Dancing Towards Death: The Richard Harris Collection



Sponsored by Riverboat Development Authority


The certainty of death and the uncertainty of its timing are themes that figure prominently in the art and culture of Western Europe. Attempts to make death more concrete and thus less threatening speak to mankind’s shared need to come to terms with its mortality. But visualizing death, that is, giving form to absence, non-being, in other words the image-less, presents problems. Death is therefore best expressed indirectly—through symbolic reference rather than explicit expression.

View a behind the scenes look at this exhibition.



This exhibition focuses on one variant of death imagery known as the Dance of Death (also called Totentanz and Dance Macabre). Following the model established by Hans Holbein, the motif typically takes the form of a sequence of images in which people of all ages and ranks of society encounter the figure of Death, embodied most often as a decaying corpse or skeleton. Death often catches the intended victim unaware, disrupting an everyday activity, and leads him or her in a dance towards death. Death, its rotting shell animated unnaturally, can be interpreted as the dead double of the living person while the dance itself represents the moment of death, when the life energy of the living person passes to or is absorbed by Death.

The origins of the Dance of Death remain unclear but can be traced back to the 14th century. The earliest dances appeared as murals on cemetery walls in large cities such as Paris, Basel and Lübeck. These early examples showed alternating figures of the living and dead engaged in a round or line dance. In the 19th and 20th centuries, the theme gained particular popularity, especially during periods of great social upheaval and unrest, such as the German revolution of 1848 and World War I. 

Versatile yet unchanging, the Dance of Death has remained a presence in the history of art for centuries, functioning in some respects as a barometer of its times. The theme has been the subject of much academic study but has been left relatively untreated by museums. This project offers the Figge a unique opportunity to develop an exhibition of both art historical significance and novelty. It will examine the origins of the Dance of Death and its subsequent permutations, including examples from artists as diverse as Hans Holbein, Albrecht Dürer, Rembrandt, Max Klinger, Käthe Kollwitz, Georg Grosz, James Ensor and Sue Coe.

Through January 9, 2011


Read more about the Richard Harris collection at the Slought Foundation and ARTINFO.

Artwork labels for this exhibition have been provided by Alpha Graphics.