An Eye for Detail

My Favourite Things

Have you ever marvelled at still life paintings by Dutch 17th-century masters? Their opulent tableaux are exquisite examples of the genre. The key to their work is the thoughtful selection and detailed depiction of items boasting a wide range of forms, textures and reflective qualities.

Many photographers have created or captured still lifes in this way: some choosing to play with symmetry and repetition, others opting for more complex arrangements.

Martin Gerlach (1846-1918) was a specialist still life photographer. With his often curious yet vibrant compositions – as gathered in the book Festons und Decorative Gruppen – Gerlach continued a long-standing tradition that reached its apogee in the 1890s: that of the example book, used by artists as a source of inspiration. Gerlach’s pictures are particularly noteworthy because of their unexpected combinations of objects and their baroque atmosphere.

On show at the Asian department in the Rijksmuseum’s ‘Druckeruitbouw’ is this combination of objects related to Surimono - a genre of Japanese woodblock print. It exudes finesse, craftsmanship, tranquillity and reverence. The space offered by the glass box has been put to maximum use, with the feathers and the mounted print balancing the horizontally positioned objects at the bottom.

With its seemingly disorganised scene, this daguerreotype is situated at the other end of the spectrum. Yet the photograph of this cluttered corner - possibly an actual attic room - frames and objectifies the scene. Seen through a photographer’s lens, we are invited to enter and follow the lines of the image: from the bust on the upper left to the guitar at the bottom right, with the rolled-up chequered carpet and the arms on the wall reinforcing the diagonals.

Images documenting private collections or Wunderkammern often walk the line between meticulous organization and object overload. At first glance, this shot of the studio of Maurice Neumont in Paris’s Quartier Pigalle does not reveal much about its proprietor’s identity. A closer look suggests an interest in arts, judging from the stylish Art Nouveau furniture and the wealth of textures, fabrics and inspirational objects on display. Just behind Neumont - a painter and graphic designer - a wooden cabinet serves as a miniature Wunderkammer. The armature, in turn, hints at an interest in war history. Neumont was a leading proponent of French patriotic propaganda during World War I; he produced many graphic works and opened his atelier to like-minded artists.

Frans Claes, a Belgian collector and archaeologist living in Antwerp, decided to showcase his private collection by having a house designed around it. ‘De Gulden Spoor’ was built as a museum, its Neo-Gothic exterior and opulent interior mirroring the collection’s focus on folklore and military history. Depicted here is St. Michael’s room, with an astonishing range of collectables, from swords and stuffed animals to porcelain and musical instruments. After his death in 1933, Mr. Claes’s collection was sold at auction. Today, part of what was once the nation’s most esteemed collection of its kind, it is preserved in Antwerp’s city museum MAS.