‘Extraordinary Stories about Ordinary Things’ – the New Permanent Collection Gallery at the Design Museum

Here is my review of the new permanent collection gallery at the Design Museum. The collection obviously includes some interesting pieces, but the overall structure of the exhibition is weak at best. There are also some bizarre curatorial decisions – in particular championing luxurious and rarified objects in an exhibition that claims to represent ‘ordinary things.’ To be honest, I would postpone a visit until 2014, when the collection will be available to view free of charge at the Design Museum’s new home on Kensington High Street. Certainly, the ticket price of £11.80 doesn’t represent good value in a city where the majority of museums (including the design powerhouse that is the V&A) are free.

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Death: A Self Portrait at the Wellcome Collection

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This quirky exhibition is at once a testament to one man’s obsession and an exploration of that most universal of human themes: death. It displays some 300 pieces from the private collection of Richard Harris, all linked through their treatment of the iconography of death, a concept most commonly expressed here through skulls, skeletons and decomposing bodies. These repeated motifs certainly lend an overarching coherence to the collection, lending a commonality to works from disparate periods and places, and creating the sense of death as a universal theme.

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Despite this, certain historical milieu dominate, and death ultimately appears as a concept that has held more importance for some cultural groups than others, for example appearing more regularly in the art of the Northern Renaissance than in it’s Italian counterpart. Perhaps for this reason, many of the more artistically important items in the collection are Germanic or Netherlandish, with an elaborate vanitas still life by Adriaen van Utrecht and a portrait by Barthel Bruyn the Elder, painted on the reverse with a skull and a mometo mori, among the more sophisticated pieces. Albrecht Dürer’s work is also well represented, alluding both to a particular preoccupation with death in the tumultuous world of reformation Germany, and to Harris’ own past as a dealer of antique prints.

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Another period in which Harris shows particular interest is the Weimar era, when artists so recently exposed to the horrors of the First World War struggled to reconcile their newly intimate knowledge of death and the human body with their return to civilian life. Their responses vary from George Grosz’s ‘Faces of Death’ collage (above), which wittily intersperses skulls into scenes of every day life, to the gory horror of Otto Dix’s ‘War’ series, which depicts the trauma of trench warfare with an unflinching brutality (below).

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Despite this more in depth analysis of certain periods’ attitudes towards death, ultimately the exhibition’s treatment of this subject feels a little superficial. It is impossible to stand before the war inspired art of Dix and Goya and feel unmoved by humanity’s fragility, but other pieces on display lack the same impact. Whilst a skull might have evoked profound feelings of dread to a devout sixteenth century German, used to high infant mortality and mass epidemics and concerned about the ever-lasting welfare of his soul, to a modern audience the skull has become little more than an empty symbol. In our own society we all too often brush death and dying aside, and as such it is hard to empathise with a culture like the German Renaissance, where death was an accepted and expected side of life.

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The popular image of death as a skull or skeleton continues to hold sway today, and could even be said to be going through something of a resurgence, with blogs like morbid anatomy feeding a desire for the macabre, and hipsters emulating a Mexican, day of the dead aesthetic each Halloween. However, this fashionable adoption of the iconography of death often feels false, as we struggle to believe that a fashionista’s skull print Alexander McQueen scarf truly betrays a morbid disposition. Ultimately this is the undoing of the exhibition, as without our own way of connecting to the reality of death, this exploration of morbid iconography becomes little more than a collection of painted skulls.

Exquisite Antonio Susini Mother and Child sells for £480,000

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This stunning bronze group of the Virgin and Child, c.1610-20, sold at Christie’s yesterday for over £480,000. Previously undocumented, it is one of four examples of this composition which are believed to be the work of Antonio Susini (died 1624). Susini is better known as a technical assistant and caster to the great master Giambalogna (1529-1608) than as a sculptor in his own right, and it is fascinating to see here a work that he conceived and executed by himself. Although Susini’s work remained under the influence of his master, even after he left to establish his own workshop in 1600, there is nothing derivative or reductive about his pieces. Indeed, works such as this one prove him to be an accomplished sculptor, deserving of his own recognition. The piece shows great technical ability in the detail of the casting, for example in the finely modelled faces and carefully articulated curls of the Virgin and Child. However, Susini was not merely a talented technician, and details such as the drapery, which moves from the heavy, sweeping folds of the over skirt, to the gently fluttering, delicate material around the Virgin’s feet, suggest a real confidence and mastery of the medium. Particularly charming is the contrast between the monumental solemnity of the Virgin, and the vitality of her son, who seems almost about to wriggle from her arms. Such liveliness emphasises the humanity of the Christ child, an idea also alluded to here by the careful depiction of his fleshy, childish physiognomy.

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).

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.

Hiroshige print of people acting out silhouettes

Hiroshige print of people acting out silhouettes

I came across the companion to this print, a similar image but with figures acting out the silhouettes of two different teapots, at the British Museum’s ‘Ritual and Revelry: the art of drinking in Asia.’ (I am writing a review of this mini exhibition – expect a link soon.)

It is such a bizarre image I’ve been thinking about it ever since. The teapot print (unfortunately not available on the BM’s website) had figures that were far more distorted, as if they just happened to have the same silhouette as a teapot. Here, it looks more like the people are playing a game, deliberately acting out a shape in silhouette.

I’ve had a quick look but I can’t see anything online about the game. Has anyone come across it anywhere else? Is it still played in Japan? It looks like fun, though also pretty difficult!