Death: A Self portrait is a free exhibition on at the Wellcome collection until 24 February.
I should start by saying that there are some and interesting pieces in this free exhibition. An eclectic, or some might say haphazard, mix of items around the theme of death we see everything from a fascinating chart of death, Tibetan skull masks and medieval images of the grim reaper stalking honest folk.
The sketches by Goya and Otto Dix are deep, grisly, moving and easily the most profound elements of the exhibition – both of which were fueled from their own personal experiences of death and killing. These sketches alone make a visit to the Death exhibition worth while.
However, I could not help but be disappointed overall because despite the title and surface appearances perhaps there was simply very little exploration of death. The vast majority of exhibits were in fact skulls or bones. Bodies, turned into artifacts, not so much lifeless as never having lived – and as such entirely unchallenging. The worst offenders on these scores were the demon masks – interesting visages no doubt – but simply having skulls in a crown does not make essentially religious objects representing evil into an image of death.
There were some delicious Japanese paintings of dancing skeletons prancing around and having fun. They were great but on the whole what we did not see was death as a process that transforms the living into the lifeless. We saw bones. Objects not events and, I think I’m right in saying, it is death as an event that consumes the attention rather than the idea that our bodies stop moving about after the spark of life has been extinguished.
There were a few momentary hints, for example the fear in eyes of the evil man as he’s dragged of to hell in one small drawing, but on the whole a bronze skull holds no more philosophical depth than a used hat. Perhaps less.
If you are in the area please do go and take a look but don’t expect to leave with a mind full of new ideas and fears. Seeing the remains of someone else is never creates the association with the fact that you yourself, and everyone you love, will one day die. For such a controversial subject the tone was one that shied away from touching on taboos, on the inevitability of our demise, or indeed the indisputable fact that one day there wont be a single human being left in the universe – although I assume that day is sometime to come.