One Fine Show: ‘The World Made Wondrous’ at LACMA

The paintings, though skillful, seem to have been selected for their context, and there’s a great deal of irony.

Welcome to One Fine Show, where Observer highlights a recently opened exhibition at a museum outside of New York City—a place we know and love that already receives plenty of attention.

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A vintage painted portrait of a Dutch man wearing a hat and holding one hand over his heart
Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn, ‘Portrait of Marten Looten’, 1632. Los Angeles County Museum of Art, gift of J. Paul Getty, photo © Museum Associates/LACMA

Last year around this time I had the opportunity to visit Aphrodisias, and I took my time walking down the museum’s long, rich hall of reliefs. Each is a little smaller than life-sized, offering vivid depictions of myths and histories, all of them dense with information like a scene from a good movie. I liked the strange positions they came up with for bodies—crucifixion being another one of those, I guess. The Roman Empire, I thought to myself as I took in a depiction of the emperor raping a personification of Britain, problematic fave.

SEE ALSO: How Does the Smithsonian Decide Who Gets Into the National Portrait Gallery?

Sometimes conquering regimes yield good art, and sometimes they collect it from all over the world so they can put it in an encyclopedic museum. It’s this latter impulse that is explored by “The World Made Wondrous: The Dutch Collector’s Cabinet and the Politics of Possession,” a new show at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, which is just such a museum. The show features over 300 artworks, animal and mineral specimens, scientific instruments, books and more, assembled as an imagined 17th-century Dutch collector’s cabinet—the precursor to these kinds of museums. Over half come from LACMA’s collection, and each section of the show pairs these materials with pieces by four contemporary artists—Jennifer Ling Datchuk, Todd Gray, Sithabile Mlotshwa and Uýra Sodoma—whose work addresses elements that might not be represented in such a cabinet, like the Dutch East India Company’s involvement in the slave trade.

Institutions like LACMA have been doing a lot of hard thinking lately about their collections, sometimes at the behest of district attorneys, and this show has done it in a public and unique way. Moreover, there’s just a lot of really good stuff in it. There’s a beautiful Chest with Figures, Flowers, and Birds (c. 1650), from the Ryukyu Islands and a mysterious cloudy bottle with attractive cracks that may date to 1550 BCE and came to the museum via William Randolph Hearst. You’re reminded that part of the reason that the Dutch had such good still lifes was that they had such good material to be painted.

The paintings, though skillful, seem to have been selected for their context. There’s a great deal of irony. Clara PeetersStill Life with Cheeses, Artichoke, and Cherries (c.1625) doesn’t look any more appetizing than it sounds, despite the technical skill on display. There’s also Frans Post’s, Imagined Landscape of Dutch Colonial Brazil (c.1655) which shows how nice they could have made the houses there, with unenslaved locals prancing in the surf. Oh well, they can’t all be Rembrandt, who is represented in this show with his Portrait of Marten Looten (1632). Do you think they chose it because of the name?

“The World Made Wondrous: The Dutch Collector’s Cabinet and the Politics of Possession” is on view at LACMA through March 3, 2024.

One Fine Show: ‘The World Made Wondrous’ at LACMA