‘Death: A Self Portrait’ at the Wellcome Collection

By Emily Watkins

Death: A Self-Portrait
Until February 24 2013
Wellcome Collection

The Welcome Collection‘s ‘Death of a Self Portrait’s primary focus, as would seem obvious, was on how art and design has reflected society’s attitudes to death. Yet, it could be argued that much of the art on show was used in its time, to condition the public’s views about death.

In a piece like “the miseries and misfortunes of war” by Jaques Callot, the imagery serves to horrify the viewer by highlighting the ignoble experience of war. It is in an attempt to turn public opinion against fighting.

The Hanging by Jacques Callot
The Hanging by Jacques Callot

Also evident were works that were ultimately designed to numb the viewer’s horror of death. Dancing skeletons created during the plague for example, were designed to add humour to an uncomfortable and all too familiar reality.

The exhibition reflected the influence of morality on the portrayal of death and was also a stark example of just how much attitudes towards death have changed over time. The first room explored the detached philosophical stance of the 16th Century in which a preoccupation with death became a social duty amongst artists and writers, which is told by way of memento mori imagery.

Portraits of well-educated subjects such as “St Jerome in his study” and “Portrait of a Doctor” show a comfort and familiarity with death, which is represented by the casual way these men react to the skulls they share a frame with. The message of these images is that fear is the result of lack of understanding–the educated do not feel such base emotions.

Albrecht Dürer's Saint Jerome in His Study
Albrecht Dürer’s Saint Jerome in His Study

We then move on to the more humorous “Danse Macabre” imagery of the dead, part of popular culture during the plague years. I had previously (and mistakenly) thought that the danse macabre was a European phenomenon, so I was interested to see that the curator had included a similar Japanese Ukiyo-e image showing frolicking skeletons. I was, and still am, curious to know which society had first decided upon representing death in a humorous way and whether one influenced the other.

Despite the inclusion of a few non-European examples, the exhibition was largely Eurocentric, with each of the initial rooms focusing on a European ideas on death. The non-European work was seemingly included for comparative purposes– or, as with the Ukiyo-e image, to back up a European belief. The underlying assumption seemed to be that these different approaches to death, such as laughing at it and pondering it, are universal and therefore reflected by other cultures, given that they produce artefacts of a similar nature.

Although interestingly, the final room reversed the trend of the rest of the exhibition by showing a collection of Mexican, Tibetan and Aztec artefacts. The Mexican work was created with a sense of reverence rather than humour and the curator’s decision to separate the day of the dead imagery from the visually similar danse macabre imagery by a few rooms cleverly served to highlight the differing attitudes shown by these two types of imagery.

Arguably this desire to draw comparisons of works from a diverse range of cultures by using recognisable themes, is a way of showing how humankind, throughout the world, all share a common experience through death.

A version of this review first appeared on http://www.emilywatkinsartist.wordpress.com and an edited version is reproduced here with kind permission