|This online exhibition is a tribute to the inventive and eccentric minds that produced, often with loving care and craftsmanship, items that intrigue us today, even if we're not always sure just why they were made. Click on the pictures for details.|
Perusing a sheaf of prints or an antique market stall, one is taken by surprise by an odd object or startling subject. What on earth is THAT? you wonder. As much as George loves the exquisite craftsmanship, aesthestic sophistication and intellectual stimulation provided by a fine floor globe or mezzotint portrait, he always has an eye out for the quirky, the peculiar, or even downright bizarre artwork and objects that he comes across in his perennial search through the auctions and markets.
Of course, the original intentions of anonymous artists and craftspeople are often obscured by the passage of decades or centuries. However, when we have more information, in their very strangeness these eccentric objects open a window into the sensibilities, attitudes and interests of earlier eras. What strikes us as odd today reminds us that cultural outlooks are constantly changing. No doubt our own tastes, preferences and values will one day surprise, baffle or amuse our descendants!
--Helen Glazer © 2002-2009Ostrich Egg Holder
Collecting and displaying natural history specimens was a popular hobby for well-to-do 19th century gentleman; especially prized were exotic flora and fauna from distant lands which were only recently being visited and explored by Europeans. An ostrich egg would be valued for its record-breaking size, being the largest laid by any bird. Just how does one display it, you ask? On a metal stand specifically designed for that purpose in the form of an inverted ostrich claw, the base decorated with baby ostriches hatching from eggs (above).
Physiognomy: You Are the Sum of Your Parts
These whimsical portrait compositions portray members of various professions by literally assembling their bodies from tools of the trade as a visual pun. Each allegorical person has limbs and bodies entirely made from implements.
These prints were likely intended for amusement, perhaps making a light social statement on how people become what they do for a living. Insofar as the compositions are made by cleverly assembling inanimate objects that resemble body parts or clothing, they often are referred to as being anthropomorphic. They also relate to physiognomy, the art of determining personal characteristics from the form or features of the body, which was a major preoccupation of Enlightenment art and thought of Great Britain and Continental Europe of the 18th and 19th centuries.
The patriarch of the art of composing inanimate objects to form faces and bodies was the Italian Mannerist painter Giuseppe Arcimboldo (c. 1527-93), who painted allegorical portraits made up of natural or manmade objects, in series representing the four seasons, the four elements, occupations such as gardener, etc. Arcimboldo may not have invented the genre --the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford has a humorous majolica plate attributed to Francesco Urbini (active 1530s) of a man whose head is composed of phalluses -- however, he was definitely the chief popularizer. Nicolas Armessin, II, a French artist, in his series of engravings Costumes Grotesques (1695), apparently was the first to systematically portray various professions by assembling the bodies or costumes from the tools of the trade.
In 1828, similar tradesmen prints were published by W.B. Cooke, London, under the title Implemental Characters, For the Scrap-book and Album. The title suggests that such prints were issued to be put in scrapbooks, though of course they may also have been displayed in homes on the wall or left in book form. Implemental Characters was accompanied by sardonic verse by Thomas Hood (1799-1845), a renowned English poet who in the period developed the periodical The Comic Annual (1830-39 and 1842), suggesting that such prints were part of the culture of humorous entertainment of that period.
A set of lovely celestial prints produced in 1846 illustrated ideas of a Christian sect called the Muggletonians, who were decidedly outside the mainstream of both religious and scientific thought in Victorian England. Founded in the 1650s, Muggletonians dispensed with the notion of the Holy Trinity, believing Christ the Son was in fact the true God, while the prophets Elijah and Moses watched over Heaven. In addition, they believed that Heaven was to be found on Earth, rather than in the afterlife, and Hell likewise existed within man. Ritual was minimal; meetings commonly took place under the radar of the authorities in an inn or tavern, with a reading or two from the Bible, and the singing of the "Divine Songs" written by Muggleton and other members. The last surviving Muggletonian died in 1979.
It's easy to understand a market for Currier & Ives prints of pastoral landscapes and cuddly kittens during the 19th century, but difficult to imagine who the audience was for this strangely sadistic scene in which a malevolent monkey brandishes a red hot poker at a mother cat to keep her away from her helpless kitten. Titled A Tiff in the Nursery, it was probably intended as a satire whose meaning has been lost to us. Perhaps it is a critique of mothers who leave the raising of their babies to servants, or lampoons well-known political figures of the time.