Method in this grand madness

Cabinets of Curiosities
March 7, 2003

About ten years ago I read an article in Country Life that questioned:

"What exactly is a Wunderkamen ?" I learnt that according to Julius von Schlosser, the celebrated Viennese art historian who wrote an entire book on the subject in 1908, it describes "a collection of extraordinary objects, gathered together more for their fascination than for their beauty or craftsmanship".

The article fascinated me because for more than 50 years I have been collecting all kinds of objects from old Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), the island of my birth in 1933. It is not a collection amassed for its aesthetic qualities but for its power to replace, in part, my lost origins.

It contains Ceylonese daggers and swords, giant bronze-gilt figures of Buddha, miniature ivory carvings of Sinhalese workmen and women, carved Portuguese figures of Christ, bronze Hindu images, Kandyan gems, ivory combs, temple carvings, a 2,000-year-old terracotta dog, Dutch portraits and prints, Dutch East India Company silver, betel-nut cutters, talipot palm-leaf manuscripts, brass vessels, Sinhalese wooden boxes, old pre-British colonial-period furniture, elephant teeth and even an ancient leopard skull. Everything has its very personal reason for being there - which, I suppose, is what makes each collection of this kind unique.

"It will look, I fear, a little like arrogance in a private man to give a printed description of his villa and collection." In his preface to Strawberry Hill (1784), Horace Walpole spoke for all collectors who write about their houses and collections. The collector is afraid of being thought arrogant if he publishes an account of his collection. But he has a stronger fear - that the world will not know that he has a collection worth writing about.

Patrick Mauriès, in his captivating Cabinets of Curiosities , writes about naturalia, mirabilia, artefacts, scientifica, antiquities and exotica - to employ the six categories under which fall the profusion of rarities to be found in most cabinets of curiosities from the 17th century, the high point of such collecting. As well as all manner of birds, fish and animals - including the stuffed, suspended crocodile that became the most famous symbol of these cabinets - one might find shells, skulls and skeletons (including mermaids' skeletons), automata, waxworks, mathematical instruments, giants' footsteps and drawings of dwarves, as well as paintings, sculptures, books and holy relics. Just to read about the chaos of these cabinets, let alone look at the many beautiful images selected by Mauriès, is dizzying. To inspire wonder was one of the main aims of any cabinet, whether it was housed in a single room or in an entire wing of a stately home. But at the same time there existed a highly ordered systematised arrangement to such glorious madness, which Mauriès sets out to explain.

The culture of curiosities is descended from the sacred treasures of Greek temples and, later, of Christian churches. Supernatural overtones thus crept into the secular collections, particularly in the northern European cabinets, which expressed a strong link to medieval traditions of marvels and miracles. The Italian collections, on the other hand, were thought to be more coherent, wanting to create a structured image of the world. Yet there was another motive. By bringing all knowledge into a single space, collectors hoped to gain a safe understanding of the universe and some measure of control over it; a defence against the transience and turbulence of life.

The need to understand, control and inscribe meaning into the objects gathered governed not only the content but the layout. The collectors longed to find affinities between apparently distinct acquisitions. They hoped to reveal, as Mauriès says, "the fundamental unity that lay beneath this apparent welter of multiplicity". As a result, symmetry, which could emphasise similarities or point up differences between objects, became the favoured method of organisation. For this reason hybrids - composite creatures, fossils, coral and artworks made from nature such as Arcimbaldo's famous shell portraits - were especially prized. They demonstrated the essential connection between the different natural kingdoms and closed the gap between art and science.

Mauriès' psychological explanation of the cabinets is at the core of this book. He sees the collectors' more eccentric choices, such as preserved embryos, wax replicas and automata, as further evidence of their desire to gain aesthetic power over the forces of nature. Life could be preserved; wax could deceive the eye into mistaking artifice for reality; what was static could be given movement. He also spots similarities in the mental and emotional make-up of the collectors. Too disparate to define in terms of background - collectors were nobles, merchants and the more impoverished intellectuals-they nevertherless fit a type: the "man with a mania for completeness". One of the first serious cabinet keepers, Ulisse Androvandi, declared, "Nothing is sweeter than to know all things", and by 1570 he had made a good effort to do so, with more than 7,000 specimens of flora and fauna, each painstakingly recorded by his artists. However, it is the Hapsburg emperor Rudolf II who epitomises Mauries' idea of the collector. With endless resources and interests, Rudolf had his scouts scour Europe, bringing home anything that would pique his curiosity. He combined a need for "withdrawal from the world, seeking refuge in art, an insatiable thirst for new acquisitions, a quest for the rare and bizarre" with a belief that the world comprised sets that had to be completed.

The passion for cabinets dwindled during the Enlightenment, as rational explanation triumphed over the taste for wonder. Eighteenth-century collectors such as Walpole celebrated art, fantasy and nostalgia rather than the desire for knowledge; the dream of omniscience had died a death.

But if the cult of curiosity flagged in the 18th and 19th centuries, it enjoyed a terrific resurgence in the 20th century. The cabinets' influence on art is most obvious in surrealism, in the surrealists' interest in incongruity and the "found object". Several major artists in the movement were collectors themselves; the scrupulously jumbled objects that adorned the walls of Andre Breton's study are now on display at the Pompidou Centre in Paris.

Mauriès also suggests a link between the cabinets of the past and the importance of accumulation and collage in modern art. Above all, he insists that how the objects were framed and boxed in a cabinet had a powerful impact, once artists realised the cabinet's ability to provoke spectators' capacity for association and surprise. Joseph Cornell's art of "box assemblage", for example, forces resonances between disparate elements by placing them in three-dimensional collage, as far apart as possible within the confines of a box.

Mauriès cites modern collectors such as Alistair McAlpine to show that the great tradition of collecting curiosities continues; but the wider point of his final chapter is to demonstrate that the cabinet "contains potentially some of the basic ideas and driving forces of 20th-century aesthetics". It is difficult to pin down a direct connection here - hence his use of "potentially" - but at the end of this excellent book, Mauriès suggests a very plausible link between the 16th and 20th centuries. He offers the kind of historical unity of which the early collectors, with their wonderful curiosity and lust for affinity, would have been proud.

Christopher Ondaatje is a collector and trustee of the National Portrait Gallery.

Cabinets of Curiosities

Author - Patrick Mauriès
ISBN - 0 500 51091 1
Publisher - Thames and Hudson
Price - £39.95
Pages - 256

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