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The lively world of the Renaissance imagination on view at the Folger Shakespeare Library
Backlit print that gives the illusion of flames and sparks. This scene depicts a devastating fire in an Amsterdam theater in 1772, in which 18 people died. Simon Fokke. Afbeelding der eerst uitslaande Vlamme... Print, 1772. Courtesy of The Richard Balzer Collection.

WASHINGTON, DC.- A shield made of hippopotamus skin. A mastedon’s tooth. Illustrations of fantastic war machines. Contemporary photography. Passages from Shakespeare.

What do these seemingly disparate objects have in common? All are on display in Very Like a Whale, a new exhibition at the Folger Shakespeare Library that showcases the lively world of the Renaissance imagination and the uniquely human ability to interpret a single object in multiple ways. The title is taken from a scene in Hamlet, in which the prince and the pompous court advisor Polonius look at passing clouds, each seeing different animals in the sky above. After having been cajoled into agreeing with Hamlet’s ever-changing interpretations, an exhausted Polonius concedes that the cloud is “Very like a whale.”

“I’m very interested in what the world looked like to people then. This show is one way to get people to experience that flux of associations. Imagination works in the same way nature does, it creates things,” says Michael Witmore, a curator of the exhibition and the director of the Folger Shakespeare Library.

Very Like a Whale is a cross-disciplinary partnership, with scholar Witmore and his co-curator, artist Rosamond Purcell, each providing distinctive perspectives on books, artifacts, and illustrations that represent human knowledge in the 16th and 17th centuries. After seeing Purcell’s work in Los Angeles, Witmore approached her to suggest collaborating. A publication, Landscapes of the Passing Strange, resulted, as well as the current exhibition.

“I love really old museums, and museums that have an eccentric but historic depth to them. It’s fascinating to find an engraving of a place that did exist with artifacts or specimens in it, and to try to re-create something that is long gone. The appeal of the older collections had to do with associations people made as the items were organized, and the way that they were organized is not the way that modern science, that you or I would classify them,” notes Purcell.

A key difference between a Renaissance worldview and a modern one is the then-widespread belief that objects that had similar appearances might also share other properties. While this classification system may seem strange today, it was quite compelling in Shakespeare’s lifetime.

“The exhibition sets up associations that Shakespeare and his contemporaries would have recognized. For example, there’s a case about the way human artifice and natural forms produce the same effects. That’s a complicated philosophical thought. But that thought is made concrete where you can see stones that look like sculptures, but were actually produced by a river,” says Witmore.

In addition to books and natural history, Very Like a Whale features photographs by Rosamond Purcell. In order to create the surreal images and color-drenched effects seen in the photographs, Purcell shot pictures reflected in mercury glass bottles, which are light-tight and lined with two layers of glass. The inner layer is coated with silver, providing a mirror-like surface that wreaks a haunting distortion on whatever is reflected in the glass.

“Every single picture that I took was a stretching of the mirrored image in one way or another. It was a bizarre way of taking a picture. Often I did not know until I had unloaded my camera what I had,” Purcell says.

Purcell’s photography has been featured in solo exhibitions at the Field Museum (Chicago) and the Cleveland Museum of Art (Cleveland), as well as in other venues, and is in the permanent collections of The Harry Ransom Center (Austin), the Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York), the National Gallery of Canada (Ottawa), and the Victoria and Albert Museum (London).

“One of the things I love about this period and my own contribution to the show as a Shakespearean is that I think Shakespeare was extremely good, maybe too good, at looking at one thing and seeing another. It was his gift of analogy. That’s why you feel whiplash reading Shakespeare, because you start with one image and end up with something completely different. And we show that process in the exhibition,” Witmore says.

Very Like a Whale features objects, artifacts, rare books, and photographs. The exhibition includes nearly 100 items from the Folger collection, the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, the Mount Holyoke College of Art, and several private collections.

Highlights include:

• Optical illusions. Illustrations of a devastating fire in an Amsterdam theater mimic the flames and sparks of a deadly blaze that killed 18 people.

• Contemporary photography. Photographs by Rosamond Purcell are displayed throughout the exhibition.

• Mind tricks. Athanasius Kircher, a distinguished scholar and a pioneer in the art of projection, used reflections to create optical illusions for viewers, such as giving a human a donkey’s head. A reconstruction of Kircher’s projection room, specially commissioned for this exhibition, is on display.

• An early robot. A mechanical monk from the 16th century is programmed to raise his arms, turn his head, nod, move his mouth, and even roll his eyes.

• Natural science. Fossils, stones, bones, and other materials, many of them from Purcell’s private collection, show the variety of natural forms and suggest myriad possibilities of interpretation.

By juxtaposing rare books, natural history objects, contemporary photography, and passages from Shakespeare, Very Like a Whale illuminates the roving Renaissance mind, adept at spotting similarities between seemingly unlike objects, and inviting new interpretations of the universe.

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