Curiouser and curiouser

Colnaghi’s Kunstkammer show spotlights the weirdly wonderful

Art of the Curious, a collaborative exhibition capturing the spirit of 16th- and 17th-century cabinets of curiosities (also called Kunstkammer and Wunderkammer), will be filled with relics of the past, yet it feels relevant today. After all, these idiosyncratic artworks – and their obsession with natural history and mortality – have echoes in contemporary art, notably that of Damien Hirst. To be held at London gallery Colnaghi, in conjunction with Munich’s Kunstkammer Georg Laue gallery, the show also includes new pieces created by artists today in homage to the cabinets of curiosity of the Renaissance and baroque eras.

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Fashionable in Europe, the first of these were assembled by scholars to display intriguing, bizarre, sometimes macabre objects and were later collected by aristocrats. They juxtaposed natural curiosities – skulls, bones, coral – with manmade objects, from Chinese porcelain and Christian statuettes to still-life paintings. “The exhibits’ wondrous character played an important part,” says Georg Laue, owner of the Munich gallery. “At the time, marvelling was considered a trigger to knowledge, to understanding the world’s complexity.” But the craze died out in the Age of Enlightenment, with its focus on rationality and science.

Pieces on show include a cabinet (first picture) composed by Laue containing such artefacts as a 17th-century tankard partly made from a coconut (third picture, £28,000) and an 18th-century amber eagle’s head (fourth picture, also £28,000), a still-life of flowers by Jan Brueghel the Younger (£750,000) and contemporary artist Sarah Graham’s sinister ink drawing of a titan beetle (second picture, £19,500).

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In 1981, Colnaghi mounted a show that helped revive this tradition, and now a younger generation is drawn to it, according to the gallery’s co-owner Katrin Bellinger. “With Damien Hirst’s animals in formaldehyde, skulls seen on Alexander McQueen scarves and fashion shops embracing taxidermy, an interest in Kunstkammer has moved into the mainstream.”

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