Art Cabinet of Gustavus Adolphus

Whilst in Sweden I also managed to visit the art cabinet of Gustavus Adolphus, an incredible piece that has fascinated me for many years. Made in Augsburg, the cabinet was given as a gift to the Swedish King for liberating the town during the thirty years war, and it is now on view at Uppsala University. It is a monumental cabinet, filled with exotic objects, incorporating a music box, and surmounted by an extraordinary profusion of shells and a richly decorated seychelles nut. The base even hides a removable table, which can be used to view all of the items included within.

Normally the term ‘cabinet’ refers either to an item of furniture or a collection, but in this instance it encompasses both the elaborate container and the incredible objects within. It belongs to the tradition of the cabinet of curiosities, the princely collections of bizarre and marvellous objects compiled in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. These collections were understood as microcosms of the wider world, and they included both man-made and natural wonders, including many exotic items bought to Europe by the ever expanding trade networks. They embody the way in which knowledge was acquired and understood in the early modern period, as the juxtaposition of disparate objects invited infinite comparisons. Each item could then be categorised in terms of its similarities and differences with other items, and could be mapped accordingly in this complex web of knowledge.

Most cabinets of curiosities were compiled by wealthy and learned collectors, people who had the means and the interest needed to amass these wondrous items. This example is unusual as it was not put together by it’s future owner, Gustavus Adolphus, King of Sweden, but by Phillip Hainhofer, an Augsburg merchant, shown on the wood inlay panel above inspecting one of his cabinets. Hainhofer was an extraordinary figure, who made a career out of collecting; he is known to have compiled many of these cabinets, although this is the only complete example extant today. His collections came housed in custom built cabinets, making full use of the highly skilled Augsburg craftsmen, renowned internationally for their cabinets.

Whilst perhaps not the most attractive piece of furniture, the Uppsala cabinet is a testament to the exceptional skills of these Augsburger artisans. The very fabric of the cabinet reflects the meeting of artificialia (craftsmanship) and naturalia (natural wonders) that encapsulates the ethos of these collections. It incorporates inlays of precious and exotic materials, artfully arranged into images of flowers and animals and also includes pieces of stone that have been overpainted with biblical scenes. Here, the artist has used the natural patterns in a slice of alabaster to represent tumultuous waves, as Moses closes the Red Sea, drowning the Pharaoh’s army.

The placement of Hainhofer’s collections inside actual cabinets (when many ‘cabinets of curiosities’ would have been housed in full sized rooms) placed a limitation on the size of the items included. For this reason, the cabinet contains many miniature items, including this pair of dolls and tiny bird house. These miniatures would have been a great novelty, and are now understood as a precursor to the elaborate Dutch cabinet houses and English dolls’ houses of the later seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

Explore the piece further on this website, where you can look through the different compartments of the cabinet (only available in Swedish).

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Swedish Ceramic Stoves at Drottningholm

Sweden is as famous for it’s clever design as it’s inhospitable winter climate, so it comes as no surprise that the Swedes developed their own stylish solution to heating their homes effectively – the kakelugn, or ceramic stove. These stoves were developed in the mid eighteenth century by the inventor Carl Johan Cronstedt, who increased the heat output of the traditional wood burning stove eight fold through a system of winding flues.

The stoves were built of masonry and clad in ceramic tiles, which were not only attractive but also captured and retained the heat without becoming too hot to touch. The stoves went on to have great social and environmental impact, allowing people to heat their homes much more cheaply and reducing the decimation of ancient forests.

Carl Johan Cronstedt was a royal engineer, and oversaw many of the eighteenth century alterations at Drottningholm palace, where these stoves were photographed. Drottningholm is not the most appealing of royal palaces – the parts on view to the public are gloomy and overblown in equal measure, with lots of tromp l’oeil marble and dubious ceiling paintings. Among the heavy handed baroque interiors, the pretty blue-and-white stoves lend a sense of lightness, recalling a more informal (and more inviting) domestic space.

Vasa Museum, Stockholm

I’m in Stockholm this week, a beautiful city set across a series of small islands. One of these, Djurgarden, is home to many of the city’s museums, from Skansen, a historical village and zoo, to the Waldermarsudde, the former resident of the painting and art collecting Prince Eugens. Perhaps the most extraordinary of these is the Vasa Museum, an institution dedicated to an enormous warship, sunk in Stockholm harbour on its maiden voyage in 1628, now salvaged and on display in the central hall of the museum.

The Vasa was commissioned by Gustav II Adolf, King of Sweden, at the height of the Thirty Years War (1618-48), and was meant to be the most powerful warship ever built. Designed with two gun decks, and loaded with heavy artillery, it would have been a formidable force had it ever made it out to open water. Unfortunately Gustav’s plans proved over ambitious, and the ship only travelled 1300 metres before capsizing due to a lack of ballast.

Entering the museum now, the great, hulking body of the ship makes an incredible impression of size and grandeur. It is encrusted in elaborate allegorical carvings, which would once have been brightly painted and even gilded. Soaked in sea water for centuries, these sculptures have been mottled and darkened, lending an air of decay and otherworldliness to the vast ship. The gruesome visages and grimacing lions were once meant to signify the supreme power of the Swedish King; now they seem only to speak of his fatal folly.

Asian Art Week – Ben Janssens

Also exhibiting in Asian Art Week is Ben Janssens, who has a wonderful selection of Chinese boxes on display. These include enamel, ivory tortoiseshell and hardwood examples, although the real highlight of the exhibition is the group of carved lacquer boxes. Carved lacquer dates back as far as the Tang dynasty (618-907) although it reached a peak during the reign of Emperor Qianlong (1735-96), who was such a fan of the medium that he when he died he had his coffin decorated with it. Many of the pieces on show date from this period, including this exquisite example in double peach form.

Peaches are a symbol of longevity, also referred to here by the pine tree and the wan characters (swastikas) carved around the side of the box. Indeed, the piece is full of  symbolism, as the central motif of boys playing in a garden alludes to a desire for many sons. Chinese boxes are often decorated with such auspicious signs, suggesting that they were given as gifts, as they could be used to convey messages of harmony and goodwill. Here, this symbolism is coupled with a charming realism, as the boys to the right rush towards their playmate, one carrying his shoe, whilst their companion carries his peach branch in his mouth to make his climb easier. There is also a delightful play of texture across the surface of the box, as the craftsmen effectively contrasts areas of smooth, polished lacquer with extremely intricate carving.

Lacquer is a coloured varnish, and needs to be built up gradually with many thin layers. Each layer must be completely dry before the next can be applied, and it takes months to achieve a piece of lacquer thick enough to carve. This striking example extends this process, incorporating layers of green and ochre lacquer, which are revealed as the upper layer of red is cut away. The craftsmen have even included two layers of green, one beneath the top, red layer, and another beneath the ochre. This adds a dramatic sense of depth to the box, particularly where the red surface designs give way to the lower green layer, as can be seen in the central panel and in the lozenges displaying the attributes of the Eight Immortals. The depth of the cutting almost creates a sense that these red motifs are floating above the box, an apt effect for the banks of clouds and flying dragons.

Asian Art Week – Rossi & Rossi

It’s Asian Art Week this week and there are free talks and exhibitions on in museums, private galleries and auction houses across London. Many of the galleries are clustered around Mayfair, St James and Kensington Church Street, so that strolling down a single street you might come into contact with ancient Chinese ceramics, or a group of imagined Indian cityscapes. With European art still dominating so much of the art historical discourse in this country, it’s great to be able to explore many different areas of this eclectic field, as pieces old and new, and from across the continent are on display. ‘Asian art’ may be a broad term, but the exhibitions themselves are highly specialised, often focusing on a particular country or period, a certain set of objects, or perhaps the work of one artist. By looking in more depth at these individual artistic traditions, we can gain a better understanding of the richness and diversity of Asian art as a whole.

At Rossi & Rossi the exhibition Tibetan Spirit combines works by the contemporary artist Ang Tsherin Sherpa with traditional Thangka paintings. At first glance, Sherpa’s works appear very much grounded in the international milieu of the contemporary art scene; his flat, graphic style and use of pop culture images recalls the superflat movement, lead by Takeshi Murakami, whilst his inclusion of butterflies and polka dots is redolent of Damien Hirst.

However, Sherpa’s works are also steeped in the traditions of Tibetan art, as Sherpa himself trained as a Thangka painter. Thangkas are Tibetan scroll paintings, and they commonly depict Buddhist deities, often laid out in prescriptive geometric forms. Details such as hand movements are imbued with great spiritual significance, and must be replicated with precision by the Thangka artists. Works like Expression, 2012, betray Sherpa’s fluency with this symbolic language, as he highlights the communicative power of hands and feet, granting them their own autonomous power. The myriad of hand positions on display clearly have very potent meanings, and as an outsider their obscurity only contributes further to a sense of mysterious, magical power.

Thangka paintings continue to have great resonance for Tibetan Buddhists, and are still used for didactic and ritual purposes and, perhaps most importantly, as meditation aides. It is fascinating to see a contemporary artist drawing from a spiritual and artistic tradition that is both historical and ongoing, an idea highlighted by the older Thangka paintings included in the exhibition. Sherpa is not just drawing influence from Tibetan Buddhist art; as a trained Thangka painter, he is very much an active part of this institution. Such an idea is almost unimaginable in Western art, which broke from the church long ago. Contemporary artists may utilize the conventions of earlier Christian art (as Sherpa does with his gold leaf backgrounds, recalling the sacred space of gothic paintings) but there is no such sense of continuity. Sherpa imbues his work with the historical and religious weight of a visual culture that stretches back centuries, but he does so with a lightness and wit that is entirely his own.

Emperor Qianlong by Giuseppe Castiglione

Emperor Qianlong by Giuseppe Castiglione

A friend of mine just introduced me to these extraordinary paintings, by the Jesuit painter Giuseppe Castiglione, working in the Chinese court of Emperor Qianlong. Castiglione combines Chinese artistic tradition with European techniques, creating hybrid images that transcend cultural boundaries. With their flat, graphic areas, and Asian themes, they are firmly in the Chinese taste, although they use three dimensional modelling more in keeping with Western tradition. The resultant paintings look incredibly modern, and it seems almost unbelievable that they were painted in the first half of the eighteenth century.