Cabinet of Wonders: A Contemporary Kunstkammer

La decoration arabe Vienna Dioscorides Cabinet of Wonders Calendrier magique
In the middle of the sixteenth century, in the heart of a European Renaissance, royalty and nobility from Italy to Russia to the Netherlands began assembling collections of rarities in specially appointed rooms and cabinets. These collections, variously called KunstkammernWunderkammern, and Kunstschränke were, essentially, nascent art and natural history museums, attempts at encyclopedic assemblages of historically, culturally, geographically, zoologically, and artistically significant specimens. No collection was “complete” in any objective sense; instead, each displayed the particular inclinations—and wealth—of its creator.

One significant early collection was that of Archduke Ferdinand II, who constructed a museum in his castle at Ambras (Innsbruck, Austria) in 1573. The objects, arranged by type, were displayed in cabinets placed in the middle of a well-lit room. The Archduke’s collection, though more vast than most, is a prototypical (and, happily, extant) Kunstkammer: it contains specimens and oddities from the animal and natural worlds; from classical history; from lands overseas; from the scientific disciplines; and from the hands of contemporary, virtuoso artists and artisans.

This exhibition aims to recreate the aesthetic sensibility of a sixteenth- and early-seventeenth century Kunstkammer such as Ferdinand’s while also describing the specific types of materials that these rooms and cabinets contained. The objects themselves, taken from the Art & Architecture Library's Locked Stacks Collection, are of widely divergent ages and origins; together they form an idiosyncratic, present-day cabinet of wonders.

Curated and designed by Anna Fishaut

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A Kunstkammer often contained animal specimens: taxidermied, dried, ossified; whole or in parts.  The specific animals ranged from armadillos, one of the most popular species to collect, to coral and scarabs.  The purpose of collecting these specimens varied; for some it was to document the natural history of a particular location and to illustrate the collector’s impressive travel (and perhaps hunting) history.  For others it was to facilitate zoological or quasi-zoological study, through the direct viewing of animal anatomy (though fully intact animal specimens would typically have degraded before reaching the collector’s home—if the animals had not been brought home alive).  And for still others it was to create pleasing dioramas, perhaps even with fantastical scenes of, for example, rodents with horns or the teeth of a tiger.  Collections of animals might also expand into the archaeological and biological, with samples of human bones or drawings of malformed bodies.

On display:

Micrographie décorative.
Laure Albin Guillot ; préface de Paul Léon.
[Paris?] : L. Albin Guillot, [1931]
TR653 .A525 1931 F ARTLCKL

In Paris in the 1920s and 1930s, painters, designers, and photographers were in the midst of a modernist love affair with form, pattern, light, and color.  Their tendency toward abstraction was evidence of a larger aesthetic goal: authenticity of worldly experience, beyond what traditional realism could depict.  Photography was no small element of this project, and photomicrography, while facilitating only a tiny subset of modernist photographic production, was an especially powerful tool.  By revealing what one could not see with the naked eye, and by demonstrating that these formerly invisible organisms tended toward beautifully abstract forms, artists could meld modernism and nature in an entirely authentic way.

Laure Albin-Guillot, a Parisian commercial and artistic photographer, produced Micrographie decorative as a tribute to her husband, who had died two years earlier.  He had been a specialist in preparing specimens for the microscope, and she had often been his photomicrographer.  Her large-scale, spiral-bound album contains twenty images of diatoms, plant sections, and other tiny examples of natural symmetry and pattern.  The photographs were printed in photogravure onto colored and metallic papers to give each page a jewel-like, Art Deco feel.

[Rat] / Kim Jones

[S.l. : s.n., 2004?]
N7433.4 .J68 K56 2004 ARTLCKM

In 1976, the California-born performance artist Kim Jones set fire to three live rats onstage at California State University, Los Angeles.  It was a purposely grotesque act, performed as both a commentary on the general inhumanity of the Vietnam War and a recreation of an actual pastime of members of his former military unit.  Regardless of its intended message, Jones’s audience reacted with horror and hostility to the screams of the dying rats, and the artist was charged with animal cruelty.  In 2004, Jones revisited the event and its murine symbol by decorating the façade of SITE Santa Fe with hundreds of black plastic rats mounted on a grid of branches.  The rats squeaked when squeezed, echoing the screams that the real rats had made almost thirty years earlier.

By Salt Marshes By Salt Marshes : Pictures and Poems of Old Ipswich.
[pictures and designs] by Arthur Wesley Dow & [poems by] Everett Stanley Hubbard.
[Ipswich, Mass. : s.n.], 1908.
PS3515 .U1414 B9 1908 ARTLCKS

Arthur Wesley Dow, whose color woodblock prints accompany Everett Stanley Hubbard's poems in this volume, was a Boston- and New York-based printmaker, painter, photographer, writer, and teacher who is known particularly for his innovative integration of American (especially Arts & Crafts) and Japanese styles.  His woodcuts, reminiscent of Japanese ukiyo-e prints, are especially well regarded.  He discussed his process and inspiration in an 1896 article in the journal Modern Art entitled “Painting with Wooden Blocks.”  Aside from its subtle, pastel-shaded beauty, In Salt Marshes bears importance because of the aforementioned eastern and western stylistic integration and because, in its harmony of text and image, it is one of the earliest titles that might be considered a truly American livre d'artiste.  It is European in flavor but entirely American in its imagery.

The Square Book of Animals

The Square Book of Animals.
by William Nicholson ; rhymes by Arthur Waugh.
London : William Heinemann, 1900, c1899.

Although illustrated books produced specifically for children date back to the seventeenth century, it was in the nineteenth century that they became a common and celebrated form, especially in England. Some of the most well known illustrators of the time, including Gustave Doré and George Cruikshank, contributed their artwork. Other artists, such as Kate Greenaway and Randolph Caldecott, focused their careers on the children’s book genre. In 1896, when William Nicholson designed the illsutrations for The Square Book of Animals, he was best known as a poster artist and portraitist. His woodcuts of ducks, bulldogs, sheep, and hens demonstrate a combined aptitude for simplicity and singularity.


Chōjū giga maki [facsimile].
Kōzanji zō.
Tōkyō : Ōtsuka Kōgeisha, [19--?]
ND1059.T53 C56 1900Z ARTLCKL

The Japanese term emaki, or emakimono, refers to a handscroll (makimono) that carries a pictorial narrative and is meant to be viewed sequentially, as the scroll is unrolled from right to left.  Chōjū-jinbutsu-giga, often shortened to Chōjū giga and known in English as Scrolls of Frolicking Animals, is a set of four scrolls dating from the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.  By this point—the end of the Heian period and the beginning of the Kamakura period—a distinctively Japanese style of Buddhist art had emerged, influenced but not dictated by Chinese traditions.  Most striking in Chōjū giga is its monochrome palette and minimalist yet dynamic composition.  The first scroll, a facsimile of which is on display here, is thirty-six feet long and depicts anthropomorphized animals who are, it is implied, meant to serve as satirical depictions of Buddhist monks. There is no text; the story is told solely through images.

Vienna Dioscorides 

Vienna Dioscorides [facsimile].
Graz, Akademische Druck- u. Verlangenstalt, 1966?-70?
R126 .D5 1966 F ARTLCKM

De material medica, written by the Greek physician Pedanius Dioscorides in the first century CE, is a five-book herbal, a compilation of approximately five hundred plant descriptions alongside their pharmacological properties.  Its relative completeness was unprecedented, and it remained a reference source of choice for physicians in Europe into the sixteenth century. 

The Vienna Dioscorides, a five-volume, deluxe Byzantine manuscript that was presented to Juliana Anicia, the daughter of the Roman Emperor Anicius Olybrius, is the oldest surviving illustrated copy of this work.  Dating from the sixth century, the manuscript is decorated with Greek Uncial script and full-page botanical illustrations, the plant names arranged in alphabetical order.  The illustrations are a compelling mix of those painted from nature and those painted, presumably, only from verbal descriptions—and therefore their accuracy varies.  As it was Dioscorides’s desire that the assertions listed within his work’s pages be based upon empirical evidence, it seems fitting that the pages of the Vienna Dioscorides are augmented by later annotations in Greek, Hebrew, Arabic, and Latin: evidence of additions to botanical knowledge as the centuries passed.


The Kunstkammer or Wunderkammer is often referred to, in English, as a “cabinet of curiosities.”  This term seems to have been generated most directly by collectors’ propensity for acquiring objects whose main attributes were their abnormalities.  Such abnormalities might be extreme size (small or large), presumed magical powers (e.g., medicinal herbs), unique origins (e.g., from an ancient burial site), or mythical status (e.g., “unicorn” horns).  Not surprisingly, these items were typically sourced outside of Europe, their legitimacy as mirabilia thus bolstered by their exotic beginnings.

On display:

Four sixteenth-century treatises on physiognomy and chiromancy.
De diversa hominum natura (1549)
Physionomie naturelle (1550)
Le compendion et brief enseignement de physiognomie et chiromancie (1560)
Nouuelle inuention pour incontinent iuger du naturel dívn chacun par líinspection du front & de ses parties, dicte en grec Metoposcopie (1565)
BF840 .D8 1549 ARTLCKS

Physiognomy is the assessment of personality according to a person’s physical appearance; chiromancy is a similar practice, but limited to the lines of the hand.  These two disciplines (now, of course, considered pseudosciences) are the subject of this Sammelband—a volume composed of books that were printed separately and subsequently bound together.  The first two titles, De diversa hominum natura (1549) and Physionomie naturelle (1550), were written by Antoine du Moulin, a French humanist and translator who nurtured a fascination with the occult.  Le compendion et brief enseignement de physiognomie et chiromancie (1560), the third title, is the work of Bartolomeo della Rocca, also called Cocles, who was an Italian scholar of physiognomy, chiromancy, and astrology.  The final title in the volume is Nouuelle inuention pour incontinent iuger du natvrel d'vn chacun par l'inspection du front & de ses parties, dicte en grec Metoposcopie (1565), a brief text by Tadeáš Hájek, a Bohemian astronomer and royal physician.  This last text was in fact a treatise on a third, related discipline: metoposcopy, the divination of character based on the lines on one’s forehead.

The Sammelband is a remarkable specimen, a set of rare texts made all the more rare by their personalized juxtaposition.  Published approximately one hundred years after Gutenberg’s introduction of movable type, the books display many of the unique phenomena of early printing and include dozens of woodcuts.

Une semaine de bonte

Une semaine de bonté, ou, Les sept éléments capitaux : roman.
Max Ernst.
Paris : Jeanne Bucher, 1934.
N6888 . E7 A56 1-5 CAHIER ARTLCKM

Max Ernst (1891-1976), a key member of the Surrealist movement, employed collage as one of his main techniques throughout his career; its principles of juxtaposition and recombination informed much of his work even outside of the medium.  Une semaine de bonté is the third of Max Ernst’s collaged novels.  Based upon the wood engravings that were so common in late-nineteenth century novels, encyclopedias, and magazines, Ernst’s precisely rendered collages refigure images of Victorian society. Suit-clad gentlemen gain the heads of birds and lions; ladies in formal dress wear the scales of fish.  Scenes of murder infuse carefully controlled society stages.  The result is less playfully fantastical than unsettlingly so; the familiar becomes quietly strange, mythical, even violent.  These dark sensibilities were directly related to the environment in which Ernst was working, and the political conditions to which he was reacting.  Dictatorships were rapidly gaining power across Europe; the horrors of the previous World War were still vivid in the collective memory; the threat of a new war was looming.

Calendrier magique.
Manuel Orazi.
Paris : L'art nouveau, 1895.
BF1612 .O73 1895 FF ARTLCKL

Manuel Orazi was a fin-de-siècle Parisian illustrator and designer who was known for his flowing and idiosyncratic Art Nouveau style.  Produced in Paris in 1895 to anticipate the coming calendar year, Calendrier magique, composed by Austin De Croze with lithographs by Orazi, is a month-by-month guide to the occult.  Its layout is recognizably calendar-like, with dates placed in a grid or listed vertically in a format that echoes medieval liturgical calendars.  Yet its content, far more complex than a collection of days, is a [presumably intentionally] bewildering mixture of poetry, symbols, horoscopes, and spirit names.  The calendar was produced in an edition listed as seven hundred and seventy-seven, yet its current scarcity suggests that this number was an overstatement, either intentional or not.

Mountain Dream Tarot

Mountain dream tarot : 78 photographic cards.
Bea Nettles.
Rochester, N.Y. : Light Impressions Corporation, c1975.
TR647 .N477 1975A ARTLCKS

The seventy-eight card tarot deck (tarocchi) dates back to mid-fifteenth century Italy, where it was used for game-playing; it was not until the eighteenth century—amid a growing interest in mysticism and secret societies—that the deck became associated with divination.  Bea Nettles’s version is, purportedly, the first photographic interpretation of the symbol-laden deck.  Nettles used family and friends, and herself, as models, in many cases superimposing several images using pre-Photoshop darkroom techniques.


A fascination with the exotic permeated every aspect of collecting for the Kunstkammer.  With the possession of the unusual and distantly sourced came a unique status that labeled the collector as a connoisseur and the collection as a special destination.  Assemblages of exotica might include non-Western weapons, musical instruments, pottery, and clothing; Greek or Roman sculptural fragments; African masks; or Islamic manuscripts.  By the mid-sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, much of the initial European exploration of Africa, the Americas, and the Middle and Far East was complete, but the “Age of Discovery” was far from over.  As explorers and traders traveled in these areas more extensively, more and more ethnographic and artistic specimens and trade goods became available to collectors of means. 

On display:

La decoration arabe

La décoration arabe : décors muraux: plafonds, mosaiques dallages, boiseries, vitraux, étoffes, tapis, reliures, faiences, ornements divers...
Prisse d'Avennes
Paris : J. Savoy, 1885.

In the early part of the nineteenth century, Napoleon commissioned hundreds of scholars, scientists, and artists to describe Egypt in text and image, from architecture to artifacts to animalia.  The result was a monumental twenty-four-volume set entitled Description de l’Egypte; its publication (and the military invasion that preceded it) inspired a surge in interest in the Middle East by artists in France and beyond.  One such artist was Prisse d’Avennes, a talented draftsman with a propensity for writing, engineering, archaeology, and general exploration.  Beginning in the late-1820s, Prisse traveled in Egypt extensively, variously undertaking excavations of ruins, writing historical accounts of cities, learning Middle Eastern languages, and promoting the preservation of antiquities—all the while keeping a visual record of his journeys.

La décoration arabe, published in 1885, is an abbreviated edition of Prisse’s earlier, multi-volume work L’Art arabe.  It contains 110 chromolithographed plates, most from drawings by Prisse himself: images that present Arabic designs as enviable aesthetic specimens, worthy of study by the Orientalizing West.

After icebergs with a painter 

After icebergs with a painter : a summer voyage to Labrador and around Newfoundland.
by Louis L. Noble.
New York : D. Appleton and Co., 1861.
F1136 .N74 1861 ARTLCKS

Frederic Edwin Church was the sole student of the great landscape painter Thomas Cole and was, as such, a primary member of the Hudson River school’s second generation.  Like Cole, he approached the landscape with Romantic sensibility, though with far less emphasis on allegory.  Instead, as he traveled more widely and matured as a painter, he came to value a majesty of nature unmediated by implied narrative.

One of Church’s favorite subjects was the Arctic iceberg, represented most famously in his paintings The Icebergs (The North) (1861) and The Iceberg (1891).  His fascination with the subject had begun in 1857, when Church went to Labrador and Newfoundland with the writer Louis L. Noble.  The resulting book After Icebergs with a Painter includes a narrative account of the trip as well as lithographs after paintings by Church.  The images are printed in white and black on pale blue paper, lending them an ethereal and icy aura.

Monnayes Russes

Monnayes russes des dernièrs trois siècles...
T. F. de Schubert.
Leipsic : E. Schaefer, 1857.

T. F. de Schubert, also called Fedor Fedorovič Šubert, was a Russian astronomer and member of the St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences who, in addition to calculating such figures as the precise positioning of the equator’s main axis, published two studies of historical Russian coins, apparently in his free time. Monnayes russes des dernièrs trois siècles is a remarkable work; while it is not typically included in the great canon of numismatics, it is a stunning, three-dimensional representation of what was presumably a one-of-a-kind collection.

Rinehart's Indians

Rinehart's Indians.
F. A. Rinehart.
[Omaha, Nebraska : F. A. Rinehart; 1899]

In 1898, over 500 Native Americans from thirty-five different tribes converged on Omaha, Nebraska for an Indian Congress, the largest event of its kind to date.  Contrary to what its name might suggest, the Congress was not an event organized by and for the tribal members.  Rather, it was organized by the Department of the Interior and timed to coincide with the Trans Mississippi and International Exhibition—that is, it was an elaborate display meant to give the public a staged glimpse of Native American life and customs.  Captain W. A. Mercer, who managed the Congress, described his project thus: “It is represented…that there are yet many tribes within our borders whose quaint habits and mode of life, which have remained practically unchanged since the days of Columbus, are little known to the majority of our own people, and that an assemblage of this kind proposed would not only be beneficial to the Indians participating, but would be extremely interesting, as well as profitable, to the large body of people in attendance.”


In spite of its simplistic underpinnings, a very important product of the Indian Congress was a set of photographs (including portraits of Geronimo and Red Cloud) by Frank A. Rinehart and his assistant Adolph Muhr.  As mediated as these photographs were by the colonialist sensibilities of their setting, they are nonetheless an extremely valuable record of a set of cultures that were indeed quickly fading into history.



Alderson, Brian and British Library. Sing a Song for Sixpence : The English Picture Book Tradition and Randolph Caldecott. Cambridge Cambridgeshire: Cambridge University Press in association with the British Library, 1986.

Aubenas, Sylvie, Elisabeth Delange, Bernard Mathieu, Marie-Laure Prévost, Chloé Ragazzoli, Marie-Claire Saint-Germier, and Mercedes Volait. Visions d'Égypte : Émile Prisse d'Avennes (1807-1879). Paris: Bibliothèque nationale de France, 2011.

Barr, John. Illustrated Children's Books. London ; Wolfeboro, NH: British Library, 1986.

Dioscorides Pedanius and Lily Y. Beck. De Materia Medica. Altertumswissenschaftliche Texte Und Studien. [De materia medica. English]. Vol. Bd. 38. Hildesheim Germany ; New York: Olms-Weidmann, 2005.

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Farley, Helen. A Cultural History of Tarot : From Entertainment to Esotericism. London ;New York: I.B. Tauris ; New York, 2009.

Impey, O. R., and Arthur MacGregor. The Origins of Museums : The Cabinet of Curiosities in Sixteenth- and Seventeenth-Century Europe. Oxford: Clarendon Press ; New York, 1985.

Johnson, Robert Flynn., and Donna Stein. Artists Books In the Modern Era 1870-2000: The Reva and David Logan Collection of Illustrated Books. London: Thames & Hudson, 2001.

Jones, Kim, Sandra Firmin, and Julie Joyce. Mudman : The Odyssey of Kim Jones. Los Angeles, Calif.: Luckman Gallery, California State University ; Buffalo, N.Y., 2007.

Littlewood, Antony Robert, Henry Maguire, and Joachim Wolschke-Bulmahn. Byzantine Garden Culture. Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 2002.

Maclean, Ian. "The Logic of Physiognomony in the Late Renaissance." Early Science & Medicine 16, no. 4 (09, 2011): 275-295.

Porter, Martin. Windows of the Soul : Physiognomy in European Culture, 1470-1780. Oxford Historical Monographs. Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Riddle, John M. Dioscorides on Pharmacy and Medicine. History of Science Series. 1st ed. Vol. 3. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1985.

Rinehart, F. A. and Simon J. Ortiz. Beyond the Reach of Time and Change : Native American Reflections on the Frank A. Rinehart Photograph Collection. Sun Tracks. Vol. 53. Tucson: University of Arizona Press by arrangement with Haskell Indian Nations University, 2004.

Seipel, Wilfried. Meisterwerke Der Sammlungen Schloss Ambras. Kurzführer Durch Das Kunsthistorische Museum. Vol. Bd. 9. Wien: Kunsthistorisches Museum ; Milano, 2008.

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