reincarnation of the soul in new states of being.


Ahead in the exhibition, we find Japanese Ukiyo-e (Floating World) Frolicking Skeletons. This artwork represents a range of skeletons indulging in different sensual pleasures. One is playing an instrument; another one is simply relaxing, showing the deep dichotomy between the inexorability of death and life’s evanescence and beauty.

Frolicking Skeletons by Kawanabe Kyosai

It is not a coincidence that in the last room of the exhibition is displayed Are you still mad at me? (2001). John Isaacs’ sculpture represents a wounded and lacerated human body. A torn body which obliges us to face the most painful and darkest side of death.


The art collector, Richard Harris, explains that he was attracted by the versatility of this theme. As he states, death is removed from our collective conscious but anthropological studies demonstrate that every culture has to face it. His aim was to collect ‘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.’

Death: A Self-Portrait is a unique and bizarre collection of art, which epitomizes the human urge of sublimate death in creative artworks. From the Putto blowing bubbles, symbols of the transience of life, to the white bones made Chandelier, over decades artists demonstrate that towards death the strongest reaction is the powerful creation of the art. In truth, the focal point of the whole collection is the endless human attempt to ‘overcome’ death with creativity.

(Photographs courtesy of Wellcome Collection Press Office).


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