Try as we might, there’s no escaping death. Art collector Richard Harris has decided to embrace it instead — and wants the rest of us to do the same.
The retired Chicago print dealer has spent years acquiring works imbued with mortality, from 18th-century anatomical drawings to Tibetan skull masks and papier-mache skeletons from Mexico.
Some 300 items from his trove are on display at London’s Wellcome Collection in an exhibition that asks whether art can help us understand and prepare for death.
Standing amid the skeletons and skulls of “Death: A Self Portrait,” the 75-year-old Harris is an incongruously cheerful figure who laughs when asked if he is, perhaps, a little obsessed with death.
“Of course not!” he said Wednesday at a preview of the show, which opened to the public on Thursday and runs until Feb. 24.
“I half-jokingly say it’s a paean to death so he’ll ignore me a little longer,” Harris said. “But I think it’s more that the iconography, the imagery is fascinating. A skull is a skull and a skeleton is a skeleton, but it has been depicted by almost every artist through their own eyes.”
The varying ways that different cultures have dealt with death is what fascinated the Wellcome Collection, which is dedicated to mapping the ways in which art, medicine and science overlap.
Curator Kate Forde has arranged Harris’s artworks into a series of rooms that explore distinct aspects of the relationship between humans and our inevitable demise.
One room focuses on the contemplation of mortality through artistic memento mori, such as skulls placed at the center of still-life paintings.
A section on commemoration includes Tibetan ceremonial bowls made with pieces of human skull; a scarecrow-like grave guardian from the Pacific islands; and skeletons from Mexico’s vibrant Day of the Dead festivities, when families honor departed loved ones.
Another room looks at the powerful relationship between sex and death, through images including a 16th-century engraving of a skeleton standing between the naked Adam and Eve.
A room on violent death includes searing depictions of war, from the 17th-century etchings of Jacques Callot to German artist Otto Dix’s etchings of World War I trench warfare. In Dix’s work, scenes of soldiers in trenches, dead bodies and mutilated corpses are both harrowing and beautiful.
The works span the centuries, from skeletons enacting a triumphant Dance of Death in the 1493 “Nuremberg Chronicle” — one of the earliest printed books — to Rembrandt prints and sculptures by contemporary artists. These include “In the Eyes of Others,” a huge chandelier made from 3,000 plaster bones by British artist Jodie Carey, and John Isaacs’ “Are You Still Mad at Me?” — a not-for-the squeamish sculpture of a decayed and partially dismembered body.
Forde senses a resurgent interest in death among today’s artists — just think of Damien Hirst, with his rotting animal carcasses and diamond-encrusted skull. She suggests it may be a product of Western society’s desire to tidy death away.
“In Western secular culture, death happens offstage, in private. It’s medicalized and professionalized. Only a century back, death would have been at home,” she said. “I do think we have lost some vocabulary of talking about it — talking about mourning and contemplating mortality.”
Art, she says, can help remind us that “death is part of life and not simply a void into which we drop.”
Harris says he does not know the value of his collection, which numbers some 2,000 items and is still growing. His latest purchase, sadly not on display in London, is a 1969 Chevrolet Impala adorned with Day of the Dead motifs.
“My wife,” he said, “has been very understanding and very patient.”
He hopes to take his collection on tour around the world.
“All the world needs, in my mind, to promote the conversation and the dialogue about death,” he said. “It is an event that is going to happen to all of us, whether we like it or not.”
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.
More at the Wellcome Collection.