Review: Death - A Self-Portrait

The Wellcome Collection's new show explores the history of how we deal with dying

New Statesman
Dana Salvo's photograph from the series 'The Day, the Night and the Dead', currently on show at the Wellcome Collection (Photo Credit: Clark Gallery)

Death: A Self-Portrait, The Wellcome Collection, 15 November 2012 - 24 February 2013

The contemplation of death may not sound like the most cheerful premise for an exhibition, but the Wellcome Collection have succeeded in transforming it into one. Their new show, Death: A Self-Portrait, manages the no-small irony of taking an enlivening tour around the prospect of our imminent demise.

Encompassing an art collection which spans over five centuries and just as many continents, this exhibition is concerned with one central question: how do we deal with dying?

Taking in anthropology, medicine, religion and an impressively diverse range of arts, this is more than just an exhibition; it’s effectively an encyclopaedic compendium on mortality. This multi-disciplinary approach to exhibitions is a strategy that the Wellcome Collection has used to great success in the five years since its opening. A criss-crossing of science and art has resulted in exhibitions which delight as much with intriguing facts as aesthetic output, and - with this formula - Death: A Self-Portrait delivers.

The geographical diversity of objects on show here succeeds in representing the contradictory attitudes different cultures have towards death. There’s the religious (medieval illustrated manuscripts), and the sacrilegious (Andy Warhol’s prints). There’s the solemn (shadowy Dutch Vanitas paintings) and the celebratory (Mexico’s colourful Day of the Dead festival). This broad spectrum of emotional responses keeps the show constantly fresh, and constantly surprising.

The carefully curated selection is of an undeniably high standard. Albrecht Durer’s canonical classic Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse is a particular highlight.  This woodcut responds to contemplation, its multitude of symbolic details are initially camouflaged and only reveal themselves after close observation. However, icons are always best viewed alongside iconoclasts – and it’s a joy to see the maverick Belgian satirist James Ensor on show here as well. Ensor's gloriously absurdist prints and drawings are amongst the most original examples of fin-de-siècle European art, and he is at his black-humoured best when contemplating death.

Amongst the most powerful works on show are Otto Dix’s War etchings. This suit of over fifty prints comprises a myopically powerful, frantic outpouring of the artist’s experience of serving in the Second World War. His unflinchingly direct graphic works make visible his troubled and troubling memories of life on the battleground.

The last section of the exhibition is perhaps the most interesting, taking on an anthropological study of death. Works by indigenous craftsmen from Sulawesi to Aztec Colombia offer an illuminating parallel to their Western counterparts. Particularly intriguing are Tibetan ceremonial cups, carved from human skulls, and Indonesian ‘grave-guarder’ statues. Like all the works on show here, they prove that its when the end is nigh that art is at its most direct, most honest and most moving.