1954. That morning in late November the air was particularly clear and cold in the little Alabama town of Oak Grove, actually just a handful of houses scattered among the trees on the outskirts of Sylacauga.
It looked like any other morning. Yet an extraterrestrial object, not of this world, was about to violently break into that small country reality.
Ann E. Hodges, 34, was not feeling well that day. She was home alone because her husband Eugene, a utility worker, had left early. So, around lunchtime, Mrs. Hodges decided to take a little siesta on her sofa. As she slipped under the quilt, she certainly did not imagine that nap would change her life forever.
Shortly afterwards a frightful noise shook the house and a sharp, stabbing pain at her side suddenly woke her.
Around the same time, Dr. Moody Jacobs left his office to grab a bite. As he walked out, he glanced at the clear sky and realized that it was cut in two by a streak of black smoke. Was that an aircraft in trouble? As he narrowed his eyes to get a better look, the silence was pierced by a huge blast and the dark trail opened in a corolla of white smoke. If it really was an airplane, it had just exploded in flight.
Returning to his office around one o’clock, Dr. Jacobs received a distress call: apparently, Mrs. Hodges had been “hit by a comet”.
As he was getting into his car, the doctor must have thought this was some kind of joke: he knew well that the Hodges’ white house stood right in front of the Comet Drive-In Theater, whose neon sign showed a shooting star.
When the doctor arrived on the spot, Mrs. Hodges was in shock. As she was sleeping on the living room sofa, a rock the size of a coconut had broken through the ceiling and, after hitting the radio and smashing it, had bounced off hitting her in the side and on her left hand.
The news spread immediately, so much so that when Mr. Eugene Hodges returned from work he had to make his way through the crowd of gawkers assembled in front of his house.
Geologist George Swindel, who was conducting field work nearby, put forward the hypothesis that the rock was a meteorite; but as this was the Cold War era, it was better to be sure, so the police brought the stone to the Air Force Intelligence authorities. As soon as they confirmed that this was a chondrite, an unprecedented media frenzy hit the small community of Oak Grove: Ann was the first known victim of such an extraordinary event in the modern era. And consequently, Dr. Jacobs became the only physician to have treated a meteorite trauma.
Ann was sure that the stone which fell down from outer space was a divine sign: “I think God intended it for me. After all, it hit me!”
Her husband Eugene was also convinced that they could make a fortune out of that heavenly gift. Furious because the police had taken the rock for analysis, he hired a lawyer to get it back. In the meantime, he even refused a generous offer from the Smithsonian Institute, determined to make the most of their unexpected luck: he could feel it deep down, their lives were about to change.
And indeed they changed — unfortunately not for the better.
Newspapers and televisions stormed the couple, and Ann even appeared on Gary Moore’s TV quiz show I’ve Got A Secret, in which celebrities had to guess the guest’s “secret”.
Soon after, however, the couple found themselves embroiled in a lawsuit: in fact Ann and Eugene were renters and their landlady, Birdie Guy, claimed possession of the space stone that had fallen on her property. Mrs. Guy won in numerous appeals, and in the end the Hodges paid her $500 for the possession of the meteorite.
But the litigation had been so long that by the time the rock finally returned to their hands, the interest of the media had long since vanished. The Hodges found themselves poorer and more sour than before.
They divorced in 1964.
The meteorite ended up being used as a door stop, until Ann Hodges decided to get rid of it once and for all by donating it to the Alabama Museum of Natural History, in Tuscaloosa, where it is still on display.
According to her husband and those who knew her, the woman never recovered emotionally from this whole ordeal; that stone fallen from the sky left far deeper scars on her than the physical ones. She died of kidney failure when she was 52-years-old, in 1972.
Perhaps that piece of rock — which had formed together with the solar system, and traveled through space for millions and millions of years before ending its trajectory in Mrs. Hodges’ living room — was truly a sign of heaven after all. A metaphor of the Unexpected breaking through our well-known everyday routine, upsetting all balances, reminding us of our own uncertainty. A symbol of how much our tiny individual stories, and our destinies, are intimately connected to the vast, boundless cosmos out there.
Or, perhaps, the divine sign meant something else.
Yes, because this is not the end of the story.
While it was passing through the atmosphere, the meteoroid had split in two.
As we have seen, the first fragment had impacted on Mrs Hodges, ruining her life. But the second fragment was found a few miles away by an African American farmer named Julius Kempis McKinney as he was driving a mule-drawn wagon with a load of firewood. The mules stopped in front of a strange stone on the edge of the road, McKinney moved the rock and continued home; but that evening, after hearing what had happened to the Hodges, he went back and collected the stone.
Unlike the Hodges, McKinney immediately sold it to the Smithsonian Institute; and although he never revealed the amount he earned, it was enough to buy his family a car and a new house.
That stone from deep space had brought luck only to a humble and poor family of black laborers, in 1954 Alabama; the same year in which the Supreme Court had declared, with a historic ruling, that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional.
A few days ago I was invited to speak at the Rome Tatttoo Museum for Creative Mornings, a cultural event held every month around the world; it is a free and informal breakfast combined with a conference on a set theme, the same for all 196 cities in which the initiative takes place. January’s theme was SURREAL, and I therefore decided to talk about the relationship between anatomy and surrealism. Here is the revised transcription of my speech.
Near the railway station the annual Foire du Midi is held, gahtering in the capital all the traveling carnivals that tour Belgium.
Our protagonist is this man, just over thirty years old, who’s wandering around the fair and looking at the various attractions until his gaze is captured by a poster advertising Dr. Spitzner’s anatomical museum.
Dr. Spitzner is not even a real doctor, rather an anatomist who tried to set up a museum in Paris; he did not succeed, and started traveling with the carnival. His collection, behind a pedagogical façade (the museum is supposed to inform the public about the risks related to venereal diseases or alcohol abuse), is designed above all to arouse the audience’s mobrid curiosity and voyeurism.
The first thing that attracts the attention of our man is a beautiful wax sculpture of a sleeping woman: a mechanism makes her raise and lower her chest, as if she were breathing. The man pays the ticket and enters the sideshow. But past the red velvet curtains, a vision of wonder and horror appears before his eyes. Pathological waxes show the ravages of syphilis, monstrous bodies like those of the Tocci siamese twins are represented along scenes of surgical operations. Women appear to be operated by “phantom” hands, without arms or bodies. The same sleeping Venus seen at the entrance is dismantled under the eyes of the public, organ after organ, in a sort of spectacular dissection.
The man is upset, and the vision of the Spitzner museum will forever change his life.
In fact, our protagonist is called Paul Delvaux, a painter who until then has only painted post-impressionist (yet quite unimpressive!) bucolic landscapes.
After his visit to the Spitzner museum, however, his art will take a completely different path.
His paintings will turn into dreamlike visions, in which almost all the elements seem to refer to that original trauma or, better, to that original epiphany. The strange non-places which the figures inhabit seem to be suspended halfway between De Chirico‘s metaphysical landscapes and the fake neoclassical sceneries used in fairgrounds; his paintings are populated with sleeping venuses and female nudes, showing a cold and hieratic eroticism, and dozens of skeletons; the train station will become another of Delvaux’s obsessions.
Regarding that experience Delvaux will declare, many years later:
That disturbing, even a little morbid atmosphere, the unusual exhibition of anatomical waxes in a place meant for joy, noise, lights, joviality […] All this has left deep traces in my life for a very long time.The discovery of the Spitzner museum made me veer completely in my conception of painting.
But why was Delvaux so touched by the vision of the inside of the human body?
In Bananas (1971), Woody Allen wakes up after taking a blow on the head, and upon touching the wound he looks at his fingers and exclaims: “Blood!That should be on inside”.I believe this to bethe most concise definition of anatomy as a Freudian repression/denial.
What is inside the body should remain off-scene (obscene). We should never see it, because otherwise it would mean that something went wrong. The inside of our body is a misunderstood territory and a real taboo – we will later attempt to see why.
So of course, there is a certain fascination for the obscene, especially for a man like Delvaux who came from a rigid and puritan family; a mixture of erotic impulses and death.
But there’s more: those waxes have a quality that goes beyond reality. What Delvaux experienced is the surrealism of anatomy.
In fact, whenever we enter an anatomical museum, we’re accessing a totally alien, unsettling, absurd dimension.
It is therefore not surprising that the Surrealists, to whom Delvaux was close, exploited anatomy to destabilize their audience: surrealists were constantly searching for this type of elements, and experiences, which could free the unconscious.
Surrealism also had a fascination for death, right from its very beginnings. One example is the Poisson soluble, Breton‘s syllogy which accompanied the Manifesto (the idea of a “soluble fish” can make us smile, but is in truth desperately dramatic), another is the famous creative game of the “exquisite corpse“.
The Surrealist Manifesto stated it very clearly: “Surrealism will introduce you to Death, which is a secret society”.
So Max Ernst in his collage wroks for Une semaine de bonté often used scraps of anatomical illustrations; Roland Topor cut and peeled his characters with Sadeian cruelty, hinting at the menacing monsters of the unconscious lurking under our skin; Réné Magritte covered his two lovers’ faces with a cloth, as if they were already corpses on the autopsy table, thus giving the couple a funereal aspect.
But Hans Bellmer above all put anatomy at the core of his lucid expressive universe, first with his series of photos of his handcrafted ball-joint dolls, with which he reinvented the female body; and later in his etchings, where the various anatomical details merge and blur into new configurations of flesh and dream. All of Bellmer’s art is obsessively and fetishly aimed at discovering the algorithm that makes the female body so seductive (the “algebra of desire”, according to its own definition).
In the series of lithographs entitled Rose ouverte la nuit, in which a girl lifts the skin of her abdomen to unveil her internal organs, Bellmer is directly referring to the iconography of terracotta/wax anatomical models, and to ancient medical illustrations.
This idea that the human body is a territory to explore and map, is directly derived from the dawn of the anatomical discipline. The first one who cut this secret space open for study purposes, at least in a truly programmatic way, was Vesalius. I have often written about him, and to understand the extent of his revolution you might want to check out this article.
Yet even after Vesalio the feelings of guilt attached to the act of dissection did not diminish – opening a human body was still seen as a desecration.
According to various scholars, this sense of guilt is behind the “vivification” of the écorchés, the flayed cadavers represented in anatomical plates, which were shown in plastic poses as if they were alive and perfectly well – an iconography partly borrowed from that of the Catholic saints, always eager to exhibit the mutilations they suffered during martyrdom.
In the anatomical plates of the 17th and 18th centuries, this tendency becomes so visionary as to become involuntarily fantasy-like (see R. Caillois, Au cœur du fantastique, 1965).
A striking example is the following illustration (from the Historia de la composicion del cuerpo humano by Valverde, 1556) showing a dissected cadaver which in turn is dissecting another one: surrealism ante litteram, and a quite extraordinary macabre fantasy.
At the time scholars were quite aware of the aesthetic problem: two of the greatest anatomists of the late 17th century, Govert Bidloo and Frederik Ruysch, became bitter enemies precisely because they disagreed on which kind of aesthetics was more suitable for the anatomical discipline.
Bidloo, in his treatises, had ordered the illustrations to be as realistic as possible. Dissection was shown in a very graphic way, with depictions of tied bodies and fixing pins. This was no idealized view at all, as realism was pushed to the extreme in a plate which even included a fly landing on the corpse.
On the other hand, Ruysch’s sensibility was typical of wunderkammern, and as he embellished his animal preparations with compositions of shells and corals, he did so also with human preparations, to make them more pleasing to the eye.
His anatomical preparations were artistic, sometimes openly allegorical; his now-lost dioramas were quite famous in this regard, as they were made entirely from organic materials (kidney stones used as rocks, arteries and dried veins as trees, fetal skeletons drying their tears on handkerchiefs made from meninges, etc.).
Often the preserved parts were embellished with laces and embroidery made by Ruysch’s daughter Rachel, who from an early age helped her father in his dissections (she can be seen standing on the right with a skeleton in her hand in Van Neck‘s Anatomy Lesson by Dr. Frederik Ruysch).
We could say that Ruysch was both an anatomist and a showman (therefore, a forerunner of that Dr. Spitzner whose museum so impressed Delvaux), who exploited his own art in a spectacular way in order to gain success in European courts. And in a sense he won his dispute with Bidloo, because the surreal quality of anatomical illustrations remained almost unchallenged until the advent of positivism.
Going back to the 1900s, however, things start to radically change from the middle of the century. Two global conflicts have undermined trust in mankind and in history; traditional society begins breaking down, technology enters the people’s homes and work becomes more and more mechanized. Thus a sense of loss of idenity, which also involves the body, begins to emerge.
If in the 1930s Fritz Kahn (above) could still look at anatomy with an engineering gaze, as if it were a perfect machine, in the second half of the century everything was wavering. The body becomes mutant, indefinite, fluid, as is the case in Xia Xiaowan‘s glass paintings, which change depending on the perspective, making the subject’s anatomy uncertain.
Starting from the 60s and the 70s, the search for identity implies a reappropriation of the body as a canvas on which to express one’s own individuality: it is the advent of body art and of the customization of the body (plastic surgery, tattoos, piercing).
The body becomes victim of hybridizations between the organic and the mechanical, oscillating between dystopian visions of flesh and metal fused together – as in Tetsuo or Cronenberg’s films – and cyberpunk prophecies, up to the tragic dehumanization of a fully mechanized society depicted by Tetsuya Ishida.
In spite of millenarians, however, the world does not end in the year 2000 nor in the much feared year 2012. Society continues to change, and hybridization is a concept that has entered the collective unconscious; an artist like Nunzio Paci can now use it in a non-dystopian perspective, guided by ecological concerns. He is able to intersect human anatomy with the animal and plant kingdom in order to demonstrate our intimate communion and continuity with nature; just like Kate McDowell does in her ceramics works.
The anatomical and scientific imagery becomes disturbing, on the other hand, in the paintings of Spanish artist Dino Valls, whose characters appear to be victims of esoteric experiments, continually subjected to invasive examinations, while their tear-stained eyes suggest a tragic, ancestral and repeated dimension.
Photographer Joel-Peter Witkin used the body – both the imperfect and different body, and the anatomized body, literally cut into pieces – to represent the beauty of the soul in an aesthetic way. A Catholic fervent, Witkin is truly convinced that “everything is illuminated”, and his research has a mystical quality. Looking for the divine even in what scares us or horrifies us, his aim is to expose our substantial identity with God. This might be the meaning of one of his most controversial works, The Kiss, in which the two halves of a severed head are positioned as if kissing each other: love is to recognize the divine in the other, and every kiss is nothing but God loving himself. (Here you can find my interview with Witkin – Italian only.)
Valerio Carrubba‘s works are more strictly surrealistic, and particularly interesting because they bring the pictorial medium closer to its anatomical content: the artist creates different versions of the same picture one above the other, adding layers of paint as if they were epidermal layers, only the last of which remains visible.
Anatomy’s still-subversive power is testified by its widespread use within the current of pop surrealism, often creating a contrast between childish and lacquered images and the anatomical unveiling.
Also our friend Stefano Bessoni makes frequent reference to anatomy, in particular in one of his latest works which is dedicated to the figure of Rachel, the aforementioned daughter of Ruysch.
Much in the same satirical and rebellious vein is the work of graffiti artist Nychos, who anatomizes, cuts into pieces and exposes the entrails of some of the most sacred icons of popular culture. Jessica Harrison reserves a similar treatment to granma’s china, and Fernando Vicente uses the idea of vanitas to spoof the sensual imagery of pin-up models.
And the woman’s body, the most subject to aesthetic imperatives and social pressures, is the focus of Sally Hewett‘s work, revolving around those anatomical details that are usually considered unsightly – surgical scars, cellulite, stretch marks – in order to reaffirm the beauty of imperfection.
Autopsy, the act of “looking with one’s own eyes”, is the first step in empirical knowledge.
But looking at one’s own body involves a painful and difficult awareness: it also means acknowledging its mortality. In fact, the famous maxim inscribed in the temple of Apollo at Delphi, “Know thyself“, was essentially a memento mori (as evidenced by the mosaic from the Convent of San Gregorio on the Appian Way). It meant “know who you are, understand your limits, remember your finitude”.
This is perhaps the reason why blood “should be on the inside”, and why our inner landscape of organs, adipose masses and vascularized tissues still seems so unfamiliar, so disgusting, so surreal. We do not want to think about it because it reminds us of our unfortunate reality of limited, mortal animals.
But our very identity can not exist without this body, though fleeting and fallible; and our denial of anatomy, in turn, is exactly the reason why artists will continue to explore its imagery.
Because the best art is subversive, one that – as in Banksy’s famous definition – should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfotable.
Some time ago I wrote a piece about those peculiar epiphanies linking different points on our mental map, which we thought were distant from each other, those unexpected convergences between stories and characters which at first glance appear to be unrelated.
Here’s another one: what do the preserved corpse of Jeremy Bentham (1), the famous Duchenne study on facial expressions (2), the amusement park museum in Paris (3) and anatomical waxes (4) have in common?
The link between all those things is one man: Jules Talrich, born in Paris in 1826.
The Talrich family came from Perpignan, in the Pyrenees. There Jules’s grandfather, Thadée, had been chief surgeon at the local hospital; there his father, Jacques, had worked as a military surgeon before moving to Paris, two years prior to Jules’ birth.
As a child, therefore, Jules grew up in contact with medicine and the anatomical practice. In fact, his father had become famous for his wax models; this renown earned him a post as official ceroplast at the Faculty of Medicine in Paris in 1824. We can imagine little Jules running around in his father’s workshop, looking at his dad with admiration as he worked on his écorchés (flayed) models.
When he was only 6 years old, in 1832, Jules probably saw his father modeling the head of Jeremy Bentham.
The famous utilitarian philosopher had decided, a couple of years before he died, that his body should have been publicly dissected, embalmed and exposed in a case. But the process of mummification on his head, carried out by an anatomist friend of Bentham, Southwood Smith, had not given the expected results: the skin on his face had become dark and shriveled, and was judged excessively macabre. So Jacques Talrich – whose reputation as a ceroplast extended across the Channel – had been commissioned a wax reproduction of Bentham’s head. The so-called “auto icon” is still exhibited today in a hallway at the University College of London.
So it was that the young Jules grew up surrounded by wax models, and taking part in his father’s dissections of corpses in the Faculty of Medicine. When he was little more than a boy, he began working as a “prosector”, i.e. dissecting and preparing anatomical pieces to be used during class at the University; in his dad’s laboratory, he soon learned the art of replicating with molten wax the most intricate muscular and vascular structures of the human body.
When Jacques died in 1851, Jules Talrich inherited the family business. In 1862 he was appointed ceroplast at the University, the same place that his father had occupied for so many years; and just like his father, Jules also became renowned for his wax and plaster anatomical models, both normal and pathological, which on the account of their exquisite workmanship were commissioned and exhibited in several museums, and turned out a huge success in several Universal Expositions.
Besides a vast scientific production, the Maison Talrich provided services in the funeral business, modeling funeral masks or reconstructing illustrious faces such as that of Cardinal Richelieu, realized from his embalmed head. The ability of the French ceroplast also turned out to be useful in some criminal cases, for example to identify the corpse of a woman cut in half which was found in the Seine in 1876. Talrich’s waxes were also highly requested in the religious field, and the company made several important wax effigies of saints and martyrs.
However, Talrich also influenced the world of entertainment and traveling fairs, at least to some extent. At the beginning of 1866 on the Grands Boulevards he opened his “Musée Français”, a wax museum in the spirit of the famous Madame Tussauds in London.
Talrich’s exhibition had a markedly mainstream appeal: upstairs, the public could see aome literary, historical and mythological characters (from Adam and Eve to Don Quixote, from Hercules to Vesalius), while for a surcharge of 5 francs one could access the underground floor, by descending a narrow spiral staircase. Here, in a calculated “chamber of horrors” atmosphere, were collected the most morbid attractions — torture scenes, pathological waxes, and so on. The visit ended with the illusion of the “Talking Head” illusion, patented by Professor Pepper (also inventor of the Pepper’s ghost); unfortunately the public soon realized that the effect was achieved by hiding an actor’s body behind two mirrors, and in a short time the real entertainment for the crowd became throwing paper balls on the poor man’s head.
The fact that a renowned and serious ceroplast, with a permanent job at the University, devoted himself to this kind of popular entertainment should not be astonishing. His museum, in fact, was part of a larger movement that in the second half of the 19th century brought anatomy into circuses and traveling fairs, a kind of attraction balancing between science, education and sensationalism.
In those years nearly every sideshow had a wax museum. And in it,
pedagogical figures had to provide information on distant populations and on the mysteries of procreation, they had to explain why one needed to wash and abstain from drinking too much, to show the perils of venereal diseases and the ambiguities of consanguinity. It was an illustrated morality, but also an opportunity to gaze at the forbidden in good conscience, to become a voyeur by virtue. A summary of the perversities of bourgeois civilization.
A strange and ambiguous mixture of science and entertainment:
Traveling anatomical museums found their place at the fair, alongside the pavilions of scientific popularization, historical wax museums and other dioramas, all manifestations of the transition from high culture to popular culture. These new types of museums differed from the pedagogical university museums on the account of their purpose and the type of public they were intended for: contrary to academical institutions, they had to touch the general public of traveling fairs as lucrative attractions, which explains the spectacular nature of some pieces. And yet, they never completely lost their pedagogical vocation, although retranslated in a moralizing sense, as testified by the common collections about “social hygiene”.
The Musée Français was short-lived, and Talrich was forced to close after less than two years of activity; in 1876, he opened a second museum near Montmartre, this time a more scientific (albeit still voyeuristic) installation. Almost 300 pathological models were exposed here, as well as some ethnological waxes.
But besides his own museums, Jules Talrich supplied waxworks and plaster models for a whole range of other collections — both stable and itinerant — such as the Musée Grevin, the Grand Panopticum de l’Univers or the very famous Spitzner Museum.
In fact, many of the pieces circulating in amusement parks were made by Talrich; and some of these anatomical waxes, together with real pathological and teratological preparations, are now kept in a “secret cabinet” inside the Musée des Arts Forains at the Pavillons de Bercy in Paris. (This museum, entirely dedicated to traveling carnivals, is in my opinion one of the most marvelous places in the world and, ça va sans dire, I have included it in my book Paris Mirabilia).
Jules Talrich retired in 1903, but his grandchildren continued the business for some time. Jules and his father Jacques are remembered as the greatest French ceroplasts, together with Jean-Baptiste Laumonier (1749-1818), Jules Baretta (1834-1923) and Charles Jumelin (1848-1924).
In closing, here’s one last curiosity — as well as the last “convergence”, of the four I mentioned at the beginning.
Several photographs of Jules Talrich exist, and for a peculilar reason. A lover of physiognomy and phrenology himself, Jules agreed in 1861 to take part in Guillaume Duchenne‘s experiments on how facial expressions are connected to emotions. The shots depicting Talrich were included by Duchenne in his Mécanisme de la physionomie humaine, published the following year.
But Jules’ beautiful face, with his iconic mustache, is also visible in some plasterwork, which Talrich provided with his own features: whether this was simply an artist’s whim, or a symbolic meditation on his own mortality, we will never know.
In this post I would like to address three different discoveries I made over the years, and their peculiar relationship.
∼ 2009 ∼
I had just started this blog. During my nightly researches, I remember being impressed by the work of an Italian photographer who specialized in still life pictures: Guido Mocafico.
I was particularly struck – for obvious reasons of personal taste – by his photographs inspired by Dutch vanitas paintings from the 16th and 17th centuries: the pictures showed an outstanding, refined use of light and composition (they almost looked like paintings), but that was not all there was.
In this superb series, Mocafico represented many classic motifs used to symbolize transience (the homo bulla, man being like a soap bubble, but also the hourglass, the burning candle, etc.) with irreproachable taste and philologic attention; the smallest details betrayed a rigorous and deep preparation, a meticulous study which underpinned each of his photographs.
I went on to archive these fascinating photographs, promising myself I would talk about them sooner or later. I never kept that promise, until now.
∼ 2017 ∼
Last year Taschen published a somptuous, giant-size edition of Ernst Haeckel‘s works.
The German scientist, who lived between late 19th century and early 20th century, was an exceptional figure: marine biologist, naturalist, philosopher, he was among the major popularizers of Darwin’s theory of evolution in Germany. He discovered and classified thousands of new species, but above all he depicted them in hundreds of colorful illustrations.
Taschen’s luxurious volume is a neverending wonder, page after page. An immersion into an unknown and alien world – our world, inhabited by microorganisms of breathtaking beauty, graceful jellyfish, living creatures of every shape and structure.
It is a double aesthetic experience: one one hand we are in awe at nature’s imaginative skills, on the other at the artist’s mastery.
I’ll confess that going through the book, I often willingly forget to check the taxonomic labels: after a while, human categories and names seem to lose their meaning, and it’s best to just get lost in sheer contemplation of those perfect, intricate, unusual, exuberant forms.
∼ 2018 ∼
London, Natural History Museum, a couple of weeks ago.
There I am, bewildered for half an hour, looking at the model of a radiolarian, a single-celled organism found in zooplankton. In the darkened room, the light coming from above emphasizes the model’s intricate craftsmanship. The level of detail, the fragility of its thin pseudopods and the rendering of the protozoa’s translucid texture are mind-blowing.
This object’s peculiarity is that it’s made of glass. It’s one of the models created by 19th-century master glassmakers Leopold and Rudolph Blaschka.
And this is just one among thousands and thousands of similar masterpieces created by the two artists from Dresden.
The Blaschkas were a Bohemian family of glass artisans, and when Leopold was born he inherited the genes of several generations of glassmakers. Being especially talented from an early age, he created decorations and glass eyes for many years, until in a short span of time he happened to lose his wife, his son and his father to cholera. Shattered by grief, he took sails towards America but the ship was stopped at sea for two week due to a lack of wind. During this forced arrest, in the darkest period of his life, Leopold was saved by wonder: one night he was looking at the dark ocean, when suddenly he noticed “a flashlike bundle of light beams, as if it is surrounded by thousands of sparks, that form true bundles of fire and of other bright lighting spots, and the seemingly mirrored stars”. He observed those sea creatures in awe, and took sketches of their structure. Since that night, the memory of the magical spectacle he had witnessed never left him.
Years later, back in Dresden and happily remarried, he began creating glass flowers, as a hobby; his orchids were so perfectly crafted that they caught the eye of prince Camille de Rohan first, and then of the director of the Natural History Museum. The latter commissioned twelve sea anemones models; and thus Leopold, remembering that night on the stranded ship, began to work on scientific models. Soon Blaschka’s sea animals – and glass flowers – became famous; Leopold, with the help of his son Rudolph, collaborated with all the most important museums. After his father’s death, Rudolph continued to work developing an even more refined technique, producing 4.400 plant models for Harvard University’s Herbarium.
Together, father and son crafted a total of around 10.000 glass models of sea creatures.
Their artistry attained such perfection that, after them, no glassmaker would ever be able replicate it. “Many people think – Leopold wrote in 1889 – that we have some secret apparatus by which we can squeeze glass suddenly into these forms, but it is not so. We have tact. My son Rudolf has more than I have, because he is my son, and tact increases in every generation”.
∼ Convergence ∼
Some of our interests, at first glance independent from one another, sometimes turn out to be actually correlated. It is as if, on the map of our own passions, we suddenly discover a secret passage between two areas that we thought were distinct, a “B” spot connecting points “A” and “C”.
In this case, for me the “A” point was Guido Mocafico, the author of the evocative series of photographs entitled Vanités; whom I discovered years ago, and guiltily forgotten.
Haeckel was, in retrospect, my “C” point.
And I never would have thought of linking one to the other, before a “B” point, Blaschka’s glass models, appeared on my mind map
Because, here is the thing: to build their incredible glass invertebrates, Leopold and his son Rudolph were inspired, among other things, by Haeckel’s illustrations.
And you can imagine my surprise when I found out that all the best photographs of the Blaschka models, those you can see in this very article, were taken by… Guido Mocafico.
Unbeknownst to me, during the years I had lost sight of him, the photographer dedicated some amazing series of pictures to the Blaschka models, as you can see on his official website.
I always felt there was a tight connection between Haeckel’s fantastic microorganisms and my beloved vanitas. Their intimate bond, perhaps, was sensed by Mocafico too, in his aesthetic research.
A wonder for the creatures of the world is also the astonishment in regard to their impermanence.
At heart, we – human beings, animals, plants, ecosystems, maybe even reality itself – are but immensely beautiful, yet very fragile, glass masterpieces.
Could there be a solution to appeal vegans, vegeterians and meat lovers? It’s called post-animal bio-economy, and among other things it involves growing laboratory meat from stem cells.
A totally painless method for animals, who could at last lead their happy lives without us giving up a steak, a glass of milk or a poached egg. These would note be alternative products, but the same products, developed in a much more sustainable way in respect to linear agriculture (which has proven problematic for the quantity of land, chemicals, pesticides, energy resources, needed water and work, and emissions of greenhouse gases).
Take the highly controversial foie gras: in the near future it could be produced from the stem cells gathered from the tip of a duck’s feather. It might seem a bit sci-fi, but the first lab foie gras is already here, and this journalist tasted it.
There are just two obstacles: on one hand, the costs of lab meat are still too high for large-scale production (but this shouldn’t take too long to fix); on the other, there’s the small detail that this is a cultural, and not just agricultural, revolution. We will find out how traditional farmers will react, and above all if consumers are rady to try these new cruelty-free products.
The city of Branau am Inn, in Austria, is sadly known as the birthplace of a certain dictator called Adolf. But it should be remembered for another reason: the story of Hans Steininger, a burgomaster who on September 28, 1567, was killed by his own beard. A thick and prodigiously long set of hair, which turned out to be fatal during a great fire: while escaping the flames, mayor Hans forgot to roll his 2-meters-long beard and put it in his pocket, as he usually did, tripped on it and fell down the stairs breaking his neck.
As in the 1500s there was no such thing as the Darwin Awards, his fellow citizens placed a nice plaque on the side of the church and preserved the killer beard, still visible today at Branau’s Civic Museum.
But if you think silly deaths are an exclusively human achievement, hear this: “due to the humidity in its environment and how slowly a sloth moves, plant life will grow in its fur. This, combined with poor eyesight, leads to some sloths grabbing their own arms, thinking it’s a tree branch, and falling to their deaths.” (via Seriously Strange)
Furthermore, there’s the genius rodent who slipped into a 155-years-old mousetrap on exhibit in a museum. Slow clap.
You’re always so nervous and depressed, they said.
Why don’t you learn a musical instrument, just to chill out and amuse yourself?, they said.
It served them well.
The Flying Dutch of the 20th Century was called SS Baychimo, a cargo ship that got stuck in the Alaskan ice in 1931 and was abandoned there. For the next 38 years the ghost ship kept turning up and was spotted on several occasions; somebody even managed to board it, but each time the Baychimo successfully escaped without being recovered. (Thanks, Stefano!)
The terrible story of “El Negro”: when collectors of natural curiosities didn’t just ship animal skins back to Europe from the Colonies, but also the skin of human beings they dug out of their graves during the night.
Since we’re talking about human remains, the biggest traveling mummy exhibit was launched eight years ago (featuring a total of 45 mummies). You never got to see it? Neither did I. Here are some nice pictures.
Japanese aesthetics permeates even the smallest details: take a look at these two pages from a late-XVII C. manuscript showing the different kinds of design for wagashi (tipical pastries served during the tea ceremony. Ante litteram food porn.
Some researchers form the University of Wisconsin and the University of Maryland created music specifically studied to be appealing to cats, with frequences and sounds that should be, at least in theory, “feline-centric“. The tracks can be bought here even if, to be honest, my cats didn’t seem to be particularly impressed by the music samples. But then again, those two are fastidious and spoiled rotten.
Among the most bizarre museums, there is the wonderful Museum of Broken Relationships. It consists of objects, donated by the public, that symbolize a terminated relationship: the pearl necklace given as a gift by a violent fiancé to his girlfriend, in the attempt to be forgiven for his last abuses; an axe used by a woman to chop all of her ex-grilfriend’s furniture into pieces; the Proust volumes that a husband read out loud to his wife — the last 200 hundred pages still untouched, as their relationship ended before they’d finished reading the book. Well, can a love story ever last longer than the Recherche? (via Futility Closet)
Many years ago, as I had just begun to explore the history of medicine and anatomical preparations, I became utterly fascinated with the so-called “petrifiers”: 19th and early 20th century anatomists who carried out obscure chemical procedures in order to give their specimens an almost stone-like, everlasting solidity.
Their purpose was to solve two problems at once: the constant shortage of corpses to dissect, and the issue of hygiene problems (yes, back in the time dissection was a messy deal).
Each petrifier perfected his own secret formula to achieve virtually incorruptible anatomical preparations: the art of petrifaction became an exquisitely Italian specialty, a branch of anatomy that flourished due to a series of cultural, scientific and political factors.
When I first encountered the figure of Paolo Gorini (1813-1881), I made the mistake of assuming his work was very similar to that of his fellow petrifiers.
But as soon as I stepped foot inside the wonderful Gorini Collection in Lodi, near Milan, I was surprised at how few scientifically-oriented preparations it contained: most specimens were actually whole, undissected human heads, feet, hands, infants, etc. It struck me that these were not meant as medical studies: they were attempts at preserving the body forever. Was Gorini looking for a way to have the deceased transformed into a genuine statue? Why?
I needed to know more.
A biographical research is a mighty strange experience: digging into the past in search of someone’s secret is always an enterprise doomed to failure. No matter how much you read about a person’s life, their deepest desires and dreams remain forever inaccessible.
And yet, the more I examined books, papers, documents about Paolo Gorini, the more I felt I could somehow relate to this man’s quest.
Yes, he was an eccentric genius. Yes, he lived alone in his ghoulish laboratory, surrounded by “the bodies of men and beasts, human limbs and organs, heads with their hair preserved […], items made from animal substances for use as chess or draughts pieces; petrified livers and brain tissue, hardened skin and hides, nerve tissue from oxen, etc.”. And yes, he somehow enjoyed incarnating the mad scientist character, especially among his bohemian friends – writers and intellectuals who venerated him. But there was more.
It was necessary to strip away the legend from the man. So, as one of Gorini’s greatest passions was geology, I approached him as if he was a planet: progressing deeper and deeper, through the different layers of crust that make up his stratified enigma.
The outer layer was the one produced by mythmaking folklore, nourished by whispered tales, by fleeting glimpses of horrific visions and by popular rumors. “The Magician”, they called him. The man who could turn bodies into stone, who could create mountains from molten lava (as he actually did in his “experimental geology” public demonstrations).
The layer immediately beneath that unveiled the image of an “anomalous” scientist who was, however, well rooted in the Zeitgeist of his times, its spirit and its disputes, with all the vices and virtues derived therefrom.
The most intimate layer – the man himself – will perhaps always be a matter of speculation. And yet certain anecdotes are so colorful that they allowed me to get a glimpse of his fears and hopes.
Still, I didn’t know why I felt so strangely close to Gorini.
His preparations sure look grotesque and macabre from our point of view. He had access to unclaimed bodies at the morgue, and could experiment on an inconceivable number of corpses (“For most of my life I have substituted – without much discomfort – the company of the dead for the company of the living…”), and many of the faces that we can see in the Museum are those of peasants and poor people. This is the reason why so many visitors might find the Collection in Lodi quite unsettling, as opposed to a more “classic” anatomical display.
And yet, here is what looks like a macroscopic incongruity: near the end of his life, Gorini patented the first really efficient crematory. His model was so good it was implemented all over the world, from London to India. One could wonder why this man, who had devoted his entire life to making corpses eternal, suddenly sought to destroy them through fire.
Evidently, Gorini wasn’t fighting death; his crusade was against putrefaction.
When Paolo was only 12 years old, he saw his own father die in a horrific carriage accident. He later wrote: “That day was the black point of my life that marked the separation between light and darkness, the end of all joy, the beginning of an unending procession of disasters. From that day onwards I felt myself to be a stranger in this world…”
The thought of his beloved father’s body, rotting inside the grave, probably haunted him ever since. “To realize what happens to the corpse once it has been closed inside its underground prison is a truly horrific thing. If we were somehow able to look down and see inside it, any other way of treating the dead would be judged as less cruel, and the practice of burial would be irreversibly condemned”.
That’s when it hit me.
This was exactly what made his work so relevant: all Gorini was really trying to do was elaborate a new way of dealing with the “scandal” of dead bodies.
He was tirelessly seeking a more suitable relationship with the remains of missing loved ones. For a time, he truly believed petrifaction could be the answer. Who would ever resort to a portrait – he thought – when a loved one could be directly immortalized for all eternity?
Gorini even suggested that his petrified heads be used to adorn the gravestones of Lodi’s cemetery – an unfortunate but candid proposal, made with the most genuine conviction and a personal sense of pietas. (Needless to say this idea was not received with much enthusiasm).
Gorini was surely eccentric and weird but, far from being a madman, he was also cherished by his fellow citizens in Lodi, on the account of his incredible kindness and generosity. He was a well-loved teacher and a passionate patriot, always worried that his inventions might be useful to the community.
Therefore, as soon as he realized that petrifaction might well have its advantages in the scientific field, but it was neither a practical nor a welcome way of dealing with the deceased, he turned to cremation.
Redefining the way we as a society interact with the departed, bringing attention to the way we treat bodies, focusing on new technologies in the death field – all these modern concerns were already at the core of his research.
He was a man of his time, but also far ahead of it. Gorini the scientist and engineer, devoted to the destiny of the dead, would paradoxically encounter more fertile conditions today than in the 20th century. It’s not hard to imagine him enthusiastically experimenting with alkaline hydrolysis or other futuristic techniques of treating human remains. And even if some of his solutions, such as his petrifaction procedures, are now inevitably dated and detached from contemporary attitudes, they do seem to have been the beginning of a still pertinent urge and of a research that continues today.
Just three days left till the end of the Bizzarro Bazar Contest. I received so many fantastic entries, which you will discover next week when the winners are announced. So if you’re among the procrastinators, hurry up and don’t forget to review the guidelines: this blog has to be explicitly mentioned/portrayed within your work.
On October 1st I will be at Teatro Bonci in Cesena for the CICAP Fest 2017 [CICAP is a skeptical educational organization.]
As this year’s edition will focus on fake news, hoaxes and post-truth, I was asked to bring along some wonders from my wunderkammer — particularly a bunch of objects that lie between truth and lies, between reality and imagination. And, just to be a bit of a rebel, I will talk about creative hoaxes and fruitful conspiracies.
As we are mentioning my collection, I wanted to share my enthusiasm for one of the last arrivals: this extraordinary work of art.
I hear you say “Well, what’s so special about it?“. Oh, you really don’t understand modern art, do you?
This picture, dated 2008, was painted by the famous artist Jomo.
Here’s Jomo as a bronze statuette, acquired along with the painting.
Exactly, you guessed it: from now on I will be able to pull the good old Pierre Brassau prank on my house guests.
I was also glad the auction proceeds for the gorilla painting went to the Toronto Zoo personnel, who daily look after these wonderful primates. By the way, the Toronto Zoo is an active member of the North American Gorilla Species Survival Plan and also works in Africa to save endangered gorillas (who I was surprised to find are facing extinction because of our cellphones).
And now let’s start with our usual selection of goodies:
She’d given me rendez-vous in a graveyard / At midnight – and I went: / Wind was howling, dark was the sky / The crosses stood white before the churchyard; / And to this pale young girl I asked: / – Why did you give me rendez-vous in a graveyard? / – I am dead, she answered, and you do not know: / Would you lay down beside me in this grave? / Many years ago I loved you, alive, / For many a year the merciless tomb sealed me off… / Cold is the ground, my beloved youth! / I am dead, she answered, and you do not know.
This is a poem by Igino Ugo Tarchetti, one of the leading figures in the Scapigliatura, the most bizarre, gothic and “maudit” of all Italian literary movements. (My new upcoming book for the Bizzarro Bazar Collection will also deal, although marginally, with the Scapigliati.)
And let’s move onto shrikes, these adorable little birds of the order of the Passeriformes.
Adorable, yet carnivore: their family name, Laniidae, comes from the Latin word for “butcher” and as a matter of fact, being so small, they need to resort to a rather cruel ploy. After attacking a prey (insects but also small vertebrates), a shrike proceeds to impale it on thorns, small branches, brambles or barbed wire, in order to immobilize it and then comfortably tear it to pieces, little by little, while often still alive — making Vlad Tepes look like a newbie.
Let’s change the subject and talk a bit about sex toys. Sexpert Ayzad compiled the definitive list of erotic novelties you should definitely NOT buy: these ultra-kitsch, completely demented and even disturbing accessories are so many that he had to break them into three articles, one, two and three. Buckle up for a descent into the most schizoid and abnormal part of sexual consumerism (obviously some pics are NSFW).
Up next, culture fetishists: people who describe themselves as “sapiosexuals”, sexually attracted by intelligence and erudition, are every nerd’s dream, every introverted bookworm’s mirage.
But, as this article suggests, choosing an intelligent partner is not really such a new idea: it has been a part of evolution strategies for millions of years. Therefore those who label themselves as sapiosexual on social networks just seem pretentious and eventually end up looking stupid. Thus chasing away anyone with even a modicum of intelligence. Ah, the irony.
Meanwhile The LondoNerD, the Italian blog on London’s secrets, has discovered a small, eccentric museum dedicated to Sir Richard Francis Burton, the adventurer whose life would be enough to fill a dozen Indiana Jones movies. [Sorry, the post is in Italian only]
(Second and last part – you can find the first one here.)
In the Nineteenth Century, wunderkammern disappeared.
The collections ended up disassembled, sold to private citizens or integrated in the newly born modern museums. Scientists, whose discipline was already defined, lost interest for the ancient kind of baroque wonder, perhaps deemed child-like in respect to the more serious postitivism.
This type of collecting continued in sporadic and marginal ways during the first decades of the Twetieth Century. Some rare antique dealer, especially in Belgium, the Netherlands or Paris, still sold some occasional mirabilia, but the golden age of the trade was long gone.
Of the few collectors of this first half of the century the most famous is André Breton, whose cabinet of curiosities is now on permanent exhibit at the Centre Pompidou.
The interest of wunderkammern began to reawaken during the Eighties from two distinct fronts: academics and artists.
On one hand, museology scholars began to recognize the role of wunderkammern as precursors of today’s museal collections; on the other, some artists fell in love with the concept of the chamber of wonders and started using it in their work as a metaphor of Man’s relationship with objects.
But the real upswing came with the internet. The neo-wunderkammer “movement” developed via the web, which opened new possibilities not only for sharing the knowledge but also to revitalize the commerce of curiosities.
Let’s take a look, as we did for the classical collections, to some conceptual elements of neo-wunderkammern.
A Democratic Wunderkammer
The first macroscopic difference with the past is that collecting curiosities is no more an exclusive of wealthy billionaires. Sure, a very-high-profile market exists, one that the majority of enthusiasts will never access; but the good news is that today, anybody who can afford an internet conection already has the means to begin a little collection. Thanks to the web, even a teenager can create his/her own shelf of wonders. All that’s needed is good will and a little patience to comb through the many natural history collectibles websites or online auctions for some real bargain.
There are now children’s books, school activities and specific courses encouraging kids to start this form of exploration of natural wonders.
The result of all this is a more democratic wunderkammer, within the reach of almost any wallet.
We talked about the classic category of exotica, those objects that arrived from distant colonies and from mysterious cultures.
But today, what is really exotic – etymologically, “coming from the outside, from far away”? After all we live in a world where distances don’t matter any more, and we can travel without even moving: in a bunch of seconds and a few clicks, we can virtually explore any place, from a mule track on the Andes to the jungles of Borneo.
This is a fundamental issue for the collectors, because globalization runs the risk of annihilating an important part of the very concept of wonder. Their strategies, conscious or not, are numerous.
Some collectors have turned their eyes towards the only real “external space” that is left — the cosmos; they started looking for memorabilia from the heroic times of the Space Race. Spacesuits, gear and instruments from various space missions, and even fragments of the Moon.
Others push in the opposite direction, towards the most distant past; consequently the demand for dinosaur fossils is in constant growth.
But there are other kinds of new exotica that are closer to us – indeed, they pertain directly to our own society.
Internal exoticism: not really an oxymoron, if we consider that anthropologists have long turned the instruments of ethnology towards the modern Western worold (take for instance Marc Augé). To seek what is exotic within our own cultre is to investigate liminal zones, fringe realities of our time or of the recent past.
Thus we find a recent fascination for some “taboo” areas, related for example to crime (murder weapons, investigative items, serial killer memorabilia) or death (funerary objecs and Victorian mourning apparel); the medicalia sub-category of quack remedies, as for example electric shock terapies or radioactive pharamecutical products.
Building a wunderkammer today is an eminently artistic endeavour. The scientific or anthropological interest, no matter how relevant, cannot help but be strictly connected to aesthetics.
There is a greater general attention to the interplay between the objects than in the past. A painting can interact with an object placed in front of it; a tribal mask can be made to “dialogue” with an other similar item from a completely different tradition. There is undoubtedly a certain dose of postmodern irreverence in this approach; for when pop culture collectibles are allowed entrance to the wunderkammer, ending up exhibited along with precious and refined antiques, the self-righteous art critic is bound to shudder (see for instance Victor Wynd‘s peculiar iconoclasm).
An example I find paradigmatic of this search for a deeper interaction are the “adventurous” juxtapositions experimented by friend Luca Cableri (the man who brought to Moon to Italy); you can read the interview he gave me if you wish to know more about him.
Wearing A Wunderkammer
Fashion is always aware of new trends, and it intercepted some aspects of the world of wunerkammern. Thanks mainly to the goth and dark subcultures, one can find jewelry and necklaces made from naturalistic specimens: on Etsy, eBay or Craigslist, countless shops specialize in hand-crafted brooches, hair clips or other fashion accessories sporting skulls, small wearable taxidermies and so on.
Conceptual Art and Rogue Taxidermists
As we said, the renewed interest also came from the art world, which found in wunderkammern an effective theoretical frame to reflect about modernity.
The first name that comes to mind is of course Damien Hirst, who took advantage of the concept both in his iconic fluid-preserved animals and in his kaleidoscopic compositions of lepidoptera and butterflies; but even his For The Love of God, the well-known skull covered in diamonds, is an excessively precious curiosity that would not have been out of place in a Sixteenth Century treasure chamber.
Hirst is not the only artist taking inspiration from the wunderkammer aesthetics. Mark Dion, for instance, creates proper cabinets of wonders for the modern era: in his work, it’s not natural specimens that are put under formaldeyde, but rather their plastic replicas or even everyday objects, from push brooms to rubber dildos. Dion builds a sort of museum of consumerism in which – yet again – Nature and Culture collide and even at times fuse together, giving us no hope of telling them apart.
In 2013 Rosamund Purcell’s installation recreated a 3D version of the Seventeenth Century Ole Worm Museum: reinvention/replica, postmodern doppelgänger and hyperreal simulachrum which allows the public to step into one of the most famous etchings in the history of wunderkammern.
Besides the “high” art world – auction houses and prestigious galleries – we are also witnessing a rejuvenation of more artisanal sectors.
This is the case with the art of taxidermy, which is enjoying a new youth: today taxidermy courses and workshops are multiplying.
Remember that in the first post I talked about taxidermy as a domestication of the scariest aspects of Nature? Well, according to the participants, these workshops offer a way to exorcise their fear of death on a comfortably small scale, through direct contact and a creative activity. (We shall return on this tactile element.)
A further push towards innovation has come from yet another digital movement, called Rogue Taxidermy.
Initially born as a consortium of three artists – Sarina Brewer, Scott Bibus e Robert Marbury – who were interested in taxidermy in the broadest sense (Marbury does not even use real animals for his creations, but plush toys), rogue taxidermy quickly became an international movement thanks to the web.
The fantastic chimeras produced by these artists are actually meta-taxidermies: by exhibiting their medium in such a manifest way, they seem to question our own relationship with animals. A relationship that has undergone profound changes and is now moving towards a greater respect and care for the environment. One of the tenets of rogue taxidermy is in fact the use of ethically sourced materials, and the animals used in preparations all died of natural causes. (Here’s a great book tracing the evolution and work of major rogue taxidermy artists.)
So we are left with the fundamental question: why are wunderkammern enjoying such a huge success right now, after five centuries? Is it just a retro, nostalgic trend, a vintage frivolous fashion like we find in many subcultures (yes I’m looking at you, my dear hipster friends) or does its attractiveness lie in deeper urgencies?
It is perhaps too soon to put forward a hypothesis, but I shall go out on a limb anyway: it is my belief that the rebirth of wunderkammern is to be sought in a dual necessity. On one hand the need to rethink death, and on the other the need to rethink art and narratives.
(And While We’re At It, Why Not Domesticate It)
Swiss anthropologist Bernard Crettaz was among the first to voice the ever more widespread need to break the “tyrannical secrecy” regarding death, typical of the Twentieth Century: in 2004 he organized in Neuchâtel the first Café mortel, a free event in which participants could talk about grief, and discuss their fears but also their curiosities on the subject. Inspired by Crettaz’s works and ideas, Jon Underwood launched the first British Death Café in 2011. His model received an enthusiastic response, and today almost 5000 events have been held in 50 countries across the world.
Meanwhile, in the US, a real Death-Positive Movement was born.
Originated from the will to drastically change the American funeral industry, criticized by founder Caitlin Doughty, the movement aims at lifting the taboo regarding the subject of death, and promotes an open reflection on related topics and end-of-life issues. (You probably know my personal engagement in the project, to which I contributed now and then: you can read my interview to Caitlin and my report from the Death Salon in Philadelphia).
What has the taboo of death got to do with collecting wonders?
Over the years, I have had the opportunity of talking to many a collector. Almost all of them recall, “as if it were yesterday“, the emotion they felt while holding in their hands the first piece of their collection, that one piece that gave way to their obsession. And for the large majority of them it was a naturalistic specimen – an animal skeleton, a taxidermy, etc.: as a friend collector says, “you never forget your first skull“.
The tactile element is as essential today as it was in classical wunderkammern, where the public was invited to study, examine, touch the specimens firsthand.
Owning an animal skull (or even a human one) is a safe and harmless way to become familiar with the concreteness of death. This might be the reason why the macabre element of wunderkammern, which was marginal centuries ago, often becomes a prevalent aspect today.
Ryan Matthew Cohn collection – photo Dan Howell & Steve Prue, from Morbid Curiosities (courtesy P. Gambino)
Rethinking Art: The Aesthetics Of Wonder
After the decline of figurative arts, after the industrial reproducibility of pop art, after the advent of ready-made art, conceptual art reached its outer limit, giving a coup the grace to meaning. Many contemporary artists have de facto released art not just from manual skill, from artistry, but also from the old-fashioned idea that art should always deliver a message.
Pure form, pure signifier, the new conceptual artworks are problematic because they aspire to put a full stop to art history as we know it. They look impossible to understand, precisely because they are designed to escape any discourse.
It is therefore hard to imagine in what way artistic research will overcome this emptiness made of cold appearance, polished brilliance but mere surface nonetheless; hard to tell what new horizon might open up, beyond multi-million auctions, artistars and financial hikes planned beforehand by mega-dealers and mega-collectors.
To me, it seems that the passion for wunderkammern might be a way to go back to narratives, to meaning. An antidote to the overwhelming surface. Because an object is worth its place inside a chamber of marvels only by virtue of the story it tells, the awe it arises, the vertigo it entails.
I believe I recognize in this genre of collecting a profound desire to give back reality to its lost enchantment.
Lost? No, reality never ceased to be wonderous, it is our gaze that needs to be reeducated.
Eventually, a wunderkammer is just a collection of objects, and we already live submerged in an ocean of objects.
But it is also an instrument (as it once was, as it has always been) – a magnifying glass to inspect the world and ourselves. In these bizarre and strange items, the collector seeks a magical-narrative dimension against the homologation and seriality of mass production. Whether he knows it or not, by being sensitive to the stories concealed within the objects, the emotions they convey, their unicity, the wunderkammer collector is carrying out an act of resistence: because placing value in the exception, in the exotic, is a way to seek new perspectives in spite of the Unanimous Vision.
Why has the new millennium seen the awakening of a huge interest in “cabinets of wonder”? Why does such an ancient kind of collecting, typical of the period between the 1500s and the 1700s, still fascinate us in the internet era? And what are the differences between the classical wunderkammern and the contemporary neo-wunderkammern?
I have recently found myself tackling these subjects in two diametrically opposed contexts.
The first was dead serious conference on disciplines of knowledge in the Early Modern Period, at the University of PAdua; the second, a festival of magic and wonder created by a mentalist and a wonder injector. In this last occasion I prepared a small table with a micro-wunderkammer (really minimal, but that’s what I could fit into my suitcase!) so that after the talk the public could touch and see some curiosities first-hand.
Two traditionally quite separate scenarios – the academic milieu and the world of entertainment – both decided to dedicate some space to the discussion of this phenomenon, which strikes me as indicative of its relevance.
So I thought it might be interesting to resume, in very broad terms, my speech on the subject for the benefit of those who could not attend those meetings.
For practical purposes, I will divide the whole thing into two posts.
In this first one, I will trace what I believe are the key characteristics of historical wunderkammern – or, more precisely, the key concepts worth reflecting upon.
In the next post I will address XXI Century neo-wunderkammern, to try and pinpoint what might be the reasons of this peculiar “rebirth”.
Evidently, the fundamental concept for a wunderkammer, beginning from the name itself, was the idea of wonder; from the aristocratic cabinets of Ferdinand II of Austria or Rudolf II to the more science-oriented ones like Aldrovandi‘s, Cospi‘s, or Kircher‘s, the purpose of all ancient collections was first and foremost to amaze the visitor.
It was a way for the rich person who assembled the wunderkammer to impress his court guests, showing off his opulence and lavish wealth: cabinets of curiosities were actually an evolution of treasure chambers (schatzkammern) and of the great collections of artworks of the 1400s (kunstkammer).
This predilection of rare and expensive objects generated a thriving international commerce of naturalistic and ethnological items cominc from the Colonies.
The Theatre of the World
But wunderkammern were also meant as a sort of microcosm: they were supposed to represent the entirety of the known universe, or at least to hint at the incredibly vast number of creatures and natural shapes that are present in the world. Samuel Quiccheberg, in his treatise on the arrangement of a utopian museum, was the first to use the word “theatre”, but in reality – as we shall see later on – the idea of theatrical representation is one of the cardinal concepts in classical collections.
Because of its ability to represent the world, the wunderkammer was also understood as a true instrument of research, an investigation tool for natural philosophers.
The System of Knowledge
The organization of a huge array of materials did not initially follow any specific order, but rather proceeded from the collector’s own whims and taste. Little by little, though, the idea of cataloguing began to emerge, which at first entailed the distinction between three macro-categories known as naturalia, artificialia and mirabilia, later to be refined and expanded in different other classes (medicalia, exotica, scientifica, etc.).
Medicalia, exotica, scientifica
This ever growing need to distinguish, label and catalogue eventually led to Linnaeus’ taxonomy, to his dispute with Buffon, all the way to Lamarck, Cuvier and the foundation of the Louvre, which marks the birth of the modern museum as we know it.
The Aesthetics of Accumulation
Perhaps the most iconic and well-known aspect of wunderkammern is the cramming of objects, the horror vacui that prevented even the tiniest space from being left empty in the exposition of curiosities and bizarre artifacts gathered around the world.
This excessive aesthetic was not just, as we said in the beginning, a display of wealth, but aimed at astounding and baffling the visitor. And this stunned condition was an essential moment: the wonder at the Universe, that feeling called thauma, proceeds certainly from awe but it is inseparable from a sense of unease. To access this state of consciousness, from which philosophy is born, we need to step outof our comfort zone.
To be suddenly confronted with the incredible imagination of natural shapes, visually “assaulted” by the unthinkable moltitude of objects, was a disturbing experience. Aesthetics of the Sublime, rather than Beauty; this encyclopedic vertigo is the reason why Umberto Eco places wunderkammern among his examples of “visual lists”.
Conservation and Representation
One of the basic goals of collecting was (and still is) the preservation of specimens and objects for study purposes or for posterity. Yet any preservation is already a representation.
When we enter a museum, we cannot be fully aware of the upstream choices that have been made in regard to the exhibit; but these choices are what creates the narrative of the museum itself, the very “tale” we are told room after room.
Multiple options are involved: what specimens are to be preserved, which technique is to be used to preserve them (the result will vary if a biological specimen is dried, texidermied, or put in a preserving fluid), how to group them, how to arrange their exhibit?
It is just like casting the best actors, choosing the stage costumes, a particular set design, and the internal script of the museum.
The most illuminating example is without doubt taxidermy, the ultimate simulacrum: of the original animal nothing is left but the skin, stretched on a dummy which mimics the features and posture of the beast. Glass eyes are applied to make it more convincing. That is to say, stuffed animals are meant to play the part of living animals. And when you think about it, there is no more “reality” in them than in one of those modern animatronic props we see in Natural History Museums.