Cabinet of Curiosities
Mary Jo Gibson
A memorable Museum Experience engages the visitor on levels expected and unexpected. Participation with new technologies opens deeper communication and understanding of the exhibit, inspiring intuitive learning; museums have this ability in spades. Making the old new again with hands on exploration moves an exhibit to a level of relevance not considered in the previous scope of art, deepening the connection to the viewer; bringing all the senses into the Museum Experience.
Viewing the Chicago Art Institute’s Augsburg Cabinet is stunning, however, not complete, as the hidden treasures within lie beyond the opulent doors. Technology has produced a stunning video that shows the inner workings of the cabinet, the separate compartments, and the art that adorn the deeper recesses.
Cabinets made in the southern German town of Augsburg during the 16th and 17th century are famous for their showy decorations, typically executed in ebony veneer and ivory inlay, as with this excellent specimen on display in Gallery 234. The craftsmanship of this decoration is matched by the inventiveness of the cabinets’ interior structure, part display case, part tool chest and part safe-deposit box. These were usually commissioned by one craftsman who subcontracted the various specialized components and then sold the completed object from his shop. Cooperation between silversmiths, cabinet makers and goldsmiths, a constant aspect of Augsburg craftsmanship, facilitated the production of elaborately mounted mirrors, clocks, traveling services and these specialized cabinets. Produced in small series, the cabinets usually have only minor variations in decoration, they are calculated to appeal, in iconography, ornateness and expense to a limited circle of the court and the upper bourgeoisie.
Charity is represented atop the cabinet as a mature woman with small children. She represents the Greek principle of unselfish love. Three children accompany the figure of Charity, one as a baby in her arms (sadly missing his head due to damage over time), and the others two entwined about her legs, clutching her hands.
The Arabesque Ornamental forms that cover the outside of the cabinet contrast sharply with the black sheen of its ebony veneer. These sinuous forms were characteristic across the decorative arts during this period. The motif was heavily influenced by contemporary engravings of Islamic and Moorish patterns.
I had the pleasure of listening to the BBC podcast of Marcel Duchamp’s Urinal, and must say I was quite taken by the subversive nature of this artist. I would like to thank Ben Street for sharing this podcast on Facebook.
I looked into some more of Mr. Duchamp’s art, and found that he was a close friend of Peggy Guggenheim, who lived in Venice. Several of his Box in a Valise (Boite en-valise) are famous 3-d efforts in the shape of a small suitcase or valise, each remarkable on their own. These small cases contain miniature replicas and color reproductions of works by the artist. He gifted one to his patron Guggenheim, which included a small version of the celebrated fountain, perhaps a sample version of the original. The exhibited urinal has never been found since it was first viewed by the Society of Independent Artists committee in 1917, subsequently rejected, photographed professionally by Alfred Stieglitz, never to be seen again.
While ‘modern’ art and the various movements have never been my cup of tea, this story and its destabilizing undertones gives me pause to re-evaluate my personal thoughts on these creations, and the artists.
Francis Willughby, Unsung Natural History Connoisseur, and Batman, The Dark Knight Rises
Sir Issac Newton’s Principia (Philosophaie Naturalis Principia Matrhematica) famously was to be the first book published by the Royal Society, however this was circumvented by another publication, A History of Fishes, by Francis Willughby and John Ray. Samuel Pepys was president of the society at the time and is named on the title pages of both books. While Newton is a name that has survived the centuries with his apple and gravity conclusions, Willughby and Ray have fallen aside through the annals of time.
Willughby was once Ray’s student and the two travelled together, studying, collecting birds and fish. After the untimely death of Willughby, Ray oversaw the culmination of their notes and drawings into three books. These studies are considered the beginning of scientific ornithology taxonomy in Europe, dismissing the older inaccuracies of Aristotle. Their collection of birds and fish is stored at Willughby’s family home, Wollaton Hall now the Nottingham Natural History Museum. Wollaton Hall, incidentally, stars as Wayne Manor in the Batman film, The Dark Knight Rises. Trumped by Willughby, again I believe, Sir Newton.
Thank you for joining me for this edition of Cabinet of Curiosities. Albrecht Durer will be following soon!