October 19, 2021

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

In spite of all the uncertainties we face through life, the only inescapable and inevitable certainty is that one day our life will end. Understandably, the majority of us are afraid of death, yet it is a natural process in the circle of life. So is it not about time that we made our peace with death? If Death plucked a tune on his violin to invite you to join the dance, would you willingly waltz to your grave or complain of a foot injury and delay the unavoidable?

We are invited to explore our own thoughts and feelings about mortality at the Wellcome Collection’s latest exhibition entitled Death: A Self-portrait. It is a spectacular exhibition in which Richard Harris, a former American antique print dealer, showcases his unique and diverse 300-piece collection of art works, historical artefacts, scientific specimens and ephemera. At the heart of it is the power of art to communicate ideas on death and the body. You can gaze upon the rare prints by Otto Dix, Goya, Rembrandt, Dürer and John Isaacs, alongside 20th century installations celebrating the Mexican Day of the Dead and an impressive chandelier made of 3000 plaster-cast bones by British artist Jodie Carey.

The journey has five phases. Our venture begins with works contemplating death and a selection of memento mori (a term from Latin meaning ‘remember you will die’). All the prints and paintings convey poignant messages on the inevitability of death; that we are earth and to the earth we shall go.

Next you encounter the other facets of death such as joining the ‘Dance of Death’. Here the comical aspects are embraced by dancing, frolicking skeletons. Then there’s a series of works on ‘Violent Death’. This set of enthralling images conjures the horrors of war in nightmarish detail, communicating the chaos and brutality.

Sentimental artworks of voluptuous nudes cavorting with skulls offer welcome relief from the shocking and gruesome ‘Violent Death’ images. A particular favourite of mine was the beautifully surreal set of early 20th century metamorphic postcards. These whimsical illustrations are romantic depictions of couples metamorphosing into grinning skulls.

A prominent theme is the battle between medics and death, and one compelling image depicts a duel with the powerless surgeon kneeling on the ground too late to save the dying man, while death stands tall and noble as the victor. Such emotionally thought-provoking images prey on our negative attitude of death, but suggest we should adjust our viewpoint and realize that science can try to prolong life but death is awaiting us all.

The exhibition seeks to mitigate our fear of death. I certainly found it effective in this aim and felt uplifted and inspired afterwards. I highly recommend this exhibition and advise you take the opportunity to contemplate mortality. When Death strikes the strings of his violin I hope I will gracefully finish with a leap into the afterlife, rather than trying to out-dance the inevitable.

Death: A Self-portrait is a free exhibition on at the Wellcome Collection until 24th February 2013.


You can also listen to Andy Roast’s audio tour of the exhibition.