The technique of etching has given many a brooding artist a shadowy medium for their art, and while the time-consuming mode of creation has largely fallen out of mainstream popularity, Moroccan artist Érik Desmazières continues to use etching almost exclusively in his work.
For years Desmazières has been experimenting with etching to imbue his surreal and fantastic scenes with strong plays between light and dark, most memorably in 1997 with his illustrations for an edition of Jorge Luis Borges’s The Library of Babel. (Check out the dizzying library illustrations here and here, for just a couple of examples from the book.) He’s also long been interested in curiosity cabinets, a natural source of dark and intellectual material for an artist who’s so skilled at depicting skulls and books. In fact, it’s a rather famous, well-traveled skull that’s central to his newest book, A Cabinet of Rarities: Antiquarian Obsession and the Spell of Death, released last November by Thames & Hudson books — that of Thomas Browne, a 17th-century writer who was as curious as the oddities he collected.
The slim book is filled with an essay by Patrick Mauriès, who actually wrote another book published in 2011 just on curiosity cabinets, and while the writing and Desmazières seem to be meandering alongside each other on the same theme, they never completely link up. Mauriès only touches upon Desmazières’s art, noting how “out of step with time” it is in relation to other contemporary art. But this isn’t really true: curiosity cabinets and wunderkammers and the cluttered aesthetic of taxidermy alongside fine art alongside some weird rock found in an barren field or something is everywhere. Just in the past few months in New York there have been curiosity cabinet–themed exhibitions at Flux Factory, the Lodge Gallery, and the Grolier Club, not to mention all the new bars with their 19th-century feel, where stuffed badgers or raccoons can be found lurking alongside absinthe bottles and vintage paintings. Desmazières may have been out of step once, but his interest in this collection obsession and a fascination with strange objects is very current. It’s just that he’s doing it better than most.
The curiosity cabinet of Thomas Browne is the major focus of the essay by Mauriès, and an inspiration for Desmazières as well. To say Browne had wide-ranging interests is an understatement. His books include texts like Religio Medici, on the religion of physicians, which featured some of his own beliefs on the existences of witches and angels (he also published a book called Pseudodoxia Epidemica on “presumed truths” that he sought to reveal as “vulgar errors” — perhaps irony was one thing out of his wide grasp), and the Musaeum Clausum, published after his death in 1684, which purports to describes art, books, and other objects that have been lost. Yet the 17th century wasn’t the end of Browne’s strange story. His coffin was unearthed in 1840, and his skull was stolen and acquired by a surgeon. Eventually it ended up in the Norfolk and Norwich Hospital Museum and went on display. In 1900, someone had the clever idea to actually photograph it on top of his own books, and that image was used in a 1904 edition of his collected works. In 1922, it was at last returned to the church, and a vicar with a sense of humor noted the age of death as “317 years.”
Desmazières is at his strongest when minutely crafting the details of a cluttered cabinet or the shadows of a skull in black and white, with etchings involving moody colors diminishing the old-world effect so reminsicent of the books that Browne authored. Looking at his “The Skull of Sir Thomas Browne” (2010), you finally get at his new book’s tagline, “antiquarian obsessions and the spell of death,” which remains an undercurrent throughout. Here in this skull on a pile of its own words is a reflection of obsession, mortality, and the fascination with the antique, and Desmazières inverts it in shadow the way he reflects these bygone traditions in his own art.