Death: a Self-Portrait, Wellcome Collection, London NW1

Death: a Self-Portrait, Wellcome Collection, London NW1

Fear, spirituality, hope, celebration – death may come to us all, but it has many different meanings and expressions across the world.

Wellcome Collection’s major winter exhibition ‘Death: A self-portrait’ showcases some 300 works from a unique collection devoted to the iconography of death and our complex and contradictory attitudes towards it.

Modern consumerism might deny it and medicine delay it, but death remains a certainty. All credit, then, to the Wellcome Foundation for a show that reminds us that death is an intrinsic part of human history, with artefacts, paintings, memorabilia and ephemera collected by the Chicago print dealer Richard Harris.

It is an approachable exhibition, full of inventiveness and occasional fun, and superbly arranged. From the 1493 Nuremberg Chronicle, engravings see death as a skeleton stealing up on rich and poor. On show also are complete sets of Jacques Callot’s Miseries of War, Goya’s The Disasters of War and Otto Dix’s War, but a Japanese painting, Frolicking Skeletons by Kawanabe Kyosai (1831-1889), raises a smile.

A group of US puppets remind us that skeletons are part of the play of children, while contemporary art commissioned by Harris includes works by Jodie Carey, John Isaacs and Balint Zsako. Intriguing, spirited and not at all morbid.

(020 7611 2222; wellcomecollection.org) to 24 Feb