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BY JILL LAWLESS
LONDON--Try as we might, there's no escaping death. Art collector Richard Harris has decided to embrace it--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 at a preview of the show, which opened to the public Nov. 15 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."
ALL OVER THE MAP
The varying ways 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 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 the departed.
A room on violent death includes searing depictions of war, from the 17th-century etchings of Jacques Callot to German artist Otto Dix's etchings of World War I trench warfare. In Dix's work, scenes of soldiers in trenches, dead bodies and mutilated corpses are both harrowing and beautiful.