THE COLLEGE HILL INDEPENDENT


The Best-Laid Schemas of Mice and Men

by by Maud Doyle

illustration by by Emily Martin

“‘Curiouser and curiouser!’ cried Alice (she was so much surprised, that for the moment she quite forgot how to speak good English).” So opens the exhibition “Curiouser” at the Museum of Natural History and Planetarium in Roger Williams Park. For the exhibition, several contemporary artists were asked to go through the museum’s natural history collections and create works using the objects they found there, effectively reinterpreting the Cabinet of Curiosity.
The works on display in “Curiouser” all point to a relationship between art and life: art imitates life, and life—arranged in glass display cases or Rococo cabinetry—becomes art. For The Cabinet of Another Order, Susannah Strong considered an amateur’s study of the museum’s collection as a “work of art,” and assembled the scrap-book pages (drawings, notes, their taxidermied subjects) of an amateur natural historian like a collage. Jennifer Raimondi’s beautiful assemblage Comfort consists of a small, kneeling fawn draped in a blanket of hundreds of delicate grey butterflies, identifying “art” in the objects themselves.

Wild Life
“Cabinets of Curiosities,” private collections that featured everything from antiquities, African masks, and portraits of historical personages to the teeth, claws, and horns of exotic animals, rose to prominence during the Renaissance. The mysteries of the universe, Renaissance collectors felt, could only be represented by “curious,” rare, and exotic objects––giants’ bones, geodes, American Indian moccasins––that encapsulated divine possibilities that more ordinary objects could tween himself
and totality, to transcend the “earthly condition.” The Wunderkammern would render visible the totality of the universe.
So naturally, curiosity was morally interdit. “Curiosity is a harmful science,” wrote Isadore of Seville. “It leads to heresy.” (The “curious sciences” included alchemy, chemistry, and physics.) St. Augustine warned that curiosity, an Eve-like human pursuit, would lead the questioner away from God by asking after what should remain unknown. Even St. Thomas Aquinas differentiated between curiosity and study, study was a virtuous endeavor that pursued only acceptable knowledge; curiosity, a worldly vice. Curiosity is human, and study divine.
Collectors, despite being accused of flying too close to the sun, continued to attempt an encyclopedic record of the universe. The collector Pierre Borel (1620-1671), a doctor from Castres, called his Wunderkammer the Elysian Fields––a room full of dead things brought back to life: snake skins, giants’ bones, fishs’ skeletons, antiquities, preserved birds, insects in amber, fossils, fruits, flowers, fragments of stone. They played Noah, if not God himself, attempting to recreate all the wonder of the universe in their library.
Collecting provided, then as now, a move towards immortality. The amassing of objects satisfied the human desire to record the world in which we live. Those records were, in turn, immortalized in commissioned etchings and paintings of the Wunderkammern. The reproductions detailed each object meticulously, delineating the vast universe in a single image. Etchings included Venuses, Cupids, and all the historical figures who had visited the collection over time––as though the gaze of important visitors was not attest to.
From 1550 to 1750, a time suspended between widespread religious acceptance and the more contemporary scientific belief in method and organization, these Kunst- und Wunderkammern (Art and Wonder Cabinets) sprang up across Europe in the hundreds, driven by exploration of new worlds and the rise of a comparatively secular intelligentsia. Chambers with stuffed alligators hanging from the ceilings and corals lining the walls were meant to be encyclopedic records of the world’s wonders.
In Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, the wonders of the natural world defied rationality. The early collectors of the 16th century, too, felt that the world exceeded human category; unlike the collectors of today’s museums, they did not distinguish between the natural and the man-made––the collection was meant to chronicle the entire universe, including human history. This was an era in which people still believed in God-made miracles; they did not believe in categorical laws of nature, but rather in the infinite variation of form.
Such collections housed images and objects that were rejected by official public collections (those of the state) and the collections of the standard-setting Church. Eventually, these collections would be opened up to the public, becoming the first modern “museums” as we understand them. (It wasn’t until 1770, when Joseph II of Austria opened the Hofberg collection as a natural history museum, that any collections were freely opened to the broad public.)

Animal Humanism
French author Antoine Furetière defined a “Curieux” as “he who wishes to know everything.” Possession and knowledge of curieux, or rare objects, were means for the individual to form a relationship between himself and totality, to transcend the “earthly condition.” The Wunderkammern would render visible the totality of the universe.
So naturally, curiosity was morally interdit. “Curiosity is a harmful science,” wrote Isadore of Seville. “It leads to heresy.” (The “curious sciences” included alchemy, chemistry, and physics.) St. Augustine warned that curiosity, an Eve-like human pursuit, would lead the questioner away from God by asking after what should remain unknown. Even St. Thomas Aquinas differentiated between curiosity and study, study was a virtuous endeavor that pursued only acceptable knowledge; curiosity, a worldly vice. Curiosity is human, and study divine.
Collectors, despite being accused of flying too close to the sun, continued to attempt an encyclopedic record of the universe. The collector Pierre Borel (1620-1671), a doctor from Castres, called his Wunderkammer the Elysian Fields––a room full of dead things brought back to life: snake skins, giants’ bones, fishs’ skeletons, antiquities, preserved birds, insects in amber, fossils, fruits, flowers, fragments of stone. They played Noah, if not God himself, attempting to recreate all the wonder of the universe in their library.
Collecting provided, then as now, a move towards immortality. The amassing of objects satisfied the human desire to record the world in which we live. Those records were, in turn, immortalized in commissioned etchings and paintings of the Wunderkammern. The reproductions detailed each object meticulously, delineating the vast universe in a single image. Etchings included Venuses, Cupids, and all the historical figures who had visited the collection over time––as though the gaze of important visitors was
another object to be chronicled. Reproductions transformed the collections into allegories for man’s ability to apprehend art and nature: trans-temporal renderings that set the cabinets outside of history while simultaneously making them part of it.
Toward the end of the 1770s, around the same time museums became a phenomenon, Wunderkammern grew increasingly rare. Natural history collections were still amassed, perhaps even more impressively, but the purpose was no longer with God, but with science. Wonder gave way to dim Victorian practicality, and the curiosities were tamed by glass cases and butterfly pins. Curiosity was supplanted by method.

Earthly Works
The tension between the Wunderkammern as a timeless preservation of objects and artifacts, and as a historical moment (as seen by the inclusion of famous visitors in their reproductions) continues to be played out in art museums today. In the 1970s, the art critic Harold Rosenberg described the original conception of the museum: “In Malraux’s view, the museum stands above the torments and defeat that the iron determinism of history inflicts on the man of action. Its sacred obligation is to compile and keep intact the record of human freedom and creativeness.” This emphasis on the timelessness of preservable, collectable, recordable art, which exists outside of history, has given way in the face of contemporary art, which seeks to combine art and life (again).
While the contemporary art of amalgamation does not reflect the same God-made universe that Pierre Borel’s 17th-century collection did, it does seek to describe the contemporary human universepop culture, society, the Modern masters. These works of amalgamation--exemplified across the century by major figures like Arman, Man Ray, Joseph Cornell, Kurt Schwitters, Robert Rauschenberg, and Damien Hirst--often treats contemporary objects as collectable specimens. Kurt Schwitters built a veritable Cabinet of Curiosities in the Merzbau, a modern interpretation of the grotto constructed entirely with found materials over a period of ten years (1923-33), which included work by his contemporaries (Hannah Höch and Raoul Hausmann, for example) alongside odd objects. Damien Hirst has arranged hundreds of pills as though chronicling the variations of a species.
While man-made objects have come to dominate the contemporary landscape, natural specimens are still often figured as particularly breathtaking elements. Several of Rauschenberg’s combines––assemblages of found objects that combine sculpture and painting––feature taxidermied animals, such as the large Angora goat with a tire around its middle that dominates Monogram, or the bald eagle featured in Canyon. In each case, he bought the creature before conceiving of the painting or sculpture it would belong to—it took him five years to get from a stuffed goat to the complete Monogram. The success of Hirst’s Butterfly Paintings, in all their mock-religious wonder at transcendent specimens, attests to our continued fascination with the varieties of the natural world. Phaidon’s monumental 2001 rendition of Albertus Seba’s Cabinet of Natural Curiosities, the massive record of drawings from Seba’s collection, graces gleaming coffee tables everywhere.

Natural Collection
The Rennaissance curieux treated nature as inherently metaphorical. Each natural object was already gifted with meaning or signification––a work of art in and of itself. Collecting and preserving nature is as much an exercise in display and arrangement as it is one of possession––that is, it is an art work of amalgamation as much as Schwitters’s highly regarded Merzbau.
Alison Owen’s piece for “Curiouser” mounts objects’ dissociated labels (labels that have become separated from their object) on butterfly pins and arranges them in reimagined configurations of species and subspecies––by color, handwriting, and typeface. She relished the humanity of the labels. “On each successive visit,” she says, “the museum seemed less sterile, less objective, and much more subjective, human, fragile.” She asks, “Why do we collect things?” Fritz Karch, the editor of collecting at the Martha Stewart Living magazine, says, “You go back to primitive life—it’s like hunters and gatherers. Some people are wired some ways and some the other. I’m double wired. I love the hunt and I love to gather.” Amassing the objects of our world, chronicled in contemporary artworks and ancient wonder rooms, is a human instinct.

MAUD DOYLE B’11 is curiouser.