The Kunstkammer in the KHM (the Kunsthistorisches Museum) has been closed for as long as I’ve been coming to Vienna, and longer. It reopened this weekend to great fanfare, and I spent the first sunny Saturday in months (for which I get bonus points) as one of the earliest visitors. It is simply and absolutely spectacular.
The works in the Kunstkammer are difficult to characterize in general, and especially within a museum setting; they’re a legacy of medieval notions of collecting, extended by the Habsburgs into the 17th century, that did not follow modern forms of classification. Despite the name (Kunstkammer means literally “art room”, though it refers to a concept more than a space), the collection intermingles painting and sculpture with works that float between categories — highly altered natural objects, aesthetic inventions, and refined creations out of precious materials executed at the limit of the craftsman’s skill. For example, these intricately carved ivory vessels:
Such objects—and there is no single term for them—were an enormous part of Habsburg collecting, but in modern museums they are separated off from the works of painting and sculpture defined as “high art” by academies; at very roughly the same time, they ceased to fit the “art vs. nature” taxonomy that, as a result of changing notions of science, came to define museums and their collections. But it is for precisely this reason that the works of the Kunstkammer are so extraordinary—they are either unlike anything else, or the very best examples of their highly unusual kind.
For the last decade, the works in this part of the erstwhile Habsburg collections were hidden away, or distributed somewhat haphazardly through the other galleries. It was this redistribution, combined with the ongoing reconstruction, that provided the opportunity for a thief, in 2003, to make off with the collection’s most famous occupant: the Salt-cellar, or Saliera, executed by Benvenuto Cellini in the 1540s.
The Saliera is a highly elaborate piece of royal tableware; originally made for the king of France, a minimal 1/8th or so of its surface is occupied by a little bowl for holding salt, which at the time was a precious commodity. The remainder is a mythological extravagance representing the mingling of Ceres and Neptune to make salt, as well as figures of the four winds and the times of day. It’s a riot, and I have been in love with it since I was a freshman in college. I’ve taught the Saliera dozens of times, waxed on about its brilliance, and was traumatized by its theft—but oddly enough, thanks to the timing of its disappearance and the closure of the Kunstkammer, I’d never actually seen it.
It did not disappoint. The Saliera is vastly more astonishing in person than in reproductions—the sheer intricacy of the thing was beyond anything even I had expected. Not to mention that there are a host of animals swimming across its surface that don’t show up clearly in photos. I found myself saying things like, “Holy moly!” and “Unbelievable!”, no doubt to the deep joy of my fellow visitors.
Overall, my experience of the Kunstkammer generally mirrored that of the Saliera: It’s simply great. If one theme holds together the wild diversity of objects housed there, it is that they were largely created to signal artistic and imperial dominance over all of art and nature, and possession of the kind of wealth and power that can command the best of each—not to mention the ability to hire the kind of labor capable of reshaping them. Far from diverging the fruits of divine and human endeavor, the Kunstkammer craftsmen deliberately crossed the wires of creation, yielding objects like this ostrich egg/coral/silver/gold extravaganza:
Whatever material you would like to see brought to its absolute limits of intricate artistic refinement—bronze, marble, precious stones, wood, ivory, metal, paint—it’s all there. Among my favorites — the room (room) of ivories contains this phoenix—a true testament to the artist’s ability to transform one living material into another living form and, not coincidentally, a somewhat oblique reference to the Habsburg eagle:
I’d like to write more about some of the specific themes of the Kunstkammer later — the game sets, for instance, and the automatons, as well as the medallions and small portraits (not to mention the small bronzes….gorgeous). But for the moment let me just say — get thee to the Kunstkammer, GO. And right now is the perfect moment. The sun is shining, and all of Vienna is outside, pretending like it’s spring. The tourists have not yet arrived. The galleries on Saturday afternoon were practically empty.