Land, Sea, Sky: the Wunderkammer drawings of Jennifer Keeler-Milne

The ‘cabinet of curiosities’, or wunderkammer, first emerged during the Renaissance. Collections of rare and valuable items from around the world, they were created by individuals seeking to discover connections and meaning between objects created in ancient and contemporary societies and those found in nature.

As both new and ancient worlds were being (re)discovered during this period - sometimes described as the Age of Exploration – developing disciplines of science and philosophy vied with religion and ancient arts of alchemy and divination, encouraging scholarship and broadening the scope of knowledge as a desire for humanist learning grew. Wonders from around the globe were unearthed through exploration and trade, and many became highly prized and collectable. Wunderkammer were a direct result of a desire to gather, order and possess these objects and through their collection, understand the world from which they came. 

Famous early cabinets (such as that of Ole Worm, Danish, 1588-1654) housed a wealth of disparate objects, from preserved animals and skeletons, minerals and plant specimens to human-made curiosities, antiquities, scientific and artistic items, religious relics and fakes. Items were gathered and displayed in encyclopaedic and eclectic groupings that celebrated nature and the worlds of antiquity, science and art. Those which seemed to blur distinctions between animal, vegetable and mineral (such as corals) were especially prized. Cabinets became the subject of study and reflection, and lead slowly towards a more taxonomical way of understanding the world, much of which underpins modern scientific and museological classification. Many now consider the cabinet of curiosities to be a precursor of the modern museum. 

Cabinets were equally valued as a source of wonder and entertainment. Objects within them were arranged with an artist’s eye, driven as much by aesthetics as the scientific and spiritual beliefs of their collectors. Images of early cabinets show many of them to be objects of beauty in themselves – sometimes modest pieces of furniture or vitrines, and other times grand and declarative architectural statements using rich and rare materials, encompassing whole rooms.  A wunderkammer was primarily a reflection of an individual’s interests and preoccupations - a well-chosen cabinet was a reflection of its owner’s intellectual authority or even, in the case of royal and ducal collections, the imperial power of the state.

Since its prime during the seventeenth century, the cabinet of curiosities has captured the imagination of writers and artists. When one considers the assemblages of 20th c. American artist, Joseph Cornell, the cabinet of curiosities immediately springs to mind. The physical boxes that enclose his groupings of found objects are as important as the items contained therein - the vessel stands as an embodiment of the act of collecting, arranging and ownership. 

In more recent times, numerous contemporary artists have evoked the ideas and impulses behind wunderkammer in their work, including Australians Janet Lawrence and Fiona Hall. Similarly, over the past two decades many artists and museums in Europe and the United States have presented exhibitions and displays based on the abundance, mystery and eclecticism of the cabinet of curiosities. One such show - Spanish artist Miguel Angel Blanco’s 2013 ‘Natural histories’ intervention at the Prado in Madrid - presented natural history specimens juxtaposed against artworks from the collection, including a vitrine containing the ghastly ingredients of a witch’s potion - the bones of a hartebeest, a bat’s skeleton, a preserved cobra, toad and salamander – next to Goya’s great painting Witches’ Sabbath or The Great He-Goat (1820-23). 

While one of the main functions of the wunderkammer was the extension of knowledge, the idiosyncratic connections and juxtapositions made by collectors often revealed the extent of what remained unknown. For example, while Ole Worm correctly identified a horn in his collection as that of a narwhal and not a unicorn as was commonly believed, he went on to speculate about its potential magical properties, which unicorn horns were thought to possess. For us, as for Ole Worm, the blanks left through limits in our knowledge can be filled by the imagination and one can be left with pure pleasure in the aesthetic and a sense of wonder at the world. 

For over a decade, Sydney painter and draughtswoman Jennifer Keeler-Milne’s principal subject has been nature, with a strong emphasis on drawing. Her first major series of drawings were dreamy, evocative cloud studies, while later series have included the scrubby desert plants of far western New South Wales. Her drawings of natural objects evoke mood, sensation and memory, brought to light with great sensitivity and insight. They are not botanical or natural history studies in the traditional sense, but rather poetic evocations of the beauty and variety of nature. 

This new series of drawings creates a sort of virtual cabinet of curiosities – the drawings standing for the natural objects she has collected for her subjects while the gallery space is, as the artist describes it, her ‘two-dimensional cabinet’. The objects are of the land, the sea and the sky – rocks and gemstones, sea urchins, corals and sponges, nests, moths and feathers – humble and fragile remnants of the inexorable evolution of the planet and the passing of time. 

Keeler-Milne draws with willow charcoal on French hand-made paper, materials that share their origin in nature. Arranged on the wall, first in the artist’s studio and later in the gallery, the deliberate placement of the drawings is as revealing as the collating and arranging instincts of wunderkammer collectors of old. Similarly, her choice of objects to draw is as subjective as theirs, notwithstanding her modern understanding of nature which is a world apart from the amateur botanists of the 16th century. While the frames of reference have shifted, Keeler-Milne shares with her collecting ancestors the urge to gather, arrange and admire, and most of all, to find meaning. Unlike a modern didactic display in a museum, the individual items are not identified with their scientific or common name, their place of origin, or place in the taxonomies of nature. They are left unnamed, un-describec, enigmatic. 

Pleasure is the most immediate response to the drawings in this exhibition, in the subtle and beautiful renderings of humble objects from nature, made monumental in their abundance and intensity of focus. Each feather, urchin or coral is brought to the fore as the artist strips away all context and colour, situating each object emerging from the centre of its own dark little window of charcoal blackness.  Our knowledge of them is necessarily aesthetic and intuitive, gleaned from their visual evocation on paper, and their essential mystery is retained. This mystery is what ties these subtle and moving drawings to their antecedents in the original cabinets of curiosities. 

Anne Ryan, 2016   Curator, Australian Prints, Drawings & Watercolours, The Art Gallery of New South Wales