Review: Death – A Self Portrait

Review: Death – A Self Portrait

Death 1

‘Death The Friend’. Alfred Rethel. Germany. 1851.

It can’t just be me whose thoughts turn to death with considerable regularity over the Christmas season.

Hopefully this has less to do with the murderous impulses directed at my family -although they are factors- and more to do with the realisation that there are fewer people around the Christmas table each year than I would like.

Growing up, our main meal would be on Christmas Eve.

For much of my childhood I figured this was some obscure Irish Catholic custom but it turns out it was largely so my mother the psychonaut could share my grandparents with her other siblings.

(Three separate Christmas meals in two days?! Shut it down. Amazing they both died so skinny. But my grandmother ate like a bird. A very intoxicated bird.)

The Christmas Eve meal is obviously no longer needed for operational reasons but I still maintain it for bittersweet ones. It’s a Dumb Supper with dumb christmas cracker jokes.

This happily plays into the space restrictions that come from living in a rented west London shithole. Cook the ham on Christmas Eve, serve it with half the customary vegetables, finish with pudding. This leaves much ham for the Christmas lunch and room in the oven for the turkey and more exciting/carby vegetables. (End with trifle which is a very kiwi thing and there are always a few kiwis kicking about.)

Of course, the other key reason my thoughts turn to the undiscovered country is because I can’t get the amazing Wellcome Collection exhibition out of my mind.

If you were to design a muggle walkthrough of the more uplifting Saturnian lessons it would look remarkably like this. (You could call it my secret Saturnalia devotional.)

Clearly it’s never been a thing I’ve had need to put much thought to, but if I were a very wealthy art collector I like to think I’d theme my collecting in the same way Richard Harris has done with his. Must be tremendously freeing when it comes to curating the gift-wrapping room in the east wing.

There are objects from Central and Southern America, Victorian anatomy classes, 18th century wars and a huge collection of mostly German memento mori. Here’s an interview with the lovable rich guy himself:

The Wellcome Collection’s previous exhibitions have been patchy. Exquisite Bodies was… well… exquisite but that was the last time before Death I walked out feeling anything other than disappointed. As such, my expectations were low going in. Double low, actually, as I was using Death as a filler in between the Mughal Empire exhibit at the British Library (good but this is better) across the road and waiting for Bubbledogs to open.

Here is the piece that affected me so much that I walked across the atrium and dropped £15 on a tiny exhibition guidebook:

Death 2

It’s the companion sketch to Alfred Rethel’s Death The Friend (the title image of this post), called Death The Strangler. It was released in Paris earlier than Friend in 1851 but apparently it alarmed his friends so much that he penned the companion image showing a much more peaceful expiration.

I love it.

It shows people fleeing in terror from a Parisian music hall. Death, in the foreground, plays a violin made of thighbones. The seated Egyptian figure in the background is cholera. The reaper is utterly unhurried -he will get around to everyone in his or, more specifically, their own time. Death enjoys being there but is not taking pleasure in the act of reaping itself, merely his own existence. His enjoyment is devoid of malice because he is not a malign force.

Whilst Death The Friend is certainly a fine, wizardly end -one we would all wish for- it’s Death The Strangler that offers more in terms of personal growth. You could do worse than use Rethels’ depiction as a focus for contemplation.

Anyway, if you’re in London or London-adjacent between now and the end of Feb, this is probably one of the better things around as the British Museum is currently between tentpole exhibitions. (Though I’m looking forward to this because of reasons.)

And for my darling Americans, you may have picked up from his accent that Mr Harris is a fellow countryman so presumably he will take his awesome toys and go home at the conclusion of the show. So keep a weather eye out for that. Definitely worth your time.

Your finite, expiring time.



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  1. 3
    Andrew B. Watt

    I may have to try to get to London for the Ice Age exhibit. at the moment, though, I’m having a hard time getting home from Florida.

    I go to enough museums, I really should start writing reviews of the shows. Certainly not on the scale of British Museum or London A-list stuff. But the Veronese exhibit was pretty cool last Thursday…
    Andrew B. Watt´s last blog post ..Travel, Interrupted. With Friends.

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