About us | Blog | Calendar | Sign up | Wellcome Trust websites
Death: A self-portrait
Argentinian collective Mondongo (the word for a traditional Argentinian tripe stew) assemble everyday things into irreverent three-dimensional collages. In this work, the economic and cultural dominance of Europe and the USA (represented by neoclassical architecture and Western literature) is seen to have radical consequences for South America (evoked by the villa miseria or shanty towns that are found close to Argentina's largest cities).
Copyright Mondongo Collective
Bruyn's composition uses a radical device to express the fact that death is conventionally hidden from us. On the reverse side of this lifelike portrait is a skull balanced in an alcove and a Latin text spelling out the inevitability of death.
Wellcome Images, courtesy The Richard Harris Collection
This okimono (decorative object) expresses the Buddhist vision of the ongoing existence of the soul, which is believed to undergo perpetual transformation into new states of being. The skull is inhabited by the snake, which is believed to be reborn every time it sheds its skin.
Bruyn's composition uses a radical device to express the fact that death is conventionally hidden from us. This is the reverse side of a lifelike portrait and shows a skull balanced in an alcove and a Latin text spelling out the inevitability of death.
Johnson lived as a virtual recluse for much of his later life, devoting himself to the grandest project of his career – a flow of correspondence between friends, acquaintances and other artists. The material he accrued was integrated into collages like this that were themselves carved up and reassembled, often over a period of years. In this image Johnson draws attention to the baffling anonymity of death; labelling his skulls with incongruous female names makes them appear even more characterless. After his suicide, several of Johnson's works were found neatly arranged in his home, perhaps abandoned rather than completed.
Copyright Ray Johnson Estate, courtesy Richard L Feigen & Co
The phrase 'memento mori' is Latin for 'remember you will die'. Part-humorous, part-macabre images like this invite the viewer to meditate on the transience of life and proximity of death.
Van Utrecht's composition teems with precious objects testifying to the pleasures of life and the inexorable flow of time. The pocket-watch, hourglass and bouquet of flowers are reminders of ephemerality, contrasted with the immobile skull, whose hollow eye-sockets draw the viewer into their shadow. The laurel wreath alludes to the ultimate triumph of death.
The title is from Horace and the quotation at the base translates as: "You flourish in wealth and boast of the society of the great and powerful; you rejoice in the beauty of the body and the honours which men pay to you. Consider yourself, that you are mortal, that you are earth, and into the earth you shall go." It is attributed to Saint Prosper of Aquitaine (c.390–c.455).
To produce this book, Susan Hardy Brown used a set of ten rubber stamps derived from early 18th century anatomy engravings of the human skeleton. A spirited interplay of ideas; clever use of the humerus in conjunction with the cranium; this is skulduggery at its most visual.
Copyright Susan Hardy Brown
The triumphant skeleton, a characteristic feature of the Medieval 'Dance of Death', is a recurrent figure in artistic productions and popular culture to this day. Puppets like these assume character in movement, reminding us that death sets the pace for life's dance.
In some Tibetan Buddhist imagery and thangkas (paintings intended for spiritual meditation), a pair of dancing skeletons called the Chitipati appear. Believed to be gods of the underworld, they are thought to have sprung from the vengeful corpses of two yogis who were so absorbed in their meditation inside a Himalayan cave that they did not notice when a murderous thief cut off their heads.
Published long after his death, Goya's series of 82 prints describes in harrowing detail the abuse, torture and killing conducted in the wake of Napoleon's invasion of Spain. While the early plates suggest the artist's sympathies lie with the Spanish defenders, as the series develops all the antagonists are brutalised and it becomes impossible to tell which side is the most debased.
This print dramatises a passage from the Book of Revelation predicting the arrival of four horsemen who will bring destruction to the world. These terrifying harbingers of the Last Judgement are (from right to left) Plague, War, Famine and, the most terrifying of all, Death. The overlapping forms and powerful diagonals of Dürer's composition express the idea of death as a cruel unstoppable force, the enemy of all nature.
Baroque printmaker Jacques Callot is most famous for two series of etchings on the subject of the miseries of war (Les Petites Misères de la Guerre [1632–33] and Les Grandes Misères de la Guerre ). Known also as 'The Life of a Soldier', the earlier (incomplete) series is thought to be a first draft for the second, comprising 18 titled etchings. In a sequence of harrowing images, Callot overturns traditional notions of military glory by showing soldiers burning and pillaging their way through towns and cities before being arrested, executed or lynched. Though no supporting documentation has survived, the prints, first published during the outbreak of the Thirty Years' War, are thought to reflect contemporary debates about the discipline and conduct of soldiers.
Albinus is best known for the monumental atlas he produced with the artist Jan Wandelaar (1690–1759), which employed a novel approach to the depiction of human anatomy, starting not with the outer layers but with the skeleton. Wandelaar's surreal backdrops achieve the illusion of three-dimensionality, but also emphasise the allegorical nature of the illustrations. Here, the presence of the rhinoceros (a beast associated with melancholia in medieval bestiaries) invites us to read the plate as a memento mori as well as a virtuoso expression of modern anatomical knowledge.
With the advent of photography in the 19th century, the most secret aspect of a medical student's training was now made public. Sometimes darkly humorous, sometimes sentimental, always strange, dissection photographs reveal that the way doctors first learnt about prolonging life was by studying death.
Beham was a prolific printmaker, known for his tiny, detailed, often erotic engravings, some as small as postage stamps, placing him in the German printmaking school known as the 'Little Masters'. Here, Death is intertwined with both the Tree of Knowledge and the serpent who is offering Eve the apple that will bring forth original sin and the fall of man.
Tibetan and Himalayan Buddhist deities often carry the trident, a weapon also used by the god Shiva to cut off the elephant head of the Hindu god Ganesha. The three prongs of this symbolic object refer to the trinity of the Three Jewels (Buddha, Dharma, Sangha) and the 'three baskets' of the Buddha's teachings about ethics, meditation and wisdom.
A young couple bids a poignant farewell to each other in this turn-of-the-century interpretation of the vanitas theme. The phrase 'vanitas vanitatum omnia vanitas' comes from the Bible (Ecclesiastes I) and is translated as 'vanity of vanities; all is vanity', a moralistic invitation to dwell not on the pursuit of earthly pleasures but on the necessity of eternal salvation.
Raya's images remind us of the disquieting truth haunting every photograph: the presence of death in our own lives and in the lives of our families and friends.
Copyright Marcos Raya
Dana Salvo's photographs explore Mexico's ancient celebration of the Day of the Dead, including the creation of elaborate altars known as ofrendas (offerings) designed to welcome the spirits of those who have departed. These altars often include pictures of the deceased, personal items, and servings of favourite foods and drink. Marigolds are traditionally included because their bright colour and strong perfume are believed to lead the dead to the altar.
Copyright Dana Salvo, courtesy Clark Gallery
Phone: +44 (0)20 7611 2222
About this site