Peter York: The cabinet of curiosities
The Way We Live Now
Saturday 25 April 2009
Do you speak Fogey? I can hack it at a foreign-language level. If you hang out with the boys – Young Fogeys are overwhelmingly men – you can pick up a lot. The skills and vocabulary include A Sense of Period – Fogeys know when things happened and when things were made. Estate-agentisms like "Georgian-style" are astonishingly upsetting for them.
Fogeys have a very particular way of doing their houses – one that's gone in and out of fashion over the past 25 years but is creeping back in as the mood changes and the false demotic in everything looks wrong. Every Fogey worth his salt has a "wunderkammer" of some kind. A cabinet of curiosities. A collection of exotic and ancient things, relics of a personal grand tour, an ironic quotation from an earlier Fogey. An ideal cabinet would contain an early miniature Pyramid; the Turin shroud; Napolean's penis; the skulls of amazing beasts; a Leonardo drawing and a set of William Harvey's original medical instruments. For a start.
Cabinets allowed men to exercise early Master of the Universe tendencies. Something from everywhere in the Known World, and all the known arts and sciences. Things Ancient and Modern. Things to order and arrange. The obsessive fun of collecting combined with its decorative effects, so very different from the more austere New Labour styles of the past 12 years. So different from Dame Kelly Hoppen's highly controlled exercises with three lilies in laboratory glasses and a goldfish bowl full of pebbles.
Here, every surface is crammed with things of cultural reference (often fraudulent; before carbon-dating, dealers stuck bones together to make mythical beasts and lashed up carvings to make Classical fragments). Daftness only adds to the pleasure – a lump of amber with an old insect or tiny amphibian in it. A distinguished murderer's skeleton hand. Taxonomists love taxidermy. Damien Hirst has only highlighted, not invented, the growing fashion for stuffed things.
This cabinet full of monkey skulls does the business. Concerned people will be concerned by it. Modernists will want to tidy it away. And yet, in the Darwin bicentennial year, the graduated monkey skulls are pretty compelling. Now, after the Less Is More decade people are saying Bring It On to this sort of thing.
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