You can barely walk into a museum these days without being confronted by an eerie-eyed raven or a monkey’s shrunken head. From Margate to Nottingham, from Hackney to Bradford, exhibition spaces are filling up with a macabre menagerie of dead things – from bones and beasts to stuffed birds. Indeed, next week the Milton Keynes Gallery will join the trend, opening a modern “cabinet of curiosities” that will set paintings by Gainsborough, Millais, Warhol and David Bowie next to taxidermied pelicans, medieval maps, and even an Aston Martin DB4, much like the one driven by James Bond in the 1960s.
Some might blame this wilfully digressive trend on over-active curatorial imaginations and the legacy of Damien Hirst’s death-obsessed exploitation of natural-history specimens. Others might point to rising starPolly Morgan’s reinvention of taxidermy as a fine art. But such eclectic tastes are in fact nothing new. From the Renaissance to the 18th century, the cabinet of curiosities celebrated the act of collection for its own sake, in an almost haphazard accumulation of natural-history specimens and other bizarre objects. Crocodiles were hung from rafters, skulls (animal and human) vied for shelf space with toads supposedly found alive in rocks – and then there were the “mermaids”, composed of monkey torsos sewn to fish tails. These items invariably came from far-flung, semi-mythic places: from the ultima thule of the Arctic to the mysterious reaches of the far east; from profound oceans to impenetrable jungles where any kind of monster might lurk.
Among the most famous cabinets was the one assembled by the 17th-century Danish physician Ole Worm, which included everything from dangling polar bears to birds of paradise – but also ethnographic itemsillustrating the variety of human races. Worm’s intention was as aesthetic as it was instructive, reflecting a catholic, Renaissance sensibility. Only with the advent of strictly demarcated disciplines – science in one corner, art in another – would the cabinet come to be outmoded in the 19th century; although it had its last hurrah, perhaps, in the extraordinary Pitt Rivers collection in Oxford.
Cabinets of curiosities were a strange bridge between atavistic myth and dawning scientific reality. As such, their revival speaks to our own vexed relationship with the natural world, at a time when we seem bent on destroying it – partly as a result, some might say, of the schism between science and art. However, few of the contemporary artists attempting to emulate the exotic appeal of the wunderkammer (wonder cabinet) could compete with what is happening in continental Europe, where curators have some of the most famous works of art in the world to play with.
The sprawling halls of the Prado in Madrid are usually filled with heaving tour groups being led by the nose from one lustrous masterpiece to another. Today, they have been stopped in their tracks. Standing in front of Rubens’s Rape of Europa is a full-sized, majestic, stuffed bull. The beast’s horns point dangerously towards the painting, ready to impale the turbulent body of Europa as if she were a matador. Yet, surreal as it is, there’s something rather apt about the intrusion of this glassy-eyed animal. The Prado was originally created as a natural-history museum to house specimens brought as tributes to the Spanish royal family from around their empire. It was, in effect, a giant cabinet of curiosities.
Which is what it has become again. Three hundred years on, Natural Histories, a monumental exhibition by the Madrid-born contemporary artist Miguel Angel Blanco, echoes that spirit while taking it to another level. “My intention was not to invade the museum,” says Blanco of his project, three years in the making. Rather, he sought to provoke an “alchemical process”.
And so, as well as the in-your-face bull, a dolphin skeleton now hangs from the dome of the museum’s sculpture court, casting its looming shadow over a massive marble Venus and her dolphin. “It’s jumping like a leviathan,” says Blanco, “as it prepares to swallow the goddess.” Elsewhere, a golden eagle soars through vaulted arches. A portrait of Charles II of Spain, who believed himself bewitched and had himself exorcised, is faced by a mysterious round Aztec mirror carved from pitch-black obsidian, as if to reflect the evil spirits within the possessed emperor.
Another installation – featuring a lusty 17th-century oil of Orpheus charming the animals in the forest, with his kit off for some unaccountable reason – riffs on the myth of the unicorn. A narwhal tusk, almost three metres long, sits next to the painting. Such tusks, the erupted teeth of Arctic whales, were once touted around Europe as relics of unicorns. They were worth 20 times their weight in gold: the one owned by Elizabeth I could have bought her a new castle.
A cabinet of curiosities was part-witches’ cave, part-apothecary’s chamber and part-science lab. Thus, one of the Prado set-pieces incorporates Goya’s The Witches’ Sabbath: a fabulously gothic depiction of a gathering of witches attended by Satan in the form of a goat. Blanco has responded to Goya’s work by assembling a vitrine containing the ingredients for the hideous crones’ potions: bat skeleton, preserved snakes and toads, all labelled with their scientific names.
A Prado installation in front of the Antón Meng workshop’s His Majesty’s Anteater. Photograph: Pedro Martinez De Albornoz
The modern trend for the cabinet shows little sign of slowing down. Curiosity and the Art of Knowing – a brilliant show curated by Brian Dillon that has just left the Castle Museum in Norwich bound for Amsterdam – has as its star exhibit the overstuffed carcass of a walrus. Aquatopia, a watery-themed show currently at Tate St Ives, mixes priceless Turners and contemporary sea-themed film pieces with carved sperm whale teeth and 19th-century diving helmets.
Meanwhile, at Corsham Court in Somerset, artist Angela Cockayne recently restored an original cabinet of curiosities she found hidden in the building’s Elizabethan cellars: a dusty trove of bird skulls, shells and butterfly wings. As a result, Cockayne curated the wonderfully allusiveProvenance, with works by Mat Collishaw, Gavin Turk and Tessa Farmer. Farmer’s miniature winged humans, attacking wasps under glass domes like something from a microscopic horror movie, are a particularly effective evocation of the spirit of the wunderkammer.
Literature, too, has picked up the challenge – from Amy Leach’s Things That Are, drawing on animals, plants and constellations alike, to Caspar Henderson’s Book of Barely Imagined Beings, a fantastical but scientifically rooted compendium, subtitled A 21st Century Bestiary. The awful contemporary relevance of the theme is inescapable: busily exterminating species as we are, our modern cabinets are being rapidly denuded. The very idea of collection is generally tantamount to appropriation – in the Prado’s case, fine art paid for by gold and silver stolen from Spain’s Central and South American empire.
The side effects of modern capitalism, now plundering the planet like some kleptocratic emperor of old, are even more far-reaching: from the 4,000-year-old coral spires destroyed by deep-sea trawling to proposals to drill for oil in the Arctic, not to mention suggestions that the newly discovered volcanic vents in oceanic trenches (the last vestiges of virgin territory on Earth, where life itself might have started) are about to could be mined for rare metals.. Some estimates put the rate of species loss at 100,000 a year and rising. In this light, a contemporary cabinet would contain specimens that will have gone extinct within our own lifetimes. Collecting as preservation or predation? Art, as ever, only asks the question.
Of all the modern artist-curator-collectors, one stands out for the eccentricity and extremity of his habit. Viktor Wynd is the grandson of the novelist Patrick O’Brian (who himself wrote a biography of perhaps the greatest collector of the 18th century, Sir Joseph Banks). His Little Shop of Horrors in Hackney, London, presents an up-to-date collection of curiosities. Visitors are greeted by more taxidermied beasts, from crows to hyenas; the faint-hearted are advised not to proceed downstairs, into Wynd’s dim and dungeon-like cellar, which contains two-headed babies and antique pornography. (There’s a long tradition of such shock exhibits – guests arriving at the home of the celebrated 18th-century anatomist and collector John Hunter were greeted by the preserved erect penis of a hanged man in his hallway.)
Wynd is about to publish Viktor Wynd’s Cabinet of Curiosities, a glossy tome celebrating his obsession with collecting. He is currently trekking in the cloud forests of West Papua, hunting for carnivorous plants. “What can I say?” he replies to my email asking for details. “My house and my shop are cabinets of curiosity designed to fill my every waking moment with distraction from the boredom and misery of my life and keep me filled with wonder.” And with that, Wynd adjusts his gaiters, and sets off in search of new specimens for his ever-expanding cabinet. Its contents may well be the last of their kind.
THIS ARTICLE WAS WRITTEN BY PHILIP HOARE AND PUBLISHED JANUARY 14 IN THE GUARDIAN NEWSPAPER.