‘Every passion borders on the chaotic,’ wrote Walter Benjamin in his essay ‘Unpacking My Library’ (1931), ‘but the collector’s passion borders on the chaos of memories’. The collector of books, artworks, or miscellaneous trinkets, Benjamin thought, is at the mercy of the sheer variety of things out there. Once part of a collection, however, the collector relives their love for those things just by looking at them.
This tension between clutter and control is everywhere in ‘Spitzmaus Mummy in a Coffin and other Treasures’, curated by film director Wes Anderson and his partner, author and illustrator Juman Malouf. This huge exhibition, containing over 400 objects in eight small, colour-coded ‘Rooms’ in the Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna’s legendary Kunstkammer (a chamber of art and curiosities collected by the Habsburgs since the 16th century), shows off the pair’s idiosyncratic tastes and Anderson’s typical fussiness as much as it does the numerous treasures.
The duo share the collector’s thrill in chasing rare things. They spent months researching the museum’s vast collection and storage rooms, picking out what they found most exciting. The diversity of their choices is astonishing. There are ancient Egyptian animal sculptures and Etruscan statues of mythical heroes, Old Master paintings of Austrian royals, imperial jewels, old and now useless weaponry, historical musical instruments, and items of geological interest, like the 30 emerald-green malachites from the Natural History Museum’s minerals collection arranged in rows of five in a glass cabinet.
Some of Anderson and Malouf’s choices border not on chaos, like the collector’s passion, but kitsch. Automaton, Job Riding A Tortoise (early 17th century), for example, is a wind-up toy made either by Hans Fronmüller the Younger or George Fronmüller the Elder, in which a bearded man made of painted wood rides a gilded copper tortoise with reins tied through its nostrils.
The collector is, however, not just a hunter of rare things, but a meticulous lover of order. Anderson’s typical fastidiousness is evident in, for example, the arrangement of 17th–18th century Italian busts, including Socrates, Julius Caesar, and Cato, positioned in order of size from small to large and back again. Far from the ‘mild boredom of order’ Benjamin detected in the collector’s bookshelves, there is palpable joy in the way Anderson and Malouf have captured and shelved these strange things. Their method is, however, intuitive and resists any specific curatorial method.
If any method is apparent, it combines the collector’s passion with the idea of ‘family resemblances’ developed by Ludwig Wittgenstein, one of Vienna’s most famous sons. Family resemblances are, Wittgenstein says, ‘a complicated network of similarities,’ like build, features, eye colour, gait, or temperament, ‘overlapping and criss-crossing’. Anderson and Malouf, similarly, seem to have arranged things in simple, unpretentious categories of type, colour, size, and shape.
Anderson and Malouf choose to show us not only all creatures great and small, but all humans lofty and lowly. At the far end of the exhibition is the painting The Giant Bartlmä Bona with the Dwarf Thomele (late 16th century). The two figures are, indeed, vastly different in height, which was no doubt amusing at the time. Covering the whole length of the ceiling panel, meanwhile, is history painter Julius Victor Berger’s enormous Patrons of the House of Habsburg (1892), showing six groups of patrons from Emperor Maximillian I to Emperor Charles VI in the company of their respective court artists.
In Room 1, we see a painting of ‘Hirsute Man’ Petrus Gonsalvus, a Spanish nobleman who suffered from hypertrichosis, excessive hair growth all over his face, neck, and head, and his children (circa 1580). It is juxtaposed with Jacob Vrel’s Woman at a Window (1654), which shows the backside of a woman looking through a window, and Samuel van Hoogstraten’s Man Looking through a Window (1653), a bearded man staring straight through the picture space. The Gonsalvus family were widely regarded at not-quite-human by their contemporaries. By placing their stately portraits next to paintings of people ogling things outside the canvas, including the viewer themselves, Anderson and Malouf allow the viewer to turn the 16th-century gaze back on itself, gawping at their intolerance. This renews Gonsalvus’s dignity by turning him from a spectacle to be gawped at into a lonely but worthy human on the edge of high society.
Colour plays an organizing role, as Anderson and Malouf contrast emerald green 2nd–3rd-century Roman glassware and Qing Dynasty Chinese porcelain in Room 2, but so does shape, when single objects from different places are placed next to each other, like how a wooden patu kotiate (1858), a traditional Maori weapon used like a short club, is placed next to a 20th-century violin made in Austria. At other times, however, theme or implied utility seems to be the category, such as in the juxtaposition of the ideas of mythic strength in the steel ‘Orsini Bomb’ from Italy (1863), which was popular with 19th century anarchists and used as a hand grenade in an assassination attempt on French emperor Napoleon III, placed next to a 4th-century bronze Etruscan statue of Hercules in Room 4.
It would be easy to dismiss the simplicity of Anderson and Malouf’s approach, treating them as mere dilettantes. To do so would miss how ‘Spitzmaus Mummy’ bursts with the joy of discovery. It allows us to relive those moments we first fell in love with things, when the shelves in libraries, bookshops, museums, or galleries seem to extend infinitely into the distance.
Anderson and Malouf choose, however, to say nothing about the colonial history of museum acquisition. Though we should not abandon those questions, the curators show an admirable optimism in their choices, as if suggesting that human creative powers are the same everywhere and inspire equal wonder, like the titular coffined Spitzmaus (shrew), a tiny wooden sarcophagus from Ptolemaic-period Egypt (4th century BCE). Time has chipped and dirtied the wood, but this does not matter, since the creature has spent about 2,400 happy years in the afterlife. It is a fitting centrepiece to a truly distinctive exhibition.
Main image: Wes Anderson and Juman Malouf. Courtesy: Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna; photograph: Rafaela Proell
‘Spitzmaus Mummy in a Coffin and other Treasures’, curated by Wes Anderson and Juman Malouf, is on view at the Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna until 13 January 2019.