November 2012

Noah Charney


A Cabinet of Rarities: Antiquarian Obsession and the Spell of Death by Patrick Mauriès, illustrations by Erik Desmazières

A postcard of an invented Carpaccio painting leans against a bookshelf lined with inviting leather-bound tomes, while an elaborate polygon of paper hangs from a thread, swinging its angular shadow before the shelf. A man with bound drafting paper under his arm gestures to the center of a circular labyrinth, edged by a wooden sphere and a stone polygon, both lifted from Albrecht Dürer's seminal puzzle-print Melancolia I. A collection of multi-sized busts lines an artist's studio, in the Vermeer vein, with a large bottle-glass window on the left, in which flows southern sunlight. The skull of Sir Thomas Browne, seventeenth century collector and author, rests in profile against several books; a tinted photo-negative image of it lies below, flipped as if glimpsed in a mirror.

These are some of the striking etchings by contemporary Moroccan artist Erik Desmazières. The etchings have a Renaissance century feel to them, recalling the dreamscapes of Hypnerotomachia Poliphilii, and Dürer's master prints (although Dürer worked in the far more difficult medium of engraving, rather than etching). The work of Desmazières, which regularly sells out to an enthusiastic niche of collectors, is marvelous and mesmerizing, particularly the aforementioned Labyrinth II (2003) and The Skull of Sir Thomas Browne (2010). The first section of Patrick Mauriès's text in A Cabinet of Rarities focuses on Desmazières as an anachronistic modern master working in a style that is considered very much passé -- how many etchers can you name today? The second part of Mauriès's book takes a cue from Desmazières etching, The Skull of Sir Thomas Browne, to discuss a (very) brief history of cabinets of curiosities and, in more detail, the career of the under-rated Browne, who was praised by Samuel Johnson and who produced some seven wonderfully weird books, largely about esoteric knowledge.

Cabinets of curiosities (also called wunderkammer, or cabinets of wonders) are a fascinating topic. The predecessors to modern museums, they showcased the private collections of Early Modern intellectuals and scientists, who would display in a room (or literally on open-shelved cabinets) objéts a réaction poétiques that they had found during their travels. These displays were at once meant to be a point of discussion for the collector and his guests, and a showcase of natural and manmade wonders, or irregularities, that seemed exceptions to the rules of nature. They regularly combined objects of natural history with those of archaeology or art. Items that might include: petrified wood, fire coral, a pearl, skulls (human and monkey, and sometimes monkey skulls labeled as pygmy humans), a Roman dodecahedron, a narwhal tusk, a desiccated seahorse, ancient coins, and so on. The only rule seems to have been that the objects should inspire thought or wonder. These "cabinets" rose to popularity in the sixteenth century and shot further during the Enlightenment, with the human interest in science and Reason: in labeling, compartmentalizing, defining the natural world. We should not forget that "to define" means "to set boundaries around," and, whether in the pages of an encyclopedia or in boxes in a literal cabinet, humans felt able to exert some control over that which was inexplicable, by applying terms, phylum, laws of nature, to come to grips with what they saw. These explanations would often prove incorrect, and were susceptible to makeshift fakes: the infamous Piltdown Man Skull found in a gravel pit in England and thought to represent the "missing link" between apes and humans turned out to be a man's skull with an ape's jaw affixed to it, but had met with significant acclaim as an authentic specimen. A narwhal tusk was thought to be an elusive unicorn's horn. Whether or not the scientist provided a true explanation for the object on display, the power of Reason was exerted over the natural wonder, empowering the human: all in fitting with Enlightenment philosophy.

The most famous wunderkammer of all was the size of an entire aristocratic court. Rudolf II of Prague, while not much of a politician, was a world-class collector of the bizarre. At his court in sixteenth century Prague, he gathered a human wunderkammer, including midgets; magicians (the famous spy-sorcerer John Dee and the memory palace builder Giordano Bruno); creators of other-worldly paintings (Arcimboldo, who spun portraits out of painted flowers and vegetables); mechanical marvels (an automaton that played chess like a master); and natural wonders, including a giant octopus kept in a huge saltwater tank and a brigade of penguins. It must have been a sight to see for privileged courtiers.

Fast-forward to the nineteenth century, and cabinets of curiosities began to be open to the general public, for a small price. These rose in popularity in line with circuses and what might be called "freak shows," featuring Siamese twins, bearded ladies, human cannonballs, flea circuses, and more -- some real, some doctored, but all there to titillate the viewers, like Ripley's Believe It Or Not!, minus the intellectual advancement angle of past centuries. P. T. Barnum offered a famous variation on a cabinet, which was so fascinating that he could not get his visitors to leave in a timely fashion. To fix this, he erected a sign that read "This Way to the Egress," which his visitors assumed was another exhibit, perhaps of an exotic bird, not knowing that "egress" was a fancy word for "exit."

The second part of Patrick Mauriès's text focuses on the keeper of a sort of cabinet, Sir Thomas Browne (1605-1682). Browne was author of books like Religio Medici (1643), in which he discussed witches and angels; Pseudodoxia Epidemica (1646), which ironically sought to correct the many popular incorrect beliefs of the time (Browne thought that witches and angels were very real indeed); the archaeologically-sound Urn Burial (1658), about ancient burial techniques in the author's region of Norfolk, which Samuel Johnson mocked as a topic of little interest to anyone; and Musaeum Clausum (Sealed Museum), Browne's most intriguing work, published posthumously and purporting to describe lost books, paintings, and curiosities. This latter text inspired the likes of Jorge Luis Borges, who wrote of Browne's book: "To write vast books is a laborious nonsense, much better is to offer a summary as if those books actually existed." Mauriès finishes his text with a third section, in which we learn that Sir Thomas Browne's own skeleton was exhumed, circa 1920, and his skull sold off to a surgeon, thereby taking its place in someone else's "cabinet." Mauriès discusses Borges, Kafka, and G. K. Chesteron as descendants of Browne, whose books, one might say, formed a printed-and-bound version of a cabinet of curiosities.

Patrick Mauriès, author of the far more robust Cabinets of Curiosities, provides text that feels a little lean. We learn of the career and niche popularity of Erik Desmazières, we see some examples of his fine work (though thirty-eight illustrations seems mean, for what is essentially an art book), and a good portion of text is dedicated to Sir Thomas Browne. The text winds up being more about Browne (who is certainly an interesting figure), with relatively little to bring Desmazières to life. Perhaps the title is misleading; a flip through the book suggests that it will either be a showcase of the etchings of Desmazières, or an extended essay on cabinets of curiosities. In effect it is neither.

Desmazières's fine work provides welcome illustrations that do not always feel relevant to the text, and while Mauriès writes well on the subjects he touches, largely Thomas Browne, one is left with little sense of the overall history of cabinets of curiosities, or the subtitle: "antiquarian obsession and the spell of death." Aside from the ironic situation of Browne's own skull being featured in an exhibit much like those about which he wrote two centuries prior, we are not offered much in terms of depth or breadth about anyone or anything aside from the work of Thomas Browne. Perhaps because Browne is not a household name, he is not mentioned in the subtitle? The title itself also feels a bit forced. These homemade exhibits of unusual things were usually called "cabinets of curiosities" or wunderkammer, not "rarities." A Cabinet of Rarities is not problematic as a title in itself, but it suggests that the publishers sought to come up with something that would not exactly duplicate the more interesting and deeper previous publication by the same author and publisher, Cabinets of Curiosities. A publisher doesn't want two books with practically the same title, and so they swapped out "Curiosities" and inserted "Rarities." I propose that a better title, or at least subtitle, would be: On Thomas Browne and Antiquarian Obsession. It has less of the lure of the current subtitle, but is more honest to the content.

A Cabinet of Rarities: Antiquarian Obsession and the Spell of Death by Patrick Mauriès, illustrations by Erik Desmazières
Thames & Hudson
ISBN: 978-0500516348
110 pages

Noah Charney is a best-selling author and professor of art history. He invites you to join him on his blog, The Secret History of Art, or on Facebook. His latest book is Stealing the Mystic Lamb: the True Story of the World's Most Coveted Masterpiece.