Rhapsody in Death
Artist Project / Rhapsody in Death
From the earliest wunderkammern of Ole Worm and Athanasius Kircher to the more modern genes of the natural history museum and the hunting trophy, taxidermy (from the Greek, literally an “arrangement of skin”) has always occupied a slippery position somewhere between the worlds of science and art. The preservation of organisms’ bodies, for study or pleasure, inevitably carries with it some measure of subjectivity — decisions about posture and context always reflect a mix of pedagogy and performance designed to not only depict, but also to heighten, the viewer’s experience of animal form and character.
The balance between the scientific and aesthetic impulses that had traditionally overned taxidermic display comes charmingly out of whack during the mid-nineteenth century, when practitioners like Hermann Ploucquet and, later, Walter Potter began to abandon all pretense of naturalism in their displays, opting instead to deploy their menageries of stuffed kittens, birds, rabbits, squirrels, weasels, toads and other small creatures in peculiar anthropomorphized settings—tea parties, cricket matches, sword duels, and the like. The work of Ploucquet, a taxidermist at the Royal Museum in Stuttgart, was a huge sensation at the Great Exhibition at London’s Crystal Palace in 1851, earning praise from Queen Victoria and made the subject of a book, The Comical Creatures of Wurtenburg, featuring daguerreotypes of his celebrated displays—including those illustrating episodes from the medieval European folk tale of Reynard the Fox—seen at the exhibition. For his part, Potter—the son of an innkeeper, born in Sussex in 1835—took the gesture even further. Though the sixteen-year old may not have seen loucquet’s work in London first-hand, the images of his tableaux were widely circulated and the first of his many major taxidermic displays—The Original Death & Burial of Cock Robin, which he completed in 1861—contains nearly one hundred different stuffed birds arrayed in a cortege presided over by a barn owl gravedigger and a black rook in a clerical collar.
Strictly speaking, the display seen in photographer Lena Herzog’s images on the following pages is not taxidermy—it is an arrangement to be sure, but one conspicuously lacking “skin.” Produced by a Dutch physician (and notorious village crank) named E. J. van der Mijle in the 1860s, it features fifty mice skeletons, arrayed as a performing orchestra and attentive audience. Although it obviously shares certain characteristics with the fantastical displays of Ploucquet and Potter, it is probably more properly aligned with an older precedent to be found in its own country, that of the botanist and anatomist Frederik Ruysch (1638–1731). Ruysch, who pioneered the practice of preserving human soft tissues and organs for medical study, amassed an enormous collection of physiological specimens which he sold, as his contemporary Albertus Seba had his own collection, to Peter the Great in the second decade of the eighteenth century. Van der Mijle’s tableau, which entered the collection of the Leiden University Medical Center in the first half of the twentieth century, is today housed in a room at the university where it presides, an uncanny memento mori, over the oral dissertation defenses of the school’s Ph.D. students.
Thanks to Andries van Dam, conservator at the Museum of Anatomy at Leiden University Medical Center.