‘Tis good to collect sometimes’ Ben Jonson wrote in 1601, and, providing the emphasis is on the last word, this eclectic and exciting exhibition at the Sainsbury Centre could serve as its ideal vindication. Bringing together personal collections from some of the twentieth century’s most original artists, Magnificent Obsessions: the Artist as Collector keeps alive the eighteenth century tradition of the ‘cabinet of curiosities’, sometimes in a more mundane, modern way, but sometimes with a more Victorian, macabre edge.
For example, have you ever wondered what a hare would look like with antlers? What about a lamb with a foot apparently growing out of its head? Or another lamb, ‘with seven legs and two bodies – born in Wales, 1912’? Or a weasel with the head of a bird of prey? Or a mer-zombie, made from a desiccated fish with a hag-like head and claws? Welcome to the Taxidermists’ Freak Show – it’s your chance to find out.
But it’s not all stuffed pangolins and lions, miniscule birds, butterflies, shells, fossils, and a Poe-Shakespearean raven and skull arrangement. There is an early copy of Newton’s Principia, and photos of Sol LeWitt’s Manhattan loft. Complete with floorboards, pipes, and balls of string, this latter really shows that some ephemera deserve to remain ephemeral. LeWitt’s superb Japanese artwork, however, rescued from banality the part of the exhibition devoted to his collections. As a note, the use of the space and rooms of the exhibition floor was also skilful, with both enough objects to delight and disturb, and enough open space in which to appreciate them.
Edmund de Waal’s collection of carved objects, including exquisite miniature mice, and a nut or peach pit, were beautiful works of craftsmanship, as were the quaint decoupage screens collected by Peter Blake. The layers of the washing-line-like wall assembled by Pae White using assorted fabrics were a marvel to behold, and walking among the suspended sheets was like exploring the aisles of the best fabric market in the world. Watermelons, trees, car manufacturers, flowers, liquorice allsorts, and Japanese maple leaves are only some of the designs. Other interesting exhibits include Arman’s collections of masks (of both gas and African varieties), Martin Parr’s array of cigarette cases commemorating the Soviet space dogs that went from the streets to the stars, and Hiroshi Sugimoto’s collection of prosthetic eyes.
Sometimes a collection reveals its owner’s personality. Andy Warhol’s vast range of cookie jars may be impressive to some eyes, but not even his own eyes rested for long on the objects he bought. His bleak Pittsburgh childhood might have been responsible for his later acquisitive obsessions. He went from having nearly nothing, to buying so many items that most of them remained unwrapped in storage. At other times, the collections are curved mirrors of their collectors’ own art, as in the case of Howard Hodgkin, whose collection of Indian artwork clearly informed his use of vivid colour in, most notably, The Studio of Jamini Roy, the painting displayed here.
Magnificent Obsessions was originally at the Barbican Art Gallery, but it is obviously entirely appropriate to the Sainsbury Centre, a gallery built on the art collection of Robert and Lisa Sainsbury. And as well as looking back to the past, the exhibition faces the future, as it invites visitors to share photos of their own collections. Just send a picture, together with 50 words, to firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also post onto the Sainsbury Centre’s Facebook page, or tweet to @SainsburyCentre. For more details, visit http://tinyurl.com/yourmagnificentcollection. I’ve only mentioned a handful of the wonders on display in this exhibition, but fortunately, it’s open until 24th January 2016, so take a look. I can guarantee you’ll find things there that you’ve never seen before!