Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Learning from the King

If there was one reason to travel to East German city of Dresden, it would be to see the unique collections of objects and art, amassed by the Elector (King) of Saxony, Augustus the Strong (1670-1733).

Of all Dresden museums the most unusual is, definitely, the King’s treasure chamber, known here as the Green Vault (Grüne Gewölbe). The display, accessible to selected visitors already in the 18th century, was conceived as an early example of gesamtkunstwerk – a total work of art – where the objects, the setting, and the passage through rooms were carefully planned to form a complete aesthetic experience.

There is, of course, plenty of gold, silver, and ivory on display. Yet other materials that attracted my attention were unexpected:  coconuts, ostrich eggs, Nautilus shells, Seychelles nuts, rhinoceros horns, even cherry pits. The interest in these exotic materials, stimulated by the age of geographic discoveries, was common among the European royal courts at the time. This was the period when the kunstkammer (the cabinets of wonders) proliferated in Europe, where the objects from faraway lands were stored and displayed. Those “curiouse” items were kept to arouse curiosity – a concept that in the 17th-18th century was synonymous with quest for knowledge. Yet the Green Vault is not merely a kunstkammer. Every shell and coconut – those signifiers of the exotic, “the other”– were sent to court artisans to be re-worked, re-combined, re-interpreted into new decorative objects. As with most treasure art, the functional requirements were nil. It was all about the effect, the surprise, the complexity. Apparently, the king presented his artisans with an aesthetic carte blanche, where the only requirement was an impeccable quality of craftsmanship.

To call these strange material collages eclectic would be both an understatement and simplification. Nicolas Bourriaud in his book The Radicant talks about creolization, “a process involving acclimatization and cross-breading of heterogeneous influences”, as a major determinant of contemporary art. This concept is perhaps applicable here. The meaning of king’s precious objects lies in joyous juxtaposition of cultures, in the sense of wonder about our wide and strange world, in the belief that beauty can unite and conquer all. Three hundred years later, these sentiments still resonate.