The Cabinet Of Curiosities: Collecting The Wonders Of The World

Before there was the museum, there was the cabinet of curiosities. Starting in the 16th century as Europe expanded its horizons during the Age of Exploration, the rich and powerful began to collect curios and display them. Their collections were eclectic – everything from strange weapons from distant islands to beautiful coral formations.

The objects were all put together in no particular order in one room or cabinet, which was sometimes called a Wunderkammer (“Wonder Room”). This blending of natural history and anthropology with no accounting for geography or time period allowed the viewer to see the world as a whole in all its rich diversity. Many of these collections became the nuclei for later museums that are still around today, while others are still preserved in their original state.

Ambras Castle
in Austria has the Chamber of Art and Curiosities, a collection most famous for its many portraits of “miracles of nature”, mostly people suffering from deformities, plus this guy who managed to survive a lance being stuck through his head. There’s also a suit of samurai armor, silk artwork, mechanical toys and plenty more.

The Augsberg Art Cabinet in the Museum Gustavianum in Uppsala is a beautiful little piece with all sorts of panels and drawers devoted to various themes such as life, death and religion. Click on the first link for a cool interactive exhibit.

The tradition of the Wunderkammer is kept alive by some museums. The British Museum in London has the Enlightenment Gallery, which is jam-packed with busts, fossils, Greek vases, rare books, weapons, and Asian religious statues. The Museum der Dinge (“Museum of Things”) in Berlin is a fascinating if somewhat random collection of, well, things.

%Gallery-186870%In Los Angeles there’s the Museum of Jurassic Technology, a bizarre collection of sculptures made from single human hairs and displays of dubious cures from the days before modern medicine. Strecker’s Cabinets of Curiosities in Waco, Texas, proudly displays its prize item, a humpback whale skull measuring 19 feet long and weighing 3,000 pounds. An Iron Age jug sits nearby. Random associations are what Cabinets of Curiosities are all about.

But why not start your own? A bit of travel or rummaging through yard sales can get you a constantly growing collection that will become the envy of your friends. You can even open it up to the public like the owners of Trundle Manor in Pittsburgh.

[Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons]

70s Pothead Aesthetics, Meet Austrian Art

“I am going to take you to see the ugliest church you have ever seen,” said Barbara. We’d been having a long lunch in her garden in the Graz suburb of Hitzendorf. The church was just a few kilometers away in the village of Thal, a place that has the dubious distinction of being Arnold Schwarzenegger’s home town. There were four of us, Barbara, her daughter Anna, my husband Julius, and me. We got into Anna’s car and about 20 minutes later, we parked next to a green temporary structure that had the words “Arnold Schwarzenegger Exhibit” stenciled on the windows in matching grass green.

A paved pathway led to the entrance to the chapel. Five bridesmaids in wine colored dresses stood in the doorway looking sticky and annoyed with the heat. A wedding party was ending; there were glasses of beer on a picnic table and kids running in circles. There was an odd vibe to the event; the Austrians stood at high tables set up on the church patio while the others – Czech, we surmised, after a survey of license plates – sat on benches under a sprawling chestnut tree. The bride and groom were nowhere to be seen, but a 1970 GTO with a spray of white roses on the hood awaited their getaway. Already, it was kind of a weird scene.

We slid past the bridesmaids who continued to glare towards the patio. The little side chapel was quite traditional; wooden pews and a somewhat austere altar, a crucifixion on the back wall. But the main church, well, it was as though Liberace had found Catholicism and liked it. It was like being inside an oyster, all irregular and curved and lavender and blue and pearly. Mirrors studded with Swarovski crystal reflected sunlight in to the body of church. The pews were sculpted plastic, the floor set with river rock. Overhead, stripes, lots and lots of stripes, and the altar? A series of thick glass panels. Vegas. I thought. Any minute, Sigfried and Roy will make a tiger appear from this altar.

Barbara was right, the place was a freaking eyesore.The church was a collaboration between the architect Manfred Fuchsbilder and the artist Ernst Fuchs. Fuchs, the child of a Jewish father and Christian mother, survived WWII through a loophole – by filing for divorce, Fuchs’ mother was able to recover her son from a transit camp for “mixed race” children. Fuchs’ father fled to Shanghai. Fuchs was baptized and raised a Christian in Vienna. He went on to study art and founded the Vienna School of Fantastic Realism.

The Fuchs-Kirche, as it’s called locally, was built in the early 90s, but stylistically, it appeared to stand firmly in the pot-smoking late 60s or early 70s years of black light Grateful Dead posters and tie dye peasant skirts. To my California educated eyes, Fantastic Realism has a haze of purple smoke hanging over it.

Take the work of Arik Brauer, a musician, architect, and painter who has something of the Dutch master Bruegel about his work, but Bruegel after he’s smoked a bowl of the Santa Cruz’s finest weed. This isn’t to dismiss his art; I liked the exhibition of his paintings I saw in Vienna a few years back. But there’s no denying the psychedelic color or the landscapes that look like the ground might be moving.

There’s also the work of Friendensreich Hundertwasser. Hundertwasser was another “mixed race” kid of pre-war Vienna, another survivor. In his art, Hundertwasser used fully saturated color, those same irregular surfaces I walked over in the Fuchs-Kirche, and a lot of highly glazed tile.

Seeing Hundertwasser’s work always left me feeling happy, a little off balance, and probably hungry, I don’t quite remember. His buildings suggest how Lego might behave if it was cuddly, with snap on onion domes and relaxed rectangles, all in bright colors with fat outlines. The Hundertwasser Museum is one of my favorite places in Vienna, not just because it houses his art – and that of his artistic soul mates – but because the building itself is a joyful mess of stacked color and shape. It laughs out loud around the neighbor buildings who don’t understand what’s so funny – expect for the Hundertwasser house, nearby, she might have baked the brownies and is totally in on the joke.

On a rainy day in July, with a car full of Austrian in-laws, I made another trip to another weird site in Austria, this one designed by Andre Heller. Heller, a Viennese Jew, was born post war to more privilege than his artistic predecessors. But he seems to have picked up the aesthetic created by the Fantastic Realists and dragged it firmly into, oh, let’s say 1978, a few years after Dark Side of the Moon was released.

Heller’s not responsible for the entire stoner feel of Swarovski’s Kristalwelt, a museum/garden/shopping extravaganza near Innsbruck. He’s just on the hook for the parts that made me wonder exactly how much laser Floyd he’d watched. He created the mirror lined dome which surely needs a warning for those with a tendency towards migraines. He also engineered an enormous button accordion that breathes in and out. Brian Eno created some – not all – of the ambient sound in Kristalwelt, but that doesn’t help modernize it, it just makes me wonder who left the Zeppelin vinyl in the car on a hot day.

I couldn’t wait to get out of Kristalwelt and back into the pouring rain. I wanted an espresso and some fresh air. The crush of the crowd, the constantly changing light, and the aggressive surreal weirdness of the place was freaking me out. This modern flavor of Fantastic Realism gave me a headache with none of the happy buzz I’d received from the more organic crops of the founding school. Everything was too hard, too sparkly, too blinky.

We drove for about 45 minutes before stopping at a traditional Tyrolean restaurant. With my belly full of food and the cover of a soft gray sky, the day became a lot more mellow. I slept it off in the car on the drive back home.

Pam Mandel’s transportation to Austria was provided by Austria Tourism. You’ve probably guessed that her opinions are very much her own.