Curious Trends

16/11/2012

Death – a Self-Portrait: The Richard Harris Collection at Wellcome

Richard Harris, a softly spoken 75 year old self-confessed optimist from Chicago, has a curious hobby – collecting all things relating to death. His collection of art, memorabilia and ephemera extends to around 2000 artworks, scientific specimens and historical artefacts, some 300 of which are featured in a new exhibition at the Wellcome Collection: Death – A Self-portrait.

Harris started out collecting skulls and skeletons, before inadvertently purchasing a 1493 copy of the Nuremburg Chronicle containing one of the earliest depictions of the Dance of Death. His collection grew to include works from Mexico, Tibet, India and Japan, along with whole print series by the likes of Goya and Otto Dix, together with modern art, commissioned directly from contemporary artists. 
The exhibition is a sort of visual autobiography of death, reflecting Richard's passion for the subject. It starts with the contemplation of death, where we are invited to contemplate our own mortality through memento mori. There are sections on the Danse Macabre – the Dance of Death, on violent death (in particular, depicting mankind's struggles with war), there's a room called Eros and Thanatos dedicated to the 'outer limits' of death - and there's also area devoted to the commemoration of death. 
Harris has achieved his aim of creating a body of work that chronologically and culturally captures "the essence of death through its iconography, from masterpieces of fine art to the incidental." But he also hopes that his collection of objects becomes, "the visual component for a more serious conversation about the subject of death that we need to have in our society."
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