Thursday, 16 August 2018

Guillermo del Toro: A Modern Appreciator of Curiosities

A recent special exhibition at the Art Gallery of Ontario featured a re-creation of Guillermo del Toro’s personal collection of memorabilia, paintings, and sculpture, mostly related to monsters and various forms of monstrosity. Del Toro, perhaps best known as the academy award winning writer and director of The Shape of Water (2017), has amassed a large collection which he has fashioned as a private "cabinet of curiosities," a space (spanning two houses in Southern California) designed to inspire his imagination and his work. He calls this home studio "Bleak House."[1] His mixing of temporal references is telling. In many ways, this collection, which expresses a single-minded interest in monsters and related Gothic themes, owes as much to the nineteenth-century and early-twentieth century as it does to the late Renaissance context of the cabinet of curiosities, with all of its variety and diffuse interests. Nonetheless, despite any obvious point of direct reference to the historical origins of the cabinet of curiosities, there were a number of elements in del Toro’s collection that evoke this context of these prototypical museums. The entrance to the exhibition (a replica of one of del Toro’s houses) evokes rooms like that of Olaus Worm, seemingly bursting with objects in every nook and cranny.

Entrance to the At Home with Monsters exhibition, AGO, Toronto

A representation of Olaus Worm's museum, Copenhagen
(Musaeum Wormianum, 1655).
Similarly, for Del Toro, like many early modern collectors, the collection space is also a work space, a place of inspiration and information: this is where he does his working and creating. It is a mixture of forms, of high and low, natural and (mostly) artificial. It delights in the exceptional, the uncanny.

DDT Efectos Especiales Phasma
Gigos (Insect), 2006.

We see a common interest in what seem to be exceptional specimens of nature: in Robert Hubert’s seventeenth century collection, “A great flying-fish or Sea-Swallow, that flyes sometimes aboard the ships”; flying Squirrel, a little Beast of Virginia, that flyes from Tree to Tree, by extending of its skin on either side; or “A Guiney flie bigger than a Sparrow” (1665).


Emilie Steele. Escape, 2016.
We see also a fascination with ingenious compositions blending the natural and the artificial: Sir Walter Cope’s “handsome cup made out of goosefoots from China” or “A Madonna made of Indian feathers” (c. 1599. Platter, 171, 173).

With respect of del Toro’s chosen theme, in the strange world of the early modern cabinet of curiosities, monsters gained new significance, representing in an explicit way the category confusion created by a new, wide world of objects that defied traditional, received categories. A passage from Francis Bacon can set the stage for the place of monsters and other forms of aberration in the attempt, in the new, empirical mode of knowledge, to re-examine traditional taxonomies. Bacon was a collector of facts through observation. Voyages of discovery were, therefore, crucial to the new philosophy. For Bacon, “Distant voyages and travels have brought to light many things in nature, which throw fresh light on human philosophy and science and correct by experience the opinions and conjectures of the ancients” (Refutation, 131). The world on the edges of knowledge and experience was a place of possibility. Here, that which was encountered and could not be fit into the established models of the world were rendered marvelous; but at the same time, for those who, in the Baconian tradition, began with an assumption that the old, received paradigms needed to be exploded, to be replaced by new taxonomies built on observation, these category-defying objects were particularly interesting. For this reason, Bacon holds a special place for monsters, the “heteroclites and irregulars of nature,” which force us to reconsider neat ontological categories. In his Advancement of Learning, Bacon sets out three aspects to his proposed project of a new History of Nature: “of nature in course, of nature erring or varying, and of nature altered or wrought” (3.330). He advocates the need for “a substantial and severe collection of the Heteroclites or Irregularities of nature, well examined and described.” The benefit of such a collection is to “correct the partiality of axioms and opinions, which are commonly framed only upon common and familiar examples” and to learn form “the wonders of nature … the nearest intelligence and passage toward the wonder of art” (3.331). Deviations of nature hint at possibilities in human manipulation of nature. Now, to be clear, Bacon is talking about a collection in histories, that is, written accounts, but the same principals apply, presumably, to the collection and examination of the objects themselves.

Early modern collections clearly expressed this interest in hybridity, of variations from natural form, and even human manipulations of nature, a mixing of the natural and artificial:
• “A Monstrous Calf, with two Heads, and two Tayles, with a perfect Body” and “A Gyants Thigh bone 4 foot long” in Robert Hubert’s collection (1665).
• A “round horn which had grown on an English woman’s forehead” or “An embalmed child (Mumia)” in Sir Walter Cope’s collection (Platter, 172).

Unknown. Anatomical Model of Conjoined Babies

The famous prose writer and Norwich physician, Sir Thomas Browne, himself a collector of curiosities and an experimenter and expositor of nature in the Baconian tradition, goes beyond mere empirical interest to posit the beauty in the monster. In his Religio Medici (1642), Browne writes,
I hold there is a general beauty in the works of God, and therefore no deformity in any kind or species of creature whatsoever. … there is no deformity but in monstrosity, wherein notwithstanding there is a kind of beauty, Nature so ingeniously contriving the irregular parts, as they become sometimes more remarkable that the principal fabric. To speak yet more narrowly, there was never anything ugly, or misshapen, but the chaos; wherein notwithstanding to speak strictly, there was no deformity, because no form, nor was it yet impregnate by the voice of God. Now nature is not at variance with art, nor art with nature; they being both servants of providence (I.16). 
Here, perhaps, we come close to del Toro’s interest in monsters. Near the end of the exhibit, at a station titled "May the Monsters Follow you Home," del Toro elaborates his parting benediction: "Monsters speak to a very deep spiritual part of ourselves and the way we construct our place in the universe."


[1] Guillermo del Toro: At Home with Monsters. Art Gallery of Ontario, Sept. 30, 2017 – Jan. 7, 2018.

Works cited:

Bacon, Francis. The Philosophy of Francis Bacon: An Essay on Its Development from 1603 to 1609, with New Translations of Fundamental Texts. Edited and translated by Benjamin Farrington. [Liverpool]: Liverpool University Press, 1964.
Browne, Thomas. The Works of Sir Thomas Browne. Edited by Geoffrey Keynes. 6 vols. London: Faber & Faber, 1964.
-------. The Works of Francis Bacon. 7 vols. Edited by James Spedding, Robert Leslie Ellis, and Douglas Denon Heath. London: Longmans, 1870.  
Hubert, Robert. A Catalogue of Many Natural Rarities, with Great Industry, Cost, and thirty Years Travel in Foraign Countries. Collected by Robert Hubert, aliàs Forges, Gent. and sworn Servant to His Majesty. And daily to be seen, at the place formerly called the Musick House, near the West end of St. Pauls Church (1665). Edited by Brent Nelson. Digital Ark. 
Platter, Thomas. Thomas Platter's Travels in England 1599. Edited and translated and edited by Clare Williams. London: Jonathan Cape, 1937.  Digital Ark.
Worm, Ole, et al. Museum Wormianum: Seu Historia Rerum Rariorum, Tam Naturalium, Quam Artificialium, Tam Domesticarum, Quam Exoticarum, Quæ Hafniæ Danorum in Ædibus Authoris Servantur. Leiden and Amsterdam, 1655.

Tuesday, 29 May 2018

SSHRC funding for phase two: The Social Network of Early Modern Collectors of Curiosities

We are pleased to announce that we have received funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada / Conseil de recherches en sciences humaines to support the next phase of our research, titled "The Social Network of Early Modern Collectors of Curiosities." Our research team for this project is Brent Nelson (University of Saskatchewan, PI), Craig Harkema (University of Saskatchewan, Co-Applicant), Lisa Smith (University of Essex, Collaborator), and Jon Bath (University of Saskatchewan, Collaborator). Here is a description of what we plan to get up to over the next three years.

Project Summary

The scholarly literature on early modern networks of collectors and collections of curiosities (precursors of the modern museum) has thus far focused on the fact of exchange: who knew and exchanged objects with whom. Similarly, network analyses of databases and documents related to early modern social and intellectual networks have employed visualizations of people and their relationships, but not to objects. This program of research intends to put a GoPro on the object, to follow these objects through these networks of exchange, moving beyond the mere fact of exchange and who knew whom within these relationships to consider the objects themselves and how they were exchanged, understood, and regarded in their changing circumstances. Focusing on an extensive body of archival materials related to collections of curiosities in England and Scotland from 1580-1700 (the "Digital Ark" described below), our research will examine the composition and function of these networks of exchange, tracing the "life stories" or "biographies" of curious objects as they travelled through these social networks. For example, one such exchange involved a strange stone voided by "a poor girl at Rawden" donated by one Dorothy Ward, a citizen of Leeds, to the collection of Ralph Thoresby, a prominent merchant of that city and Fellow of the Royal Society. In another event, a stone "in the shape of a heart, voided by an ancient person at Ardsley" was sent to Thoresby by a Captain West "with an attestation under the hand of the surgeon." In tracing these events of exchange, we will ask such questions as: Who were the people involved in these collecting networks, and from what social groups or classes? What was their relationship to these exchanged objects, and what were their roles in the production, acquisition, and exchange of these objects? And what does all this tell us about the function of collected objects in the cultural and intellectual practices of these social networks?

To answer these questions, we will model and develop new applications of computer-assisted network analysis to a large corpus of materials aggregated in the Digital Ark: an archive of surviving records of early modern collections comprised of some three dozen documents in print and manuscript, totaling over 750,000 words of text, including catalogues, inventories, and lists of collections, as well as descriptions of collections in travel accounts and diaries. These documents have been transcribed and encoded in XML (eXtensible Markup Language) and connected to a relational database of associated people, places, images, and bibliographic sources. In this phase of our research, we will develop methods of linking entities referenced in this material--not only mentioned people and places, but also the objects themselves--and of identifying and articulating the relationships between them. With these linkages in place, we will adapt and apply methods of network visualization to this linked data. What we expect to reveal is a complex network of participants, from across a wide range of social sectors, involved in a wide range of capacities in the production, transmission, acquisition, and observation of objects, and thus many different kinds of relationships between people and objects.

Monday, 15 January 2018

Strange Fish: an opening gambit

I recently spotted this curiosity in the window of a basement apartment in Saskatoon, looking as if it had escaped from a cabinet somewhere. Varieties of the puffer-fish were popular items for collection in the early modern period. Nehemiah Grew, in his catalogue of the Royal Society’s collection Musaeum Regalis (1681), lists a couple of specimens in this vein. One of them is identified as:
The little GLOB-FISH. Orbis minor. So called from his Orbicular figure. Described in most Musæums. Most curiously figur'd in that of Calceolarius. He is armed with long, round, hard, and sharp Spikes or Needles all round about, almost like those of a Hedg-Hog; and is a sort of Porcupine-Fish. 'Tis probable, That the Fish swims with these Needles all closely couched down round about, for that otherwise they would hinder her swimming. But if at any time she is pursu'd, she immediately advances her Pikes, and bids the enemy come at his peril. (sig. [Pv]-P2)
Grew cites Italian collector Francesco Calzolari (1522-1609) (actually, Benedicto Cerutin and Andrea Chiocco, who compiled the catalogue of his collection) for providing a “curious” figure of this fish. Two specimens are also visible hanging from the roof of his “cabinet.”

Images of Calzolari's collection and image of the porcupine fish,
from Benedicto Cerutin and Andrea Chiocco, Musaeum
 Franc. Calceolari Jun.
(1622), fold-out and sig. N2.

Grew also lists separately a “Sea-Porcupine,” citing this time Jan Jonston’s illustration in his Historiae naturalis de piscibus (1650).

Jan Jonston, Historiae naturalis de piscibus (1650), Tab. 45.

It is sometimes difficult to sort out the nomenclature for natural specimens in these collections, owing to naturalists’ and collectors’ habit of naming species by analogy: for example, the “tobaccopipe fish” (with a long, slender body, “from whence its name” says Grew) or the “swallow fish” for a flying fish. The pufferfish, blowfish, globefish, and balloonfish (to name only a few variants) all belong to the “tetraodontidae” family, so named (says Wikipedia) for their four large teeth fused into an upper and lower plate. But in the minds of early modern naturalists and collectors, these fish were associated because they have in common an inflatable body. But while the porcupine fish is closely related and was often, in such collections, conflated with these other expandable, globous fish, it is not actually part of the same family.

Strange fish of all kinds continue to fascinate, in part for all the strange shapes they come in and the comparisons they inspire. They also fascinated then, as now, because they came from a place that is utterly remote to most human experience, a natural black-box yielding a variety of unusual and surprising forms, and then only reluctantly. Watch this space for further explorations of strange fish from the cabinet of curiosities.

Guillermo del Toro: A Modern Appreciator of Curiosities

A recent special exhibition at the Art Gallery of Ontario featured a re-creation of Guillermo del Toro’s personal collection of memorabilia,...