London show views death through artists' eyes
Collector Richard Harris poses with one of his collection of installation 'In the Eyes of Others' by British artist Jodie Carey on display at an exhibition 'Death : The Richard Harris Collection' at the Wellcome Collection gallery in London, Wednesday, Nov. 14, 2012. (AP Photo/Sang Tan)
LONDON (AP) — Try as we might, there's no escaping death. Art collector Richard Harris has decided to embrace it instead — and wants the rest of us to do the same.
The retired Chicago print dealer has spent years acquiring works imbued with mortality, from 18th-century anatomical drawings to Tibetan skull masks and papier-mache skeletons from Mexico.
Some 300 items from his trove are on display at London's Wellcome Collection in an exhibition that asks whether art can help us understand and prepare for death.
Standing amid the skeletons and skulls of "Death: A Self Portrait," the 75-year-old Harris is an incongruously cheerful figure who laughs when asked if he is, perhaps, a little obsessed with death.
"Of course not!" he said Wednesday at a preview of the show, which opens to the public on Thursday and runs until Feb. 24.
"I half-jokingly say it's a paean to death so he'll ignore me a little longer," Harris said. "But I think it's more that the iconography, the imagery is fascinating. A skull is a skull and a skeleton is a skeleton, but it has been depicted by almost every artist through their own eyes."
Collector Richard Harris poses with his collection of Mexican 'Day of the Dead' skeletons on display at an exhibition 'Death : The Richard Harris Collection' at the Wellcome Collection gallery in London, Wednesday, Nov. 14, 2012. (AP Photo/Sang Tan)
The varying ways that different cultures have dealt with death is what fascinated the Wellcome Collection, which is dedicated to mapping the ways in which art, medicine and science overlap.
Curator Kate Forde has arranged Harris's artworks into a series of rooms that explore distinct aspects of the relationship between humans and our inevitable demise.
One room focuses on the contemplation of mortality through artistic memento mori, such as skulls placed at the center of still-life paintings.
A section on commemoration includes Tibetan ceremonial bowls made with pieces of human skull; a scarecrow-like grave guardian from the Pacific islands; and skeletons from Mexico's vibrant Day of the Dead festivities, when families honor departed loved ones.
Another room looks at the powerful relationship between sex and death, through images including a 16th-century engraving of a skeleton standing between the naked Adam and Eve.