Wes Anderson and Juman Malouf are the third guest curators (after painter-draftsman Ed Ruscha and ceramicist-writer Edmond de Waal) to create shows from Kunsthistorisches Museum's collection of over 4 million works, the largest in Austria.
Over the last three years, Anderson and Malouf combed through the museum’s enormous repertoire, with particular attention to works not on display but rather in depots, resting indefinitely beyond public view. The duo handpicked upwards of 400 of their favorite pieces, a selection that spans over 5,000 years and includes items from all fourteen of the museum’s historical collections, from ancient Egyptian and Greek antiquities to Old Masters, coins, costumes and even items from the Imperial Carriage Museum, such as two 18th century watercolor plans for sleigh rides.
The objects have been presented in a characteristically unexpected and charming way by the couple, who are known for wry stylish storytelling and creating visual narratives through their keen aesthetic sensibilities. While one room seems to be entirely dedicated to objects and artworks that are the color green—such as thirty-two malachite specimens from the Natural History Museum’s collection, a green silken dress worn on the Viennese stage in a 1978 production of Hedda Gabler, a vessel carved from an enormous emerald in 1641, an unassuming 1930s cigarette case from the Vienna Rennverein Club, and a stunning oil on panel depiction of Salome with the head of John the Baptist, to name a few—Anderson and Malouf’s organizational principles are not always immediately obvious. Why, for example, is there a large empty vitrine opposite a display of reliquaries, faded but ornately gilded crown containers, cases to house scepters and sabers and a wood trunk for wigs worn with the Spanish livery?
Hanmer Hanbury, the only child at the opening event, who was attending from England as his twelfth birthday present, guessed the answer before any of the adults in the room. “They’re all boxes,” he surmised. “They’re all meant to hold things.” Anderson and Malouf intended that all of these items demonstrate the invention of the hinge, but Hanbury’s observation is true too and draws attention the way the show is hung, with many works at a child’s eye-line.
Indeed there’s method here, playful, astute and appealing to the treasure hunters in us all. Anderson and Malouf juxtapose some of the finest works in the museum's collection with natural elements and unusual found objects—portraits of the famous Hirsute man and his family are a stone’s throw from some fresh emu eggs, ancient pieces of wood, ornate Victorian earrings carved from humble cherry pits, and many items that have never before been exhibited because they weren’t considered important enough or were incomplete. “One of the Kunsthistorisches Museum’s most senior curators at first failed to detect some of the, we thought, more blatant connections,” notes Anderson in the catalog's introduction. “Even after we pointed most of them out, still questions their curatorial validity in, arguably, all instances.”
Contemporary Curator, Jasper Sharp counters that “a project of this kind re-examines the relationships between museums, artists, collections and their publics.” Taken together, the exhibit offers a window into the spry minds of two modern working artists, influential storytellers whose visual vernacular has become instantly recognizable, but moreover, it poses fresh questions about the very idea of what makes something an art object and what unites objects in a collection—is it form, function, beauty, age, preciousness of material or simply the curator’s whim? By posing these questions, the couple has brought the curators of one of the world’s greatest museums to their knees, in consternation and ultimately, in deep appreciation and offers a new generation of museum-goers a chance to feel childlike wonder.
Spitzmaus Mummy in a Coffin and other Treasures is on view at Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien until April 2019 and then will move on to Fundazione Prada in Milan.