Grim reapings | Art Critic's Choice | Chicago Reader

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Grim reapings

A collector's "paean to death" displayed in "Morbid Curiosity"


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Barthel Bruyn, the Elder - German, 1493 - 1555 - "Portrait of a Man/A Skull in a Niche" ca. 1535-55, oil on panel
  • Barthel Bruyn, the ElderGerman, 1493 - 1555"Portrait of a Man/A Skull in a Niche" ca. 1535-55, oil on panel

In 2001, longtime antiques dealer Richard Harris ditched his stock and started over from scratch, saying, "I believe it is incumbent upon me to make my collection a paean to death in all its many visages." What he accumulated is on display in one of the Chicago Cultural Center's largest shows yet. "Morbid Curiosity: The Richard Harris Collection" comprises nearly 1,000 pieces, all on the subject of death—human death, specifically. Harris has said he doesn't truck with animals: "Human skulls and skeletons are the only thing I'm interested in."

There's more here than skulls and skeletons, though. Works by Rembrandt, Goya, and Jasper Johns, for instance. A centerpiece of "Morbid Curiosity" is the War Room, which features five series of prints about battle, starting as far back as Jacques Callot's 17th-century Miseries of War and running up to The Depravities of War, Sandow Birk's set of woodblock prints on Iraq. Another gallery, the Kunstkammer of Death, features ghastly curiosities ranging from Mexican Day of the Dead art to late-medieval European vanitas paintings—still-life visions of decay, aging, and rot. Oh, and by the way, there's also Jodie Carey's 13-foot-tall chandelier constructed of 3,000 plaster bones.

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