Death: A Self Portrait

Posted on December 31, 2012



What better time to visit an exhibition exploring mortality than in the midst of an impending apocalypse? Dramatic interpretation of the end of the Mayan calendar meant that death was very much in the public consciousness on December 21, and as usual we were being nothing short of hysterical about it. So I wandered down to the Wellcome Collection in Euston to check out Death: A Self Portrait and get some perspective on the only inevitability in life – it’s end.

The exhibition comprises a collection of around 300 pieces of art, historical artefacts and scientific specimens assembled by former antique dealer Richard Harris – and provides a window into the myriad of varying attitudes towards death we see across the globe. We’re invited to question the value of art in communicating ideas about mortality and playful Mexican papier-mache sculptures sit next to contemplative paintings and violent images of war-time death.

A series of five rooms guide us through various contemplations of, fears towards, interactions with, analysis of and remembrances of death. The first section provides a reminder of the brevity of life and looks at various attitudes towards contemplating our own mortality. Skull imagery is frequent as well as the inscription memento mori – Latin for ‘remember you will die’. Room two takes on the ‘dance of death’ and displays objects focusing on the universal certainty of death – who appears as a frail skeleton, a pompous procession leader and a friendly skull. In this room no-one is exempt from an inevitable demise, whether a king, peasant, man, woman, pope or pauper. There’s a real sense of unity in the way that we all face dying together, simply as humans.

Gentleman on Green Table

Gentleman On Green Table

The third room is filled with gruesome depictions of wartime horror and death on a grand scale – I’m reminded of the use of art as both therapy for traumatic events and as a means of archiving history. Room four takes a mischievous peek into the world of science, using anatomical drawings and grinning skulls to remind us that the only way we’ve learned how to practice medicine is through the demise of others.

Finally, the last room looks at the rituals associated with death, burial and mourning. Photos of Halloween celebrations, Tibetan ceremonial cups and Pacific Island grave guardians show us that although there is a plethora of ways we choose to commemorate the dead across different cultures, we all share common desires to remember our loved ones and feel connected to those beyond the grave.

Vanitas Still Life

Vanitas Still Life

It would be so easy to treat this collection as a morbid, frightening walk through our timeless struggle to understand, and make peace with, death. So it was refreshing to see that not only was the subject matter presented in a playful, non morose way, but also that we were invited to ask questions and use the exhibition content as a platform for curiosity rather than fear.  Questions such as how can art help us to understand and deal with death? How can possessions keep us in some way connected to loved ones that have passed? What if, instead of keeping death in the shadows, we learned to face it head on as an essential part of life?

I found this especially pertinent living in a country that seems reluctant and afraid to start helpful and panic free discourse about our end of days. After all, what would life be if we went on existing forever and ever? That’s certainly one question I was left with after departing this thought provoking collection.



Heads within skull –
Gentleman on Green Table –
Vanitas Still Life –