The Wilde Collection arrangement of Laocoön and His Sons at Death by Natural Causes
The Wilde Collection arrangement of Laocoön and His Sons at Death by Natural Causes
Photo by Jef Rouner

Behind the Bone Statues at Death by Natural Causes at the Museum of Natural Sciences

Hopefully by now you’ve had the chance to check out the fascinating Death by Natural Causes exhibition at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. I previously recorded my thoughts on the showcase of deadly nature in an article, but today we’re going to explore the origin of one of the more interesting pieces of art displayed in the collection: the skeletal version of the famous Laocoön and His Sons pictured above.

The sculpture was created by Lawyer Douglas, Tyler Zottarelle of the Wilde Collection and artist Joshua Hammond. David Temple, the co-curator of Death by Natural Causes, approached Wilde Collection co-owner Douglas about contributing to the exhibit. Douglas previously aided the museum in putting together its Cabinet of Curiosities exhibit.

“They asked if we knew someone that could articulate skeletons,” says Douglas. “Of course we do.”

The project was to involve a 17-foot anaconda, a huge task that Douglas describes as monotonous and difficult because of the size and composition (mostly just ribs and vertebrae). The design of the piece went through several concepts, including a traditional Nation Geographic picture-style arrangement with three men holding the snake as well as other men vs. serpent motifs. It was Hammond, though, who brought in the idea of Laocoön and His Sons.

Laocoön and His Sons at the Vatican MuseumsEXPAND
Laocoön and His Sons at the Vatican Museums
Photo by Erik Drost via Flickr

Laocoön was a Trojan priest said to have uttered the phrase, “I fear the Greeks even bearing gifts” upon seeing the Trojan Horse. His death and that of his sons are usually depicted as being attacked by sea serpents sent by the gods, though the reason why and the specific god Laocoön pissed off vary depending on the teller of the tale.

Whatever the reason, the story of Laocoön inspired a statue that has come to be regarded as one of the most perfect depictions of human suffering in art. These days it resides in the Vatican.

The skeletal version of the statue that Hammond produced as an inspiration came from a later source. Josef Hyrtl was a Viennese professor of anatomy who was widely-regarded for his ability to create anatomical models that transcended teaching tools to become art. His work made him quite wealthy. He even sold a collection of circulatory preparations to Sultan Abdul Medjib of Instanbul.

Josef Hyrtl's skeletal arrangement of Laocoön (1924)
Josef Hyrtl's skeletal arrangement of Laocoön (1924)
Photographer unknown. Picture courtesy of the Wellcome Collection

He was also well-known as a dramatic and idiosyncratic man. Dressed in wizard-like black robes and teaching classes in Latin with a street preacher style, he inspired devotion and wonder. It’s not surprising that he would undertake a task like recreating an anatomical model of Laocoön and His Sons. It was this piece that inspired the one arranged for the museum, with some significant modification.

“I couldn’t get past the original,” says Douglas. “It looks a lot like interpretative dance. It’s a beautiful piece, but I was concerned it wasn’t able to capture the original struggle of animal versus human.”

There’s no arguing that the Douglas interpretation is considerably more menacing than the Hyrtl, which seems almost whimsical. By Douglas’ own account getting perpetually-grinning skulls to seem in agony is harder than you might think. The piece does fit in perfectly with the exhibit. Though very rare, large snakes do occasionally hunt and eat humans. Last year an Indonesian man’s corpse was found in the belly of a python, and this month an Indonesian woman was swallowed by another. Large snakes kept as pets in America have been known to kill babies and children.

The ability to bring a new skeleton Laocoön to life was a particular honor for Douglas. The Hyrtl arrangement did not survive the bombs of the Second World War.

“It’s exciting to walk into that place and see we had a hand in recreating history,” says Douglas.

The Laocoön isn’t the only piece of work The Wilde Collection contributed to Death by Natural Causes. Though work on Laocoön kept them busy right down to the opening of the exhibit, they also had time to craft another skeleton of a komodo dragon chasing a man. Douglas’ team watched footage of the lizards running and moving in the wild to capture the perfect, authentic look. Komodo dragons do occasionally attack humans (the only lizard large enough to do so), but attacks are rarely fatal. The last deadly one occurred in 2009.

Fans of the partnership between Wilde Collection and the museum can look forward to new partnerships. A second Cabinet of Curiosities is due to open at the Sugarland location. Douglas has already crafted taxidermy unicorns to be a part of the collection. He’s also hoping to include a series of fairies that he’s recently created, complete with fake dossiers about their “discovery.” Those are currently on display, but not for sale, at the shop.

“The relationship with the museum means a lot to us,” says Douglas.

Death by Natural Causes runs through September 4 at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. For more information, call 713-639-4629 or visit HMNS.org. $12 - $30. The Wilde Collection is located at 1446 Yale Street. For more information, call 713-931-1904 or visit WildeCollection.com.

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