Morbid curiosities

If some extraterrestrial being were to stumble into the Wellcome Collection’s new exhibition, it would think us a morbid lot. The first room of Death: A Self-Portrait is packed with memento mori, a testament to the very human obsession with mortality.

Memento mori art can be traced from the Middle Ages to the likes of Damien Hirst. Here, Adriaen van Utrecht’s 1643 “Vanitas: Still Life with a Bouquet and Skull” is a visual checklist of morbid reminders: pocket-watch, hourglass and the titular drooping bouquet and skull, complete with laurel wreath, signifying the triumph of death. From 1988 is Robert Mapplethorpe’s poignant photograph of the skull-topped cane he included in a self-portrait taken the same year, when he was dying of Aids. What will survive of us, it turns out, is our stuff.

Everything in the show belongs to collector Richard Harris, a former prints dealer from Chicago. He started collecting, as he tells me at the Wellcome, “inadvertently”. Harris, 75, began picking up antiquarian natural history books while on print-buying trips for clients, and over 35 years built up a valuable 200-volume collection. In the same period, he bought prints by Rembrandt, Picasso and Matisse for his personal use.

But on retiring 12 years ago, he decided to sell all these to start a more individual collection and “see what my aesthetic eye was about”. While selling the prints at the European Fine Art Fair in Maastricht, he came across a booth devoted to memento mori (literally, “Remember, you will die”) and was inspired to start a thematic collection. He was already interested in anatomy books, so began collecting mainly depictions of skeletons and skulls. What started as a fine art collection now includes ethnographic objects – the exhibition features a Mexican earthenware head dating from c1800-1200BC – ephemera and vernacular photographs. His “death collection” now has more than 1,500 objects, including some he has commissioned.

The exhibition has an impressive geographical and chronological range. A fascinating room explores the danse macabre, a reminder of death as the ultimate leveller that was popular in the late Middle Ages, an era ravaged by plague, famine and war. On show is one of the earliest versions, from the 1493 Nuremberg Chronicle.

US collector Richard Harris

From the other side of the globe, Kawanabe Kyosai’s “Frolicking Skeletons” (1850-1859) shows the eponymous characters playing musical instruments, arm-wrestling and dancing with wild abandon. Strikingly modern, though typical of the traditional Japanese genre ukiyo-e (literally “pictures of the floating world”), it is composed like a vertical frieze, not tethered to linear perspective.

“I will die. Yes, definitely so,” Harris tells me with a wry smile. His easy charm belies a dry sense of humour – yet the exhibition has a serious intention. Harris believes that in the western world we “personalise death” too much, so we consign it to hospitals, safely out of sight. He hopes his collection might take the taboo out of death, believing “people respond more easily” when it is portrayed in art.

There are many portrayals here, many faces of death. It is vulnerable in June Leaf’s small tin skeleton sitting hunched and frail (Harris’s favourite piece in the collection), then slick in Albert Besnard’s 1900 etching “Elle: dans la foule” – a figure in a suit standing aloof from the crowd gathered for a fireworks display, his skull face somehow sneering. As a body of work, it exposes powerfully our need to personify and even control death. As John Donne wrote, “Death, thou shalt die!”

June Leaf’s ‘Gentleman on Green Table’ (1999-2000)

But this is also the weakness of the exhibition. It is almost all personification, all figurative. In a secular society where, for many, death is an end or an absence, it seems one-sided to neglect more ethereal or conceptual interpretations. “I’m very literal,” Harris says. “I take things best visually.” I venture that although the exhibition calls itself a “self-portrait” of death, it is perhaps more revealing of Harris himself and his instinct as a collector. He agrees: his is a deep, committed and unashamedly personal exploration of the subject.

“Immortality is part of it,” he tells me, when I ask about the motivation to collect art. “But mainly the immortality of the object. I am a temporary custodian.” After his death, he would like the collection to be sold as a single entity, perhaps to a university, “as a tool for the study of death”.

Harris owns pieces any collector would be happy to lay his hands on – for example Goya’s beautiful “Los Desastres de la Guerra” series, depicting in unflinching detail the abuse perpetrated in the wake of Napoleon’s invasion of Spain. But, he insists, “it’s not a hit-list collection”. Other pieces, such as the anonymous 20th-century snapshots of students larking around with skeletons, have little monetary value. Harris’s attitude is refreshing in an age when collectors covet the same fashionable names – particularly in the contemporary market.

Historically, some of the most fascinating private collections have been the most eccentric. Architect Sir John Soane bought Greek and Roman busts and vases, paintings by Canaletto, architectural drawings by Sir Christopher Wren and Hogarth’s “A Rake’s Progress” – all now displayed in his former London home. Similarly, Oxford’s Pitt Rivers Museum and the Burrell Collection near Glasgow house the eclectic collections of an aristocratic general and shipping magnate respectively. Pharmacist Sir Henry Wellcome was also a man who followed his own nose, refusing the advice of dealers and buying by theme not quality. He did acquire a Van Gogh but only because it was an etching of the artist’s doctor.

“I like the idea of the Kunstkammer,” Harris says. The show certainly is a “cabinet of curiosities” – and all the richer for its inclusion of culturally revealing (yet financially insignificant) pieces. Has he bought anything for his death collection purely as an investment? No, he laughs, “if I did that, it wouldn’t be so much fun”.

Until February 24,

Upcoming sales and fairs

Prints Sale, November 27, Bonham’s London,

Ethel Spowers’ modernist print “Gust of Wind” (1930), breaking the record for the most expensive Grosvenor print sold at auction for £94,000 this April, is the stellar lot in this diverse 234-print sale. Other highlights include a selection of Albrecht Dürer woodcuts, David Hockney etchings, and a Picasso lino-cut expected to fetch up to £30,000.

Impressionist and Modernist Art Sale, November 28, Christie’s Paris,

Ninety-seven lots will be under the hammer in this sale of 19th- and 20th-century pieces. Renoir’s “La Liseuse”, an intimate portrait of a woman in repose, has an estimate of €1,200,000-€1,800,000, and Giacometti’s patinated “Table Grecque”, bearing a signature on each of its four struts, is valued at around €150,000. Jean Hélion’s “Composition”, the thickly-lined frontispiece image of the sale’s catalogue, is also expected to attract considerable interest.

Art Contemporain Sale, December 4-5, Sotheby’s Paris,

Art Contemporain boasts 155 master works from the second École de Paris. Among them are Martial Raysse’s acidic pop portrait “La France Orange”, François Morellet’s multilinear neon panels, and Gavin Turk’s khaki “Elvis”, estimated at around €40,000.

‘Head of a Young Apostle’ by Raphael (c.1519), evening sale of Old Master Paintings and Drawings at Sotheby’s London, December 5

Old Master and British Paintings Evening Sale, December 5, Sotheby’s London,

This evening sale is led by three works from the Devonshire collection at Chatsworth House, the finest being Raphael’s preparatory cartoons for the “Transfiguration” of 1520, and four tableaux from Niccolò di Pietro Gerini’s “Passion of Christ”. Joshua Reynolds’ coquettish “Portrait of Elizabeth Falconer”, dated 1792, is estimated at £350,000.

Design Masters Sale, December 11, Philips de Pury New York,

Sharp lines, metallic surfaces and heavy furnishings are the unifying themes in Philips de Pury’s meticulously curated winter design sale; its 57 lots are already fast diminishing in advance sales. A “Cargo” of variously glazed cylindrical pots by Edmund de Waal is sure to stir excitement, as will Line Vautrin’s much-imitated “Solaire” mirror and a chrome recliner by Le Corbusier.

Art Basel, Miami Beach, December 6-9,

Art Basel brings 260 leading international galleries to Miami Beach for its 11th edition. Alongside a group of 100 established exhibitors, an Art Nova space for emerging galleries will showcase the best pieces from one or two handpicked young artists, multimedia projects will be screened as part of Art Video in Miami’s 7,000 sq ft ‘New World’ centre, and Art Kabinett will offer a range of specially curated exhibitions. Over 20 satellite fairs will run concurrently.

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