Tim Walker: Wonderful Things recalled the cabinet of curiosities, or Wunderkammer, curated by aristocrats during the European Renaissance. The precursor of today’s museums, cabinets of curiosities were often filled with natural and cultural artifacts of geologic, ethnographic, archaeological, or antiquarian significance, objects that were sometimes counterfeit and frequently stripped of the didactics common to today’s museum displays. For this exhibition, Tim Walker was inspired by the diverse works held by the Getty Center and London’s Victoria and Albert Museum (where the show was on view in 2019 and 2020) to create a fervently maximal experience for viewers – one less invested in the historical conditions from which the source objects emerged than in their immediate aesthetic impact.
Walker, a celebrated British fashion photographer known for his inventiveness, is a builder of resplendent worlds. His dark and beautiful fantasies are dominated by disorientations originating on both sides of the camera. His mise-en-scenes contain magnificently constructed sets updating the atmospheres of art-historical works and other imagined realms, often with a baroque approach to framing and movement. Formally, the photographer employs trompe l’oeil to intrude on the viewer’s space, as well as fisheye lenses, vignettes, and double exposures to disrupt photography’s tendency toward realism. Redirections towards artifice and surface abound, including those in a series of photographs inspired by a German stained-glass window, ca.1520, that have been captured through cracked glass.
The Getty exhibition expands upon the V&A presentation, for which Walker was invited to pick ten works from the museum’s collection as inspiration for his own suite of photographs. For the V&A exhibition, Walker and his team constructed fantastical sets that riffed on objects such as the 11th-century Tapestry of Bayeaux, 19th-century drawings by Aubrey Beardsley, and an 18th-century chess set from West Bengal, India. For the Getty exhibition, Walker added two new series of photographs, each based on one of two paintings from the Getty’s collection, A Faun and His Family with a Slain Lion, ca. 1526, by Lucas Cranach the Elder, and The Annunciation, ca.1450-1475, by Dieric Bouts. The photographs are presented in clusters alongside the older works, dividing the sweeping exhibition into visual micro-climates.
Reiterating an ongoing effort to legitimize fashion photography as a fine art, Walker has stated that his work aims to transcend its commercial origins. This exhibition took his fashion photographs – created for clients such as Alexander McQueen and Saint Laurent and featuring celebrities such as Tilda Swinton and Cate Blanchett – off the pages of magazines and into conversation with some of the most canonized contributions to global art history. The clothing is incidental to the dream-visions he creates within his photographs – but so, too, are the rich histories embedded within each of his source materials.