I try to take myself off once a week on a date with myself – one of the useful tips I learned from reading The Artist’s Way. This week I went to The Wellcome Collection to see a wonderful exhibition on Death. It’s not a medical exhibition but a mad collection of more than 1500 artefacts to do with the subject of death amassed by an American collector, Richard Harris. He started the collection as a visual conversation with his own mortality, as age made thoughts of his own demise increasingly enter his own conscious thoughts. I too am finding myself pondering this more often these days and applaud the fact that Harris has taken on what is usually a taboo subject.
And what a collection it is. Any thoughts I had that it would be macabre or depressing were soon dispelled. Yes, there are some grisly objects and pictures, but somehow viewed like this en masse, death loses its sting and seems natural and normal – and after all it is the only thing that is going to happen to every one of us . In past centuries memento mori, particularly the symbolic use of skulls, were an aid to contemplation of one’s own mortality – something we are no longer encouraged to do. There is the tragedy of death – Otto Dix’s moving scenes from the German trenches and the often gruesome portrayal of the consequences of war by Goya, contrasting with the playful portrayal of death in the Frolicking Skeletons of the Japanese Floating World artist – skeletons playing leapfrog and dancing. And of course there are the artefacts of Mexico, where the Day of the Dead is a celebration. There are items from all ages, different geographies and different media.
Funny, sad, pathetic, touching, shocking, provoking and always interesting, there are many things to surprise or delight in this eclectic collection. And best of all it’s absolutely free – including an illustrated catalogue. There’s also a book to accompany it – Death a Self Portrait – which you can also buy from Amazon.
I don’t know whether anything I saw at this show will find its way into my book – but I have been knuckling down and churning out the words since.