Thursday, 14 February 2013

Death: 2 exhibitions

Death: a self-portrait
Wellcome Collection, 15 November 2012  24 February 2013

Doctors, dissection and resurrection men
Museum of London, 19 October 2012 – 14 April 2013

Untitled (skulls with finger and eyelash) by Ray Johnson. From here.

An exhibition on death symbolism is complemented with one on the social history of medical grave-robbing. Both encourage reflection on our feelings towards dead bodies.

"If you don't know how to die, don't worry; Nature will tell you what to do on the spot, fully and adequately. She will do this job perfectly for you; don't bother your head about it."
Michel de Montaigne. 

Like taxes, death is certain; unlike taxes, it can only be delayed, not avoided. I am hopelessly muddled on the subject, but I suspect everyone is.  

Our own death may be impossible to come to terms with. The emotions around bereavement are important, but as they aren’t relevant to contemplating our own deaths, perhaps other emotions (fear? desire? of what?) are involved. Death is related to, but distinct from dying, from fear of old age or from pain. We feel there can be an unjust death, but a just death is a peculiar idea to me too. 

The exhibition at the Wellcome Collection is drawn from the modern cabinet of morbid curiosities of the collector Richard Harris. The Museum of London complements this wide-ranging exhibition with a more specific focus on the medical demand for dead bodies for dissection, and how this came to be regulated in the UK through the 1832 Anatomy Act.

Mostly focussed on visual representations of death, Harris’ collection has a lot of skulls. It seems all over the world, the skull represents death, either as something to be contemplated and commemorated or something to be feared and appeased.  

A repeating motif in the exhibition is the use of a skull or skeleton in otherwise everyday settings. A portrait of a doctor with hand on a skull; personal photos with family members, perhaps, holding a skull; printed books depicting a skeleton holding the hands of people of all ages and social situations; Tibetan death masks.  

These images address death abstractly, and create a sense of reflection rather than the horror we usually feel when thinking about death. The powerful exception is the sets of prints by Callot, Goya and Dix, all depicting – from different wars – actual or imagined horrors of war, including some extremely violent deaths, or at least corpse mutilations. 

Corpse mutilation is also the main theme at the Museum of London, and the horror this inspires. The trade in dead bodies, necessary for medical research, is still fairly shocking, though I’m not sure why. Certainly the trade had social implications – as hanged murderers were the only legal source of bodies, it was a source of great shame when the poor had their relative’s graves robbed, whether illegally or after 1832 legally.

I would have liked more of this social background, and more on the harsh implications of the Anatomy Act for the poor, as well as more links to recent controversies over the rich paying for organ donations, etc. I was surprised to learn that even today, demand for dead bodies exceeds supply. 

The two exhibitions provoke introspection on the subject of bodies, in particular. At the Collection, the skeleton, or skull, is clearly a powerful, immediate symbolic representation of death. The Museum stresses the sanctity of the dead body. I think this has something to do with the mystery of death; that one moment we are alive, the next not. Our bodies don’t seem to change so very much, though eventually we end up skeletons.  

Unsurprisingly, neither exhibition is remotely the last word on death. But seen together, they help me, at least, to reflect upon that complicated mix of reactions I feel on the issue.

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