Magnificent Obsessions at the Barbican

Magnificent ObsessionsMagnificent Obsessions, the new exhibition at the Barbican Art Gallery, turns our usual idea of the relationship of artist and collector on its head. Normally, artists produce art and collectors collect it. But what do artists themselves collect? A very varied range of things is the answer, as the Barbican sets out to show us.

The show includes fifteen personal collections of contemporary artists, ranging from Damien Hirst to Howard Hodgkin. Their collections include mass-produced memorabilia and popular collectibles, rarefied artefacts, bizarre specimens, objects of beauty and works of art. The grand scale of the Barbican Art Gallery enables each collection to stand on its own in a clearly defined space, giving the spectator a chance to appreciate what a tremendous variety of objects have been assembled.

The first artist you encounter as you walk in is Hiroshi Sugimoto, whose recent exhibition of photographs of dioramas at the Pace Gallery I covered in December. His collection centres on the anatomy of the human body, including rare eighteenth century Japanese books of anatomy from Sugimoto’s own Odawara Art Collection. Human dissection was prohibited in Japan until 1750, when Yamasaki Toyo got permission to dissect the body of a criminal. This illustration is from Toyo’s Zoushi of 1759.

Book of anatomy Yamasaki Toyo

American minimalist and conceptualist Sol LeWitt began collecting nineteenth century Japanese prints when he was serving in the US Army in the Korean war. His collection includes this set of early twentieth century hand coloured photographs, along with an ink painting by an unknown artist.

Sol Lewitt collection - photos of Japan

German artist Hanne Darboven amassed a bizarre collection of objects over the four decades from 1968, when she returned to live in the family home in Hamburg, until her death.

Hanne Darboven room

French Nouveau Realist Arman collected African art and samurai armour. This black lacquered steel and navy blue silk suit of armour by Yukinoshita Masatsugu dates from 1656.

Arman collection - Samurai armour

And here’s Andy Warhol’s cookie jar collection.

Andy Warhol Cookie Jar collection

But the collection that really attracted me was, not surprisingly, Edmund de Waal’s netsuke. Yes, the hare with amber eyes was there, along with a number of other of de Waal’s favourite netsuke.

Edmund de Waal Netsuke

I loved this little selection of rats.

Edmund de Waal Netsuke

And this rat on an edamame bean.

Edmund de Waal Netsuke

There were so many lovely netsuke, you must go just to see them.

Edmund de Waal Netsuke

Edmund de Waal Netsuke

Edmund de Waal Netsuke

There was one of de Waal’s own works on display – 57 porcelain vessels in white glazing with gilding, in a wood and glass vitrine.

Edmund de Waal Vitrine

And some collections de Waal made when he was a child, including these coloured shells.

Edmund de Waal shells

Magnificent Obsessions opens at the Barbican Art Gallery tomorrow, 12 February and runs until 25 May. The Gallery is open Saturday to Wednesday 10am to 6pm, Thursday to Friday 10am to 9pm. Tickets are £12.

8 thoughts on “Magnificent Obsessions at the Barbican

  1. Super post. It has prompted me to say a long overdue thank you for your post on Hiroshi Sugimoto, which I visited at your suggestion and really enjoyed. The images have haunted me ever since.


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