The one item that isn’t lacking in “Death: A Self Portrait” at the Wellcome Collection is skulls.
Most of the 300 or so artworks on display contain at least one head-bone, as well as sundry toe-bones, knee-caps and shin- bones. Some contain dozens of death’s heads.
The result is both monotonous and, in a gruesome fashion, highly entertaining. It also makes some interesting points. The skull is as close as human cultures come to a universal symbol.
Death is of course, in common with taxation, the fate of all of homo sapiens. Of this fact, the bare grinning cranium is the most obvious sign, and in the past -- even a century ago -- it and other representations of earthly transience were ubiquitous.
The effect is of a danse macabre, a carnival of death, as presented by artists from many different times and places.
Exhibits on show -- selected from some 1500 mortality- related images and objects collected by Richard Harris, a former print dealer from Chicago -- range from a 19th-century Japanese painting of “Frolicking Skeletons,” via Tibet and (naturally) Mexico, to Andy Warhol.
All that’s missing is Damien Hirst’s diamond-encrusted skull “For the Love of God,” though recent art is presented by several works including a huge festive-looking chandelier by Jodie Carey, “In the Eyes of Others” (2009). On closer examination, it turns out to be made up of artfully interlaced vertebrae and other skeletal remains.
At the heart of the show -- if that’s the correct anatomical metaphor -- are works related to the European traditions of the Dance of Death. Many medieval churches and cemeteries contained paintings of cheery, mobile skeletons, capering with varying degrees of ghoulish humor and sometimes playing a fiddle or other instrument, leading everyone, young and old, rich and poor into the fatal dance.
Hamlet’s comic backchat with the grave-diggers is a literary equivalent to these grimly jolly pictures, with the same message: death is sad and also funny.
At the Wellcome, there are multiple specimens of visual graveyard humor, among them extraordinary French postcards in which, for example, the empty eye-sockets of a skull become the heads of a pair of kissing lovers.
In 17th-century Dutch still-life pictures, a skull was depicted alongside flowers, a memento mori (or reminder of death) among these representations of beautiful, passing life. More unnerving, and more recent, is “Skull Walking Cane” (1988), photographed by Robert Mapplethorpe the year before he died of AIDS.
The section of the show that is lightest on skulls is also the bleakest.
Devoted to “Violent Death,” it’s dominated by three of the most powerful representations of cruelty and slaughter in all of art: Jacques Callot’s “Miseries and Misfortunes of War” (1633), Goya’s “The Disasters of War” (1810-20) and Otto Dix’s “The War” (1924).
In these, for the most part, bones and skeletons are replaced by atrocities. There’s little even in documentary photography of carnage as terrible as some of the scenes of the Napoleonic Wars depicted by Goya in a few etched lines.
This brings out the paradox of the exhibition. For all its sinister significance, there’s something companionable, almost friendly about the skull. That’s why it works so well as costume or mask for Halloween and the Latin American Day of the Dead (some of which are on show). Neither of those shows any sign of losing popularity.
Even given this, and the best efforts of movie directors makers and sensation-seeking contemporary artists, you leave the show thinking that in the modern world death is a fact of which we are quite literally losing sight.
“Death: A Self Portrait” is at The Wellcome Collection, 183 Euston Road, London, NW1 2BE until Feb. 24, 2013.
(Martin Gayford is chief art critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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