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Opening the Augsburg Cabinet Drawers

On October 28, the department of European Decorative Arts will unveil a bold new way to look at its collection—from the inside out. A hands-on, iPad-based technology—called LaunchPad—has been developed, allowing viewers to interact with the objects, including watching animations of the hidden interiors of a wide variety of objects on display and perusing videos revealing the trade secrets of their construction.

One of the richest objects for these interactive programs is the museum’s Augsburg Cabinet (top image), a mammoth concoction of ebony wood and ivory inlay from Southern Germany in the 1660s. It was intended to be over-the-top, a veritable cornucopia of artistic references from prints collected across Europe, combined with practical, but fashionable accessories such as shiny medicine jars, toiletry items, and even an ivory tablet ripe for amateur sundial-making and collecting (above). These deluxe constructions were exceedingly popular with the nobles of the time. Philip Hainhofer―a sometime diplomat, and merchant from Augsburg, Germany―started a cabinetry craze by furnishing his elite clientele with many multi-tiered and drawered objects much like the Art Institute's cabinet. Hainhofer died in 1647, and so did not design our cabinet directly, but his style endured in the Europe-wide fascination with woodworking masterpieces that hinged (quite literally) on the tempting possibilities of closed doors and endless drawers. Many of the cabinets were decorated with inlaid or relief designs taken directly from prints by important artists from Germany and the Netherlands, which in turn offered a highbrow guessing game for cabinet owners and their friends. As a well-connected merchant, the maker of the first Augsburg Cabinet would have been quite familiar with German and Dutch prints, especially those with secrets and doors (of a kind) of their own to unlock.

In an early album (now at his patron Herzog August’s Library in Wolfenbüttel, Germany), Hainhofer included a colorful, interactive sketch of a cabinet he proposed building, with two flaps attached that reveal a bevy of gold statuettes of saints. This emphasis on making the interior visible and physically accessible suggests one of the thrills of the finished cabinets, which only the owner could open and exhibit. His inspiration for this diagram may have been a colorful drawing he owned of a Venetian courtesan with a liftable skirt (revealing men’s drawers and tall, stilt-like shoes) copied from a popular print. Around 1613, again using flap technology, Hainhofer funded a set of three scientific broadsides with hundreds of flaps, which are now at the Art Institute! These anatomical flap prints present male and female bodies as Adam and Eve, and allow the viewer to open them up to great depths, marveling at the sinew, muscle, and bone all the way. While other woodcuts predated Hainhofer’s production, these engravings are significantly more layered and replete with bells and whistles, much like the decorative flourishes on the later Augsburg Cabinets.

The cabinet-collectors and makers of the early German Baroque would not have gendered furniture (though urban legend claims that Victorians saw table legs as a naked threat), perhaps solely due to an unfortunate inability to make puns using the German word for 'drawers.' Salvador Dali later made the surreal connection between the seductiveness of the female form and the quasi-sexual accessibility of such a cabinet in a 1936 Art Institute drawing, City of Drawers. While Dali’s paired drawer knobs and intimately-placed keyhole are suggestive of nipples and a chastity belt, the initial purchasers of our cabinet would not have been quite so literal. They would however, have found the artwork to be highly desirable. What would the Art Institute's Augsburg Cabinet first viewers have done when they encountered such a sought-after object? Marveled at the cabinet's size, or circled it to observe its slick and shiny, minutely-worked exterior? Longed to rummage through its marbled-paper-lined drawers? They may have ached to peer into the innermost recesses of a cabinet to contemplate the colorful reliefs of the four seasons (as engraved by an associate of Hendrick Goltzius) or take a gander at an equally-hidden relief of a damsel in distress (and undress) after Agostino Carracci. They could even have engraved an ivory tablet for time-telling across the mid-European latitudes of 42-52 degrees. Whatever their desires, the Augsburg Cabinet could provide. Come to the European Decorative Art Galleries after October 28 for a peek at the Augsburg Cabinet as it has never been seen before, in an animation that peers into its highly-refined nooks and crannies. Only then will all be revealed!

Image Credits: German, Augsburg.  Augsburg Cabinet, c.1660s, Wood, ebony; carved and inlaid ivory, stained and carved wood relief, gilded bronze, iron implements.  Anonymous Purchase Fund. Ivory Sundial tablet (found inside the Augsburg Cabinet), 1660s. Lucas Kilian. Third Vision, from Mirrors of the Microcosm, 1613. Gift of Dr. Ira Frank. Salvador Dalí. City of Drawers, 1936. Graphite on buff wove paper.  Gift of Frank B. Hubachek, 1963.3