Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Is the Art World's 1% Unraveling?; A Fantastic Cabinet of Natural Curiosities

In the last couple of weeks a feud has erupted in the upper echelons of gazillionaire art collectors. Three articles making the rounds on social media are at the center of the controversy. First there was Occupy Art Basel Miami Beach, Now! by son-of-a-billionaire art collector Adam Lindemann, in the New York Observer in which Lindemann emphatically states:

"I’m not going to Art Basel Miami Beach this year. I’m through with it, basta. It’s become a bit embarrassing, in fact, because why should I be seen rubbing elbows with all those phonies and scenesters, people who don’t even pretend they are remotely interested in art?"

And then emphatically re-states:

"How many celebrities will I meet? How many mega-collectors will I greet? How many curators will I schmooze and how many artists will I chat up? None, because I’m not going."

Then he promptly did go Miami and did do all of the aforementioned things he said he wasn't going to do.

The next to enter the fray was advertising mogul/art collector and owner of the Saatchi Gallery, Charles Saatchi, with an article in the GuardianThe Hideousness of the Art World. At least Saatchi is self-deprecating as the pot calls the kettle black:

"Even a show-off like me finds this new, super-rich art-buying crowd vulgar and depressingly shallow."

New York Magazine art critic Jerry Saltz jumped in yesterday and neatly analyzed the feud in his article, The Prince of the One Percent Would Like You to Know That Buying Art Is Less Fun These Days:

"It looks like the art world has entered an ugly finger-pointing period. Call it the Shoot the Wounded Phase: Players at the top are starting to accuse each other of being craven, cronyistic bad actors. Everyone knows something bad is brewing, that some end or explosion is imminent amid the obscene prices, profligate spending, celebrity-artist worship, obnoxious behavior of the rich, and art as entertainment. People are showing up to say, 'It wasn’t me. It was him! It was her! It was them!'"

Stay tuned -- I'm sure we haven't heard the end of this one.

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Albertus Seba's Cabinet of Natural Curiosities

Albertus Seba (1665-1736) was a Dutch apothecary and passionate collector of natural specimens. After a lifetime of collecting, he commissioned various artists to make copper-plate engravings of his specimens which were first published in several volumes, some posthumously, between 1734 and 1765. Using reproductions from a rare hand-colored original belonging to the Koninklijke Bibliotheek, The Hague, Taschen brings us yet another luscious and affordable coffee table book, Albertus Seba: Cabinet of Natural Curiosities. Eye-popping displays of birds, butterflies, snakes, seashells, sea urchins, exotic plants, crocodiles, crustaceans and more, ignite the imagination and leave us in awe of the diversity of the natural world as well as the engravers' skill in producing these beautifully detailed plates.

In her essay, Albertus Seba's Collection of Natural Specimens and its Pictorial Inventory, Irmgard Musch writes that in Seba's day, "Doctors and apothecaries were pioneers of the empirical sciences, which had been growing significantly in importance since the Renaissance. Unlike today, medications were not synthetically made but mixed together from natural constituents. A whole range of traditional recipes were available to those versed in the art of creating remedies from animal, vegetable and mineral ingredients. But many did not stop there. They continued the search for new methods, collecting natural specimens from distant lands, studying them, and testing their potential uses. Their passion for collecting and researching often extended beyond immediate pharmaceutical applications. In many instances apothecaries started major natural history collections and contributed personally to the growing knowledge of nature."

Arrow squids/Flying squids; 7-8 Ovum, Sepia eggs; 9-10 Sepiidae, Cuttlebone of a sepia. Credit: Taschen

Albertus Seba was so passionate about collecting that he would meet ships as they pulled into harbor in Amsterdam and buy specimens from all corners of the globe directly from sailors before they had a chance to disembark. Snakes and mammals were preserved in jars of alcohol, often resulting in distortions in form and coloring that we see in some of the plates. Seba's success as an apothecary and reputation as a collector was well known, even to the Russian tsar, Peter the Great, who often bought medicines from him and eventually bought the entirety of his first collection.

Albertus Seba, Volume I, Plate 39; 1 'Didelphis marsupialis', Southern common opossum, credit: Taschen

Among the thousands of specimens depicted, there are few interesting anomalies thrown in: siamese goat twins, a flying dragon, a mythical seven-headed hydra and a fictive (and very convincing) metamorphosis of frogs into fishes. Three essays round out our understanding of Seba's life and the scientific value of his collections, but it is the plates themselves that provide endless fascination.

credit: Taschen
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  1. Nicely bookended set of articles. I couldn't help but consider, as I finished the second article, how collecting art(ists) is (for many of the debauched cravenistas mentioned in the first article) a way to have contemporary cabinet of curiosities stocked with human exotica (that is, the artists themselves).

    Albertus Seba is a great revelation, though, as a passionate explorer of natural knowledge.

  2. Perhaps, now it has a chance to become interesting, or becoming interesting again--if the hypesters really do step out.. Right now, though, fairs seem to be quite popular, which is usually the opposite of innovative, So artists, naturally, would have little reason for going except as capitalists.

  3. Fabulous article + I would still love to go to Art Basel Miami or any of the Art Fairs! I enjoyed Adam's book Collecting Contemporary Art + My Name is Charles Saatchi + I'm an Artoholic? Seba is amazing too - yer Blog Rocks Jane - Bravo!