Wellcome Death: A Self-Portrait
When one of my favourite friends, fellow blogger Celia, told me that she was going to spend her honeymoon in Mexico during “Dia de los Muertos” I got almost as excited as if I were going myself. Ever since developing an early obsession with the art of Frida Kahlo, and in turn the film Frida starring Salma Hayek, I have been fascinated by the Mexican celebration of the dead, in which they make and paint brightly coloured papier mache skulls, masks and skeletons, often adorned with hearts and flowers and all number of patterns, and parade them out in the streets. I even painted a Muertos skull in my recent painting of the city of Salamanca in Spain (below). Having never been to Mexico, I half-heartedly asked Celia to bring be back a “Muertos doll” never actually expecting that on her honeymoon, she would give me a second thought.
But last week, amazing as she is, and freshly returned from the tropics of that South American paradise, she presented to me what must be the ultimate in double whammy presents – a Frida Kahlo doll with a Muertos skeleton face (pictured)! The doll is frankly amazing, combining all the fun and spirit of Kahlo’s works, including the occasional morbidity which creeps into her often pain-expressing paintings. No sooner had I lovingly placed said doll alongside my Frida Kahlo art catalogue on my book shelves (from the Tate Modern expo some years back), I then heard about another exhibition which has recently hit the streets of London – not of Kahlo, but of Death.
I know what you’re thinking, death, as the subject of an exhibition? Isn’t that likely to be morbid, or heartwrenching, or just plain scary? Well if you’re thinking those things, you probably don’t know the Wellcome Collection on Euston Road in London, a superb gallery adjunct of the Wellcome Trust, who regularly organises fascinating exhibitions of art and curiosities with a decidedly medical theme. The latest exhibition explores the theme of death and our preoccupation both with death, and combating death, in society.
The exhibition comprises the vast and varied collection of Richard Harris, a former antique print dealer from Chicago and explores the subject in a brilliantly diverse array of mediums, themes and expressions. Upon entering the gallery, we were met by Jodie Carey’s 2009 work, In the Eyes of Others (2009), a giant chandelier made entirely of bones. Sadly, the bones were not real bones, but rather plastic reproductions, and therefore this did not have quite the same effect as a chapel I once visited in Rome, the Capuchin Crypt, made entirely from human bones (very morbid, but unusually architecturally beautiful). However, it set us up for a show which ranged from the oldest of 15th century art, to ambitious contemporary pieces.
The first room explored the theme, Contemplating Death, comprising examples from throughout history of memento mori (Latin for “remember you will die”), the well-advised reminder to us all that we should seize the day because all of us, inevitably, will be dead one day. This ranged from the classically painted Vanitas still life from 16th century Belgium, the skull sat amongst the clutter of Saint Jerome’s cell by Dürer.
Up next was the Dance of Death, a room which focused on the universal certainty of death, regardless of status in life. This included many a depiction of the Danse Macabre, in which feverish revelry united humans with skeletons, works intended to dissuade people from self-indulgence and vanity in life. I loved the beautiful, almost introspective solace of the dead skeleton sat upon a table in June Leaf’s sculpture, Gentleman on Green Table (1999-2000), as well as the Mondongo Collective’s The Skull Series, in which a huge sculpted scull made from plasticine was, upon closer inspection, a detailed exploration of the influence of the US and Europe upon the world.
For me, the third room, which explored the representation of death in its most violent form, was by far the most powerful and engaging works of the lot. Featuring some examples of the series The Disasters of War (Los Desastres de la Guerra) by Francisco Goya, this room gave us confrontational and often hard-to-view representations of war and death agony. Goya’s etchings are a brilliant and deeply moving representation of Napoleon’s invasion of Spain at the beginning of the 19th Century. Seeing these images gives some indication of why Goya, having experienced the horrors of war, went from being sycophantic portrait painter of polite society, to creator of the stunning and deeply disturbing Black Paintings held within Madrid’s Prado gallery.
Goya’s etchings have since influenced a number of artists, including Picasso and the Chapman Brothers, but perhaps none more so than German artist Otto Dix, whose series of 51 etchings entitled Der Krieg (War) based on his gruesome experiences in the trenches during WW1, were also on display alongside the Goya works which inspired them. Dix’s etchings were incredibly moving, and unapologetic in their gruesome and violent portrayal of war, death, and devastating injury. All in black and white, these works didn’t need the vivid red of blood to convey the horror of the WW1 deathtol. Rather, in their monochromatic greys and blacks, they perfectly portrayed the grim horror of those times.
It was perhaps with some relief that the fourth gallery showed us a lighter view of death – in fact, rather unusually, death’s relationship with eroticism as representations of death were shown intertwined with the nude and appearing to infiltrate the embrace of lovers. In this room, I loved the little optical illusion postcards which reminded me a bit of Dali. The skull appears in each to be the most prominent symbol, but look again and you can see a perfectly innocent domestic scene, which bears no relation at all to the skull which it at first appears to represent.
The final room was a representation of the Dia de los muertos festival which has so fascinated me, along with other cultural representations of death in society around the world. I was particularly drawn towards Dan Salvo’s photos of shrines and elaborate altars (known as ofrendas) which are designed to welcome the spirits of those who have departed. I also loved the wall of Muertos dolls straight out of Mexico.
So with some greater sense of joy, we left the exhibition, full of joys of the Mexican carnival, that was at least until we saw the last wall of the show which gave statistics about the causes of death around the world. Then our joy turned to slightly less jovial stark realism mixed with scientific curiosity as, captivated, we spent a good 5 minutes fascinated by the statistics which show that, far from the horrors of war, the greatest killer of mankind is the role of disease, illness and other irreparable physical conditions. Now if that isn’t a reminder to seize the day, I don’t know what is.
Death: A Self-Portrait is on at the Wellcome Collection until 24 February 2013