While flipping through the pages of this month’s ARTnews magazine, I was intrigued by an ad for the Chicago Cultural Center’s new exhibition Morbid Curiosity, which features a shimmering red sculpture by artist Roger Reutimann. The sculpture’s bright color pulled me in, but what really captured my attention was the jarring juxtaposition of the nude woman’s idealized body, an obvious homage to Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus, and her grotesque head, which I quickly realized was a human skull. Shocked, I looked down at the bottom of the page and saw the work’s title: The Death of Venus. Skulls are universal symbols of death, and it is thus a natural reaction to be unsettled when first confronted with this imagery. So what is the artist’s intent behind this seemingly morose work of art? I decided to make a visit to the Chicago Cultural Center to find out.
The Death of Venus, Roger Reutimann
The Chicago Cultural Center recently opened its largest exhibition to date entitled Morbid Curiosity: The Richard Harris Collection, showcasing over one thousand artworks and artifacts from the personal collection of Richard Harris, a Chicago-area collector. After many years of collecting rare prints by notable artists such as Rembrandt, Picasso, and Matisse, Mr. Harris began to collect art and objects of varying artistic mediums that represented human views of death and mortality. He started this collection later in his life in order to “make peace with death,” an ambitious goal that many feel uncomfortable taking on.
Upon entering Morbid Curiosity, I was immediately overwhelmed by the multitude of skulls and skeletons surrounding me. This room, the Kunstkammer of Death, features Harris’s “cabinet of curiosities” filled with skull and skeleton photographs, drawings, sculptures, and even a hanging chandelier made entirely of synthetic skeleton bones. The exhibition also includes the War Room, which addresses another aspect of death: the horrors and reactions to war. This room includes five series of prints by Jacques Callot, Francisco Goya, Otto Dix, the Chapman Brothers, and Sandow Birk, ranging from the Thirty Years War to the Iraq War. These prints, though each depicting different moments in history, all express a common and unifying theme: the devastation of war.
Despite its title, Morbid Curiosity is not as disturbing as one would think. Instead, it helps viewers see death in a different light, from a more scientific and educational perspective, rather than a strictly emotional one. Artists have used skulls and skeletons symbolically, scientifically, and creatively throughout the centuries and across many cultures. The Richard Harris collection thus encourages viewers to explore these varied responses to mortality and develop a better understanding of the creative inspiration behind these artists’ works.
Visit the Chicago Cultural Center at 78 E Washington Street to check out this exhibition for free! Open through July 8.