Death brings exhibit to life in London

LONDON — The one item that isn't lacking in "Death: A Self Portrait" at the Wellcome Collection is skulls.

Most of the 300 or so artworks on display in this exhibition contain at least one head bone, as well as sundry toe bones, kneecaps and shinbones. Some contain dozens of death's heads. Also on display are historical artifacts, scientific specimens and other ephemera.

The result is both monotonous and, in a gruesome fashion, highly entertaining. Too, it makes some interesting points. The skull is as close as human cultures come to a universal symbol.

Death is, of course, in common with taxation, the fate of all of homo sapiens. Of this fact, the bare grinning cranium is the most obvious sign, and in the past, even a century ago, it and other representations of earthly transience were ubiquitous.

The effect is a carnival of death as presented by artists from many different times and places.

Exhibits on show, selected from some 1,500 mortality-related images and objects collected by Richard Harris, a former print dealer from Chicago, range from a 19th-century Japanese painting of "Frolicking Skeletons," via Tibet and (naturally) Mexico, to Andy Warhol.

At the heart of the show, if that's the correct anatomical metaphor, are works related to the European traditions of the Dance of Death. Many medieval churches and cemeteries contained paintings of cheery, mobile skeletons, capering with varying degrees of ghoulish humor and sometimes playing a fiddle or other instrument, leading everyone, young and old, rich and poor, into the fatal dance.

It also includes Jacques Callot's "Miseries and Misfortunes of War" (1633), Goya's "The Disasters of War" (1810-20) and Otto Dix's "The War" (1924).

"Death: A Self Portrait" is at The Wellcome Collection, 183 Euston Road, London, NW1 2BE, until Feb. 24. Info:

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