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Jeremy Bentham hops across the pond

23 February 2018

Introducing Rakewell, Apollo’s wandering eye on the art world. Look out for regular posts taking a rakish perspective on art and museum stories.

A belated happy birthday to Jeremy Bentham, who earlier this month celebrated what would have been his 270th birthday. Although the philosopher and social reformer died in 1832, he has since become one of London’s most unusual cultural attractions. In his will, Bentham stipulated that his body be cut up and preserved as an ‘auto-icon’, and ever since, a waxwork likeness containing his skeleton – complete with hat, clothes and walking stick  – has kept a silent vigil over the corridors of University College London, where he is regarded as one of the institution’s spiritual founders.

Bentham’s remains recently left UCL, headed to New York, where they will go on display as part of a new exhibition at the Met Breuer. ‘Life Like: Sculpture, Color and the Body (1300–Now)’, will explore the history of artists’ attempts to replicate the ‘literal, living presence of the human body’ and put Bentham in the company of works by Donatello, Rodin, El Greco, and Jeff Koons.

What Bentham would have made of Koons’ hoovers and basketballs (to say nothing of his ‘Made in Heaven’ series), we can only guess. But Bentham would surely have appreciated this long-overdue holiday. For the past 186-odd years, his auto-icon has seldom ventured beyond the confines of UCL – making significant excursions only when it has been ‘borrowed’ by students for various pranks…

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