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From our earliest years to old age we collect, we categorize, we catalogue and we engage with things in ways that reflect who we are and make us who we are. We might have a favourite box filled with coins and badges, or a well-ordered collection of bottle-tops or beer mats. Every now and then we take the objects out and examine them and re-arrange them. The objects can become characters. Sometimes we label them and this gives them status and gives us some degree of control over these disorderly and curious amalgamations. We are all curators and this is an important part of our development. Our desk can be a table of curiosities. When young children begin to arrange objects to tell a particular story or to make sense of them, they are engaging with all the deep elements of learning in relation to visual culture.
This process is essentially the same as that of the great collectors, who brought together objects and artefacts from their travels and arranged them in particular spaces, sometimes in an orderly fashion and at times in ways similar to a boot sale. The objects could represent the travels of the ‘collector’ and were often part of the culture of exploitation and colonization but would take on a new role in their new, mainly European, settings. The objects might represent the power and wealth of the collector or indeed the power of their imagination.
These objects embodied the mystery of the cultures from which they came and physically illustrated a shrinking world in a way similar to the virtual cabinets of the Internet and social networks.
Books about art can themselves be like cabinets of curiosities, or Wunderkammers as they were also known, and this publication goes to some lengths to show this. It is a visual survey and traces the development of these cabinets from the Renaissance through their height of popularity in the 17th century to the major shifts of the early 20th century, and on to the present day.
The quality of images and the way they are positioned to dominate the text emphasizes that it is the objects that will tell the story and not the interpretational text or panel. Nonetheless, the text is fascinating and mainly descriptive, even where it refers to the 20th-/21st-century forms of the cabinet from Dada and Surrealism through to Conceptualism. There is no doubt that the ‘form’ of the cabinet or box has become embedded in the art and design curriculum in schools and is also a reflection of the number of contemporary artists now exploring this form, either as object or installation. The reason for this is not simply to do with art but as a form of cross-curricular study, in the same way that museums are involved in learning.
So, this is a book to simply absorb, enjoy and stimulate. It underlines the need to reflect on the stuff of life that we accumulate and the desire to show others.
Cabinets of Curiosity by Patrick Mauriès is published by Thames and Hudson, 2011. 256 pp., 139 colour/133 mono illus, £29.95. ISBN 978 0 500 515945