In our part of the world, most of us reach middle age without ever seeing a dead body, making death a subject of fascination. Death is just out of reach, yet it affects us all – it is both universal and indiscriminate. Death – A Self-Portrait, the new exhibition at the Wellcome Collection encourages us to use death as a means of better understanding life.
The Wellcome Collection asks visitors to its website to “Tell us about an object that makes you think of death: a reminder of someone you lost, a family heirloom, something associated with a death itself, or anything else.” And there are many such items on show in the exhibition, just as there are many faces of death:
German Anton Sohn (1769-1840) created a series of 42 hand painted terracotta Dance of Death figures, inspired by a famous mural in the cemetery of a Dominican friary in Basel.
Japanese Izumi Sukeyuki (1838-1920) sculpted a curious snake exploring a skull – an okimono (decorative object) expressing the Buddhist vision of the ongoing existence of the soul, which is thought to undergo perpetual transformation into new states of being. Plus a snake is believed to be reborn every time it sheds its skin.
Metamorphic postcards (c.1900-10) feature whimsical illustrations that are “lent a surreal pathos by the grinning skulls into which they transform, becoming turn of the century interpretations of the vanitas theme.” The phrase ‘vanitas vanitatum omnia vanitas’ comes from the Bible (Ecclesiastes I) and is translated as ‘vanity of vanities; all is vanity’ – a moralistic invitation to dwell on the necessity of eternal salvation, as opposed to the acquisition of worldly goods.
These are just a few of the many and varied pieces on show. But can art help us to cope with the prospect of death? Why are the inanimate objects of burial ritual and mourning universally deemed to have significance? And how can possessions activate memories that assist us in coming to terms with bereavement, and perhaps even our own mortality?
I look forward to hearing your thoughts on this subject – and do feel free to share details of your own actual or suggested ‘objects of death’.