Mapping the Marvellous

Itineraries of curious objects and collections.

Category: surrealism &ct.


Can’t wait to get my hands on a copy of this new book by Mark Dion – ‘part exhibition catalogue, part scientific log book, and an archaeology of our fascination with the sea’:

Mark Dion, Oceanomania: Souvenirs of Mysterious Seas from the Expedition to the Aquarium (Mack, 2011).

See here, here and here for more info on the exhibition the book accompanied (still heart-broken I missed it).

Oh, and I also can’t wait for Christmas break to begin. Bring it on.


How does this

and this

develop into this


Metamorphosis, you say?

Yes. But:

The larva of Luidia sarsi is a semi-transparent diaphanous sprite that feeds on algae and grows to a remarkable 4 centimetres.

Then something extraordinary happens.

Instead of changing shape to become an adult, a cluster of cells lining the larva’s internal cavity grows, like an alien invader, and out of these a starfish is born. Floating free from its other self, the adult form settles on the ocean floor, where it survives and grows by hunting down other starfish in the dark of night. Meanwhile, the larva continues its vegetarian existence, grazing the surface waters above.

From Frank Ryan’s article in the New Scientist, Metamorphosis: Evolution’s Freak Factory, via The Book of Barely Imagined Beings.

How could you not agree with Roger Caillois who suggests, in his essay The Natural Fantastic, that certain phenomena testify to “the existence of an underlying imaginary that is part of the real”?

See also this article on sea squirts as ‘real chimeras’ living in the oceans.


Playful and sinister at the same time: Max Ernst covered in seaweed, photograph taken by Roland Penrose in Lambe Creek, Cornwall, 1937.

A Paris Institution

This month’s issue of Lonely Planet Magazine has a feature on Deyrolle, the famous Paris taxidermy shop that was frequented by André Breton and other members of the Surrealist group (and which I got to visit with my friend V. in 2009). Here’s an extract from the article (‘the most beautiful interiors in the City of Light’):

… Zebras, lions, bears, birds, and antelope are arranged as if at a cocktail party – the animals’ lifelike air is both disconcerting and droll, as though they had finally prevailed and displaced humans. Woody Allen got the joke and imagined a surralist wedding party in these rooms for his latest film, Midnight in Paris. …

Deyrolle also prides itself on an enduring tradition of protecting nature for future generations. ‘Every animal and insect under this roof was acquired in accordance with the Washington Convention on Endangered Species,’ says Francine Campa, the shop’s deputy manager. ‘We have arrangements with zoos, animal parks and circuses to take animals that have died.’

The shop provides an encounter with the French approach to natural history: the urge to classify and collect in the name of science; a preoccupation with the beauty of specimens and their presentation; and the impulse to combine strange objects and animals in quirky assemblages. Nature should not only instruct us, you sense here, it should also enchant us. …

Sounds like Midnight in Paris might be worth checking out after all!

Gorgon misses podium by six points

Surrealist Survey on Mythological Creatures, VVV, nos. 2-3, 1943, p. 62.

Concerning the Present Day Relative Attractions of Various Creatures in Mythology & Legend

Having asked a few friends of both sexes to classify fifteen creatures of diverse mythological derivation in order of their attraction, we present the following table. The results obtained give us some basis for judging their contemporary relative attraction. The order of choice was as follows:

1. Sphinx;
2. Chimera;
3. Minotaur;
4. Gorgon;
5. Unicorn;
6. Vampire;
7. Succubus or Incubus;
8. Siren;
9. Bloody Nun;
10. Werewolf;
11. Narcissus;
12. Homonculus;
13. Dragon;
14. Circe;
15. Galatea.

The very definite preeminence of the Sphinx is evident, since not only does it come at the head of the general classification, but also at the head of the masculine as well as the feminine classification. Elsewhere the two viewpoints, masculine and feminine, have resulted in very different choices. For example the Vampire, the Werewolf, and the Siren were feminine preferences. The masculine antipathy for the Dragon should be noted in contrast to the feminine antipathy to the Bloody Nun and Circe, etc.

Surrealist Survey on Mythological Creatures, VVV, nos. 2-3, 1943, p. 63.

VVV, nos. 2-3, 1943, cover.

The participants in the enquiry, published in the Surrealist magazine VVV in 1943, were:

Lionel Abel, André Breton, Nicolas Calas, Georges Duthuit, Max Ernst, Brion Gysin, David Hare, André Masson, Matta, Robert Motherwell, Harold Rosenberg, Kurt Seligmann, Yves Tanguy, Patrick Waldberg,

Jacqueline Breton, Leonora Carrington, Susanna Hare, Ann Matta, Rose Masson, Arlette Seligmann, and Kay Tanguy.

The survey is reproduced in Penelope Rosemont (ed.), Surrealist Women: An International Anthology (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1998), pp. 166-7.


Via seed capsules.


Objects gifted or loaned by members of the public to the Wellcome Collection for their project Things:

“I wanted to make a very different looking Barbie. I was pleased with how it turned out but I didn’t want to display it in my house, so I’m pleased to find a home for it. The Clipper lighters are my friends idea and I like the look of them. I made the oil burner I want to share it.”

“This hat belonged to my father – a film cameraman who travelled the world through his work. Each badge represents one of his jobs so there’s quite a story to it.”

“If I see a photograph album in a charity shop or house clearance I feel compelled to give it a home. I don’t know the people, there’s no personal connection, but a symbolic one – to somehow relocate lost moments and past memories.”

“These are two objects made by my husband at different periods of his life. The box he made while he was well and the pot, he made whilst in the grip of motor neurone disease. I love them both, of course. Maybe the disease was liberating.”

mounted marten

“I was wondering what to do with this. It was a gift at one time.”


Things to live with, things to dream with, things to think with, things to work with, things to play with, things to tell stories with.

Tools, souvenirs, mementos, keepsakes, heirlooms, curiosities, rarities, knick-knacks, trinkets, bibelots, paraphernalia, collectibles, artworks, artefacts, trophies, fetishes, toys, gifts, relics, treasures, offerings, gadgets.

Tristan Tzara, When Things Dream, 1934:

…Submarine views, stones of clouds, flights of sharks by waves of applause, retinas of veils, auroras of crustaceans in glass, tables of direction, watches of lightning, crumpled papers that trouble the stars and the thousand feathers of resentment, all that which awakens tenderness out of all reason, unstable flames, sisters of love…, from childhood until death do you people this ocean which you accompany with your supreme silence… Things to touch, to eat, to crunch, to apply to the eye, to the skin, to press, to lick, to break, to grind, things to lie, to flee from, to honor, things cold or hot, feminine or masculine, things of day or night which absorb through your pores the greater part of our life, that which expresses itself unnoticed, that which matters because it does not know itself…

Click here to see more objects from the Wellcome Collection’s Thing exhibition.

Corollaries of urban beekeeping.

La bicyclette à la selle d’abeilles. This photograph of a swarm of bees covering a bicycle seat was sent to André Breton by Meret Oppenheim (and published in Médium: communication surréaliste, no. 3, mai 1954).

The source for this image might have been a ‘faits divers’ article about a swarm of bees settling on a bicycle parked in front of a confectionery store in Whittier, California, published in Popular Mechanics Magazine in September 1915.

… For more than two hours the insects succeeded in turning shoppers to the opposite side of the street and crowding vehicular traffic well into the middle of the pavement. Oddly enough, the bees in settling chose the seat of the cycle as a clustering place and piled themselves nearly a half foot deep upon it, also thickly covering part of the frame and rear wheel. Subsequently a hive was procured and the bees transferred into it by a policeman.

Will this become a familiar sight, as an unprecedented beekeeping hype is spreading to cities all over the world?

See for example this recent BBC News article on Paris as the new beekeeping capital of the world.

dear f.

Jennifer Angus,
A Terrible Beauty III: To Have and To Hold, 2007 (detail).

(from the book of illusions)
by Sjón

reykjavík 11.03.’80

dear f.

last night I dreamed you cut
all your hair off and used it to make a bed in which we
made love, an the facing wall was a mirror
and when I came I saw in
it that you were no longer with me.
you sat in a chair lacquering your fingernails
with green nail polish made out of grasshoppers.
you said: red houses are your wives.
then I woke up because I had bit myself in the
shoulder. it was half past six.
otherwise everything is fine, it is
cold here but warm enough for an old

bye, your friend

Translated by David McDuff

In Poetry Review, vol. 100:1, Spring 2010, from a special feature on Icelandic poetry by Jason Ranon Uri Rotstein.

Curiosity and Resignation

The fascination of curiosity – a passion so strong it urges the explorer-scientist to push boundaries, physical and imaginary, while suffering the deprivations of exhaustion, starvation, homesickness, seasickness and disease.

See these quotes by Jean Painlevé, Alexander von Humboldt and Charles Darwin; they are all enraptured by the marvellous flora and fauna they encounter, by novelty and wonder – so much so that physical pain doesn’t seem to matter any more.


Wading around in water up to your ankles or navel, day and night, in all kinds of weather, even in areas where one is sure to find nothing, digging about everywhere for algae or octopus, getting hypnotised by a sinister pond where everything seems to promise marvels although nothing lives there. This is the ecstasy of any addict, including any hunting-dog bounding across a field, criss-crossing it with euphoric expectation, even though each hidden crevice it stumbles over reveals, at most, a rotten potato.

Jean Painlevé, ‘Les Pieds dans l’eau’, in Voilà, 4 May 1935.


We have finally arrived in the most divine and marvellous country. Extraordinary plants, electric eels, tigers, armadillos, monkeys, parrots and a number, a great number of unspoilt Indians, half-savage, a very beautiful and interesting human race… So far we have been strolling around like mad men. Bonpland says he will lose his mind if the marvels do not cease soon… I feel that I will be happy here and that these impressions will still exhilarate me in the future. [...] But the lack of food, the mosquitoes, the ants, the acarians (a small mite that perforates the skin and ploughs it like a field); the desire to refresh oneself with a bath and the impossibility of taking a swim, given the ferocity of the caimans; the sting of the rays and the bite of the little fish: it takes young age and much resignation to suffer all this.

Alexander von Humboldt in a letter sent to his brother after his arrival in Cumaná, Venezuela, in 1799.


In the Bay of Biscay there was a long & continued swell & the misery I endured from sea-sickness is far far beyond what I ever guessed at. [...] Nobody but a person fond of Nat: history, can imagine the pleasure of strolling under Cocoa nuts in a thicket of Bananas & Coffee plants, & an endless number of wild flowers.— And this Island [St Jago] that has given me so much instruction & delight…

Charles Darwin in a letter to his father, 8 & 26 February and 1 March 1832.


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