Reopening the Cabinet of Curiosities: Nature and the Marvellous in Surrealism and Contemporary Art

Marion Endt-Jones

    Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis


    This thesis argues that the concepts of curiosity and the marvellous resurface at different moments in cultural history, most notably in periods of transition and epistemological uncertainty. The sixteenth- and seventeenth-century ‘culture of curiosity,’ which is characterised by the amateur collector’s engagement with rare and boundary-crossing objects in the process of assembling a cabinet of curiosities, presents a rich contextual foil against which to place the practice of the Surrealists and of some contemporary artists and curators; it has profound resonances for the relationship between modernism and postmodernism, and between art and science. Within modernism, the Surrealists initiated a large-scale, fundamental probing of the principles underlying rationalist thought, and of the categories and hierarchies of academic art and bourgeois taste, which had dominated Western culture since the Enlightenment; and within postmodernism, artists and curators who revert to practices of collecting and appropriate protocols of the natural sciences question institutional frameworks of knowledge production, identity formation and meaning making through material artefacts. In both instances, curiosity and the marvellous – and the related themes of classification and dilettantism – have emerged as especially effective and resonant means of reading dominant culture against the grain. More specifically, this thesis contends that the Surrealist marvellous is rooted in the early modern discourse of the marvellous and monstrous which was characterised by ‘paradoxes of classification.’ This is particularly evident in the Surrealists’ engagement with objects testifying to the natural marvellous and the natural fantastic: stones, coral and insects, among other things and creatures, carry distinctly subversive implications of obscuration, entanglement and excess, metamorphosis and mimicry, and deviation and transgression, straddling the boundaries between art and nature, and art and representation. Furthermore, contemporary artistic and curatorial practice drawing on the ‘age of the marvellous’ – which, in this perspective, extends to Surrealism, with the potential to recur at any time thereafter – is primarily concerned with overcoming ‘white cube’ and Beaux-Arts-Museum historicity, aesthetics and display rationales by reintroducing subjectivity, doubt and digression into the context of the museum and the sciences. In this regard, scepticism towards intellectual certainties and accomplished systems of classification leads to an informed recourse to moments in history when the meanings of objects were being constantly negotiated rather than set in stone.
    Original languageEnglish
    Awarding Institution
    • University of Manchester
    Publication statusPublished - 30 Sept 2008


    • cabinet of curiosities
    • Surrealism
    • curiosity and the marvellous
    • natural objects


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