Review: Wes Anderson the Curator, Champion of the Quirky and the Overlooked

Kunsthistorische Museum Wien, Vienna | Spitzmaus Mummy in a Coffin and other Treasures, Curated by Wes Anderson and Juman Malouf, 6 November 2018 – 28 April 2019

The Green Room

Snow blanketed the street. Christmas markets filled the squares. Glühwein perfumed the air. The backdrop was oddly well set for Wes Anderson to stage an exhibition in Vienna, the festive season bringing the same air of romance and nostalgia to the city as one of his movies. Two years in the making, Anderson and his partner Juman Malouf have curated an exhibition at the Kunsthistorische Museum titled Spitzmaus Mummy in a Coffin and other Treasures. It’s part of a larger series at the museum that invites well-known creative people to curate an exhibition at the museum. Given access to over four million objects in their archives, the aim is to see if their unique eye can teach us new and unexpected things about the museum’s collection. Anderson is a clever choice: few people have such a particular vision of world (just look at the @accidentallywesanderson Instagram for proof). He also has a devotee fan base. Hours after hearing about the exhibition, I had booked my flights to Vienna. 

The exhibition takes place in a high-ceilinged room, in the heart of the Kunsthistorische Museum. This grand space is partitioned into seven intimate spaces, each with a theme. One room, for example, is full of miniatures objects; another is full of portraits of courtly children dressed as adults. Abandoning any curatorial rules, Anderson and Malouf have chosen artworks and artefacts based on their aesthetic qualities. They haven’t paid attention to famous artists, historical importance or provenance, more intrigued by beauty, oddity and the ability to tell stories. As a result, there is no wall text describing the objects, how old they were or who produced them. They are to be understood with the eyes. The audio guide is an added bonus. In each room, you can eavesdrop on a conversation between Anderson, Malouf and actor Jason Schwartzman (a regular in Anderson’s movies). Their unstructured musing draw your attention to different objects in each rooms, bringing them to life with imagination and anecdotes.

The star of the exhibition is a tiny Egyptian coffin made for a spitzmaus (a field mouse). This small wooden coffin, which is half the size of a shoebox, is normally dwarfed by sarcophagi in the Egyptology wing, but here it takes centre stage. It is a humble object, adorned with naive paintings and tiny hieroglyphics. When Anderson talks about the coffin he becomes choked with emotion. Rather than explain why it means so much to him, he holds his silence, keeping an air of mystery. One can only imagine how this object excites his imagination, the stories that swirl around his head.

The week the exhibition opened in Vienna, I found myself at an opening for the Frank Gehry exhibition in Berlin. That night I shared a conversation with one of the curators of the Islamise Kunst Museum Berlin [Islamic Art Museum]. We’d both read about the star-studded opening of Anderson’s exhibition in the New York Times. Being an academic man I assumed he would find Anderson’s purely aesthetic approach to curating somewhat lacking; theoretically unhinged perhaps. Yet, his point of view was far more intrigued. In Islamic art, he explained, motifs and colours are endlessly repeated to reinforce ideas. Through this repetition, Islamic art starts to work on the subconscious: the symbolic vocabulary is so engrained in the brain, people start to read works of art intuitively. Turning to Anderson’s exhibition, he argued that by isolating objects from their historical context and organising them by colours and symbols, the audience is given the chance to respond to the art from their own experiences. When I saw the exhibition, I could only agree. Liberated from any duty to approach the art academically, I was far more attentive to the objects in front of me and spent most of the exhibition smirking at the curious selections.

The design of the space feels like slipping into the pastel world of Grand Budapest Hotel or Moon Rise Kingdom. In each section, the walls are lined with different colour felts. Art and artefacts are placed all the way up and down the walls, meaning that to look at some objects you need to get down on your hands and knees. There seems no better way of undermining the stuffy, academic feel of museums than inviting visitors down to a child’s level. It would be very hard to be pompous squatting on the floor, looking at a taxidermy jellyfish through a small square window. There is so much joy in this exhibition, so much whimsy for whimsy’s sake. They get away with it because of the sharp attention to detail. From flawless lighting to faultless symmetry, everything is considered and deliberate.

The mustard coloured room was my favourite. Inside a vitrine are a series of curious boxes. Normally hidden from the public in the archives, Anderson has brought these beautifully crafted objects into the spotlight. Amongst them are a red vase-shaped box, an ebony pipe case and a cylindrical spear holder. The artefacts held inside them are positioned alongside, no longer the heroes but the side-kicks. This is a quintessential Anderson troupe: he has shifted the focus away from those who normal hold our attention to show us the greatness of someone or something we tend to overlook, just like the spitzmaus coffin. Another example is the ‘hairy man of Munich’ and his family, whose portraits are included in the exhibition. As a result of a rare genetic disorder, thick hair covered all their bodies, including their faces. They become well-known in courtly circles, travelling around for the amusement of the nobility. Regarded as novelties in their time, when Anderson hangs their portraits it is not so they can be seen as novelties again, but so their unique beautiful can be appreciated. 

 There is another clever idea at play with the vitrine full of boxes. If a vitrine is a box full of objects and a museum is a box full of vitrines, we are looking at a box inside a box inside a box. Anderson has turned the museum into a babushka doll. His point is nicely made by placing an empty vitrine alongside this display, accentuating its ‘boxy’ form and celebrating its innate beauty as an object in its own right.

An Anderson fanatic, I made a pilgrimage from Berlin to Vienna especially to see the exhibition. Unable to shake my high expectations, I was nervous I might be underwhelmed, that Anderson’s esoteric charm would be strangled by the requirements of the museum. This was far from true. Lead by Anderson and Malouf’s shared concern for storytelling and detail, the exhibition was enchanting and mesmerising. The museum’s experiment has paid off. Together, Anderson and Malouf have taught us something valuable about their collection (and art in general): to trust in our intuition and to have the confidence to enjoy objects for the sake of pleasure. What could be a more noble aim than to seek fun? 

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Snowy weekend in Vienna

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