“Morbid Curiosity”, an exhibition at the Chicago Cultural Center, is my latest Museum Monday feature. I was fortunate to speak with the collector, Richard Harris, for an interview, and his enjoyable commentary speaks to all of us that have a curious nature.
Retired from a career of selling decorative art to high-end interior designers, Mr. Harris started collecting antiquarian illustrated and natural books, before moving to prints by Rembrandt, Picasso and Matisse. These he sold to begin his search for the pieces that would comprise his current collection, Morbid Curiosity.
His first purchase was a painting by the 17th century Dutch artist Adriaen van Utrecht, over the next decade his collection grew to include thousands of pieces. Creating a collection of his own definition, the universality of the subject did not limit what was available. Included are relatively unknown artists whose work caught his eye, as well as prints by a number of well-known artists including Jasper Johns and Rembrandt. The items are not categorized as trophy art, but the collection itself is the treasure beyond compare.
Mr. Harris views these objects as a starting point for the discussions of death; to share insights, wishes and stories, not to fear death but to bring the subject into the accepted normalcy of another life event. The central theme of the display is “the hollowness of the world’s pleasures in the face of death”, but I was intrigued by the abundance of rare, historical images that could be found at the Cultural Center.
The major components are the “War Room” highlighting the atrocities of war in works ranging from the 17th century to present day, and the “Kunstkammer of Death” featuring a wide ranging survey of mortality across cultures and spiritual traditions.
One of the first images I encountered was a diorama by Michel de Spiegelaere reflecting the influence of some of the Cabinet of Curiosity pieces collected by Peter the Great in Russia. “The whole concept of the Cabinet can be viewed in the Kunstkammer, a European precursor to the museum, part gallery, part study room. All royalty, especially northern European, possessed a room such as this for display of natural treasures. Peter the Great would purchase whole collections, but did not collect individually himself.” I recently covered this ruler’s collections in my own Cabinet of Curiosities.
A set of figurines, ‘Dance of Death Figures’, was purchased en masse in France at an auction center outside of Paris. These unique items would take a lifetime to collect individually, and were produced in the mid-19th century making them a rare find. “The imagery is fragile, the pieces are not fired, and easily discerned to be influenced by the art of Hans Holbein. The clear latex ‘wedding cake’ display allows viewing at all angles, allowing for a fuller appreciation of the ‘art of the time’.”
The oldest piece of his collection was not displayed, a delicate carved jade skull, from China, dating to 2000 BC. A painting by Marius van Reymerswaele, ‘St. Jerome in his Study’, dates to 1560, “but some of the Pre Columbian Day of the Dead grouping includes several pieces that predate the painting”.
Albrecht Durer’s “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” is one of many historically significant prints on display. Harris remarked that “Durer’s fame surpassed the great Italian artists of his time, because print making gave the world portable art. The ability to transport prints enabled the spread of works such as Durer’s across Europe. He was not only a great artist, but an astute business man.”
Historical medical illustrations by Jacques-Fabien Gautier-d’Agoty from 1759 are part of the exhibition and several books and individual drawings are in Mr. Harris’s private collection. “While d’Agoty was not a great anatomist, he was proliferate, and his son continued the art of anatomical illustration.”
A great chandelier of bones graces the center of the room, by the London artist Jodie Carey. ”The design is made of over 3,000 pieces; each molded and hand finished. It is a set of three, and the other two are in storage.”
Mr. Harris “does not have a master checklist, the items comprise what he likes, and communicate death in every type of form. It is the art that drives his collection, not the artists.”
While the exhibition covered a majority of art genres, the only pieces that were not acceptable to display were due to their fragile condition and age. The Chicago Cultural Center was open to all aspects in the expression of death for this event. In recognition of Mr. Harris’ contributions to culture in the City of Chicago, the Mayor’s office declared January 28, 2012 “Richard Harris Day.”
My thanks to Richard Harris for his time, and for sharing his beautiful art with the public; more collectors need to take their treasures out of storage and invite the public to share their vision. If the subject of death can be brought forth into art, what else is available that we can savor and discuss?
Click on the photo to link to more information about this exhibition.
My thanks to Gemma Garcia, who informed me of this show at the Chicago Cultural Center. Please feel free to post any comments or questions in the space below. There will be a new Cabinet of Curiosities this week, featuring some of the latest interactive news from museums around the world.