Having just concluded “Death: A Self-Portrait,” a successful London-based art exhibit focusing on death and dying, Richard Harris, 75, shared with Life Matters Media his thoughts about art, religion and mortality. He presented “Morbid Curiosity” two years ago at the Chicago Cultural Center, which went on to become the center’s most successful exhibit ever— it drew more than 150,000 visitors during its six-month run.
What do you believe drew so many to your exhibit?
I think there’s a unsatisfied beast in all of us who wants to find out a little more about death. My art wasn’t odd or horrific and it didn’t make people uncomfortable– I did not want to deliberately make it provocative. I like strong art. The pieces are meaningful and attractive, that’s why I purchased them. I think people took it in that same way.
How did you amass such a collection?
I majored in economics at Queens College– I was not a very good economics student. My family said there was no way to make a living through art. So I came to art through the back door, as a sales person with my small entrepreneurial business selling art all over the country for 40 years. I also have an interest in human anatomy, it started with skulls and skeletons– they were all related to death. I thought ‘let’s make it a death collection.’ I’ve never done thematic exhibits before.
Do you have a favorite piece?
One of my favorites is “Gentleman On Green Table” a little piece by June Leaf, an American artist in her 80s. Part of the war segment of my collection, it’s a skeletal figure sitting on a green table, it’s made of tin. The skeleton representing death looks exhausted by war and conflicts, as if death even says ‘enough.’
Are you religious?
I’m Jewish, and I don’t believe in the hereafter, though most religious art is based on Catholicism. Early Baroque and Renaissance art was religion-based, and the Church would commission it. It scared people with visions of hell, heaven and purgatory. It urged people to live a good life on earth. In the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries, most people were illiterate- they got their information visually. The art could be viewed as propaganda that sold the Church’s thoughts and edicts.
Are discussions about death still taboo?
Death is an unspoken. I don’t know if there is a taboo against it, but many people are just uncomfortable with discussions about death. I think conversations are becoming more popular in television and magazine articles. There are more opportunities for discussion.
Did the Midwesterners who visited “Morbid Curiosity” differ from visitors to your more recent exhibit “Death: A Self-Portrait” in London?
It’s an interesting world that I’ve entered with my art collection. At the Chicago exhibit, I wanted to have some sort of addendum program in addition to the art itself– usually during the evenings. We invited people to talk about death from a religious point-of-view, death from a legal point-of-view, death from a medical point-of-view. It was all very well received. The people who attended the shows had an interest in the art and the subject– they were open and wanted to know more about death and how to prepare for it. The crowds in London and Chicago were very similar, though more attended the Chicago exhibit. Only a tiny, tiny minority were turned off. Death is a universal.
What does your future hold?
I want my art to be exhibited to as many people in as many parts of the world as possible. Later, I would like to setup a death-study program at a university with my collection. I don’t know if such a program exists today, but students should have coursework related to death throughout their studies.