Stuff: Hoarding, Collecting and the Ontopology of the Artist’s Space

by A.R. Warwick , Spring 2011

Sigmund Freud, who pathologized everyday life, was a collector. This is of course a great understatement since his collection of Roman, Greek, Assyrian, Egyptian and Chinese antiquities eventually numbered over 2300 pieces that filled his office and consultation room. Peter Gay writes: “The first and overpowering impression that Freud’s habitat makes on the visitor is the profusion of things… The sculptures, finally, have their assigned shelves and their glass cases, but they intrusively invade surfaces intended for other purposes: bookshelves, tops of cabinets, writing tables, even Freud’s much used desk. The whole is an embarrassment of objects” (Russell W. Belk et al. “Collecting in Consumer Culture,” Highways and Buyways: Naturalistic Research from the Consumer Behavior Odyssey, 1991). These objects not only fed his writings and treatments, they also played a role in his sense of psychological stability. When he fled to England to escape the Nazi occupation of Vienna in 1938, friends and family noted how having his collection with him made Freud’s adjustment to life in London much easier.

Aristides described a collection as an “obsession organized” (though in the case of Francis Bacon’s studio the obsession is more contained than organized) and while Freud’s collections made his emigration easier, one could argue that it was a result of the collection representing a sense of home or place transferred from Vienna to London. In this the collection provided a psychic link between the collector and place, akin to Derrida’s notion of ‘ontopology’ or the basing of identity on place (Derek Pigrum, “The ‘ontopology’ of the Artist’s Studio as Workplace: Researching the Artist’s Studio and the Art/Design Classroom,” Research in Post-Compulsory Education, 2007). While Derrida was referring to nationalism and the trauma of diaspora, the comfort Freud’s collection provided was an example in which place was housed not only in a location but also in the collection itself.

It is from this understanding that the fascination with the artist’s studio and environment arose. The impetus to preserve these spaces lies not only in their status as art historical pilgrimage sites, but also in the lure of the personal effects and collections housed within. These relics offer the possibility of insight into the mind of the owner. More recently, the media’s proclivity for reality television has resulted in a number of genres that are enjoying particular success: hoarding and collectibles. Whether pawned, picked or sold, the collectible object has become the center of popular discourse, and whether pathology or pleasure, the space of the accumulator of things has become a familiar sight.

Sir John Soane was a Professor of Architecture at the Royal Academy who designed his home at 12-14 Lincoln’s Inn Fields, London between 1792 and 1824 as a living space, work space and museum of architecture. Even before its completion, Soane was imagining it as a future ruin which he mentioned in his 1812 publication Crude Hints Towards a History of My Home on L[incoln’s] I[nn] Fields. In their essay “Haunting the Artist’s House,” Bridget Elliot and Jennifer Kennedy describe Soane’s construction and renovation at Lincoln’s Inn as “the material manifestation of this imaginary ruin, as Soane worked backwards from his description of the ruin to the realization of his house.”

The final result is architecture as self-portrait, a house that feels like a model of the mind. Filled with a collection of antiquities and medieval architectural fragments, the interior is a labyrinth of light and shadow with overlapping ground floors. The upstairs is a space of clarity and enlightenment Soane had painted a buttercup-yellow and lit from above by a mirrored skylight. The skylight and a series of convex mirrors illuminate the central shaft around which the rooms are arranged, leading down to the dimly lit Sepulchral Chamber. Here, in what might be described as the house’s subconscious, are his collections of fragments of medieval gargoyles that give the space a playful sense of gothic horror. Within the shadows lurk the ghoulish objects he collected: the urns, sarcophagi and monstrous sculptures of irrational fears.

Moving upward, Soane’s hoard of antiquities and fragments move from darkness to light. Richard Lorsch asserts that the “role of the object as part of a specific archaeological discourse is suppressed for its more immediate capacity to refer to what might be termed a universal theater of dwelling… Within the private theater of the house is a speculum mundi, where the contemporary ritual of daily life contains a reverie (rather than an analysis) upon the past” (“The Aesthetic Order of Sir John Soane’s House,” International Architect 2.9, 1982). The individual objects that make up his collection only find cohesion in their arrangement within the idiosyncratic architecture. One example is the Painting Room where Soane housed his collection of artworks including William Hogarth’s cycles The Rake’s Progress (1733-34) and An Election (1754). With limited wall space, Soane devised an elegant solution for displaying his paintings by creating a series of cabinet-like panels three deep that open from two opposite walls. Each panel had paintings hung on both sides and the experience of opening and closing to see the collection is like that of viewing a scrapbook.

John Soane’s house was always intended to be open to students and “interested amateurs” as a museum of architecture, but the result of his obsessive collecting and the idiosyncratic space he built to house it resulted in an ontopological Gesamtkunstwerk.


Kurt Schwitters’s Merzbau was an architectural intervention into his family home in Hanover, Waldhausenstrasse 5, where he used wood and plaster built up into a grotto-like environment of forms and columns. Within was an inner core comprised of various ephemera and random objects that formed individual grottos amongst which were the Goethe and the Nibelungen caves. There were caves of murderers, heroes and friends, and stories abound of Schwitter’s penchant for stealing small, personal objects from friends (Lazlo Moholy-Nagy’s socks, Hannah Höch’s key, Mies van der Rohe’s pencil) who would find them placed in little niches until they were retrieved or covered by another layer of strata as Schwitters continued to add to what Jaleh Mansoor called his “continuous project altered daily” (“Kurt Schwitters’ Merzbau: The Desiring House,” Invisible Culture, Issue 4, 2002).

Begun in 1923, the relationship between the artist and his ever-evolving studio was described by Brian O’Doherty as where “the artist, like some industrious organism, shed his own exoskeleton as the studio progressively evicted him and limited visitors to one entry at a time” (Studio and Cube: On the relationship between where art is made and where art is displayed, 2007). But Schwitters refused to be limited by the structure of the house, and the Merzbau extended up to the attic skylight and down even below the structure’s basement, with spiral stairs descending into a concrete cistern down to the water level (Elizabeth Burns Garnard, Kurt Schwitters’ Merzbau: The Cathedral of Erotic Misery, 2000). He bored holes into walls and floors creating additional space for the collected ephemera and discarded objects. For Schwitters, the Merzbau contained everything that mattered to him, and when he learned after fleeing Germany that his first Gesamtkunstwerk was destroyed in an Allied bombing raid in 1943, he spent the rest of his life creating new Merzbauten, first in Norway and later in Elterwater, Cumbria in England.


The cacophony of papers, photographs and books in the photographs of Francis Bacon’s South Kensington studio resembles nothing as much as the room of a hoarder on reality television. The insidious aspect of the collection is how it can draw the viewer into the minutiae, trying to discern who is in the photographs, noticing a journal with a reproduction of Picasso’s Minotaur cover, each recognition pulling the viewer ever deeper. Unlike the hoarders on television he freely allowed his partner to clean out his studio on a number of occasions, but the remaining piles metastasized and again took over the space.

Both the decision to transport the studio en toto when he moved to Dublin, as well as the careful use of photographic documentation and forensic anthropology, speak to the ontopology of both the space of 7 Reece Mews and the hoard within. Bacon felt that the cramped studio was perfect to work in despite repeated offers of larger, more open spaces. Excavating and documenting every scrap of ephemera (even down to the precious dust that rested on the surface) and re-creating the cramped architecture and smeared paint on the walls and door in Dublin is essentially presenting the studio as the “explanation” of the man and his art.

Barbara Dawson, director of the Hugh Lane Gallery in Dublin, entered Bacon’s studio in 1997 (Bacon died in 1992), the experience of which she described as “like looking into somebody’s mind” (Edemariam, Alda, “Francis Bacon: Box of Tricks,” The Guardian, 5 September 2008). She draws a connection between the close quarters of 7 Reese Mews and a trauma from his childhood. She recounts a story told by Anthony Cronin in his essay “An Irish Fear of Death” that he had heard from Bacon about his early childhood, where a nanny who cared for him for long periods when his parents were gone had a soldier boyfriend who would visit during these times. They wanted to be alone but Bacon was a lonely child and interrupted their trysts. She started locking the child in a cupboard, where he would scream for hours in the dark, out of earshot of the couple. Years later he stated that the cupboard “was the making of me.” Dawson concluded that the studio was, in turn, the making of Bacon’s art. Rather than a space to house the accumulated treasures of a collector, Bacon considered his studio a “compost heap” where the hoard’s elements contained fragments of memory and images that contributed to his paintings. It is these memories that lure the viewer into the hoard, promising to reveal the inner workings of the artist’s mind.


When The Criterion Collection released the DVD of Guillermo del Toro’s first feature film Chronos in 2010, the fanboy excitement it generated was based less on the film than on one of the disc’s extras, a tour of del Toro’s “Bleak House.” Described by the director as his “man cave,” the house in Westlake Village outside of Los Angeles is home to his design studio, office, library and, more importantly, his collection. The spaces are filled with maquettes of the monsters from his films, works by contemporary artists and vintage oddities and automata.

A collector and horror genre fanboy from the age of nine, del Toro is an obsessive collector and his Bleak House was inspired by the home of Forrest J. (Forrey) Ackerman. The original fanboy, Ackerman was a literary agent who coined the term “sci-fi” and who later in life welcomed visitors to his Ackermansion in “Horrorwood, Karloffornia” for a tour of his vast collection of horror and science-fiction film memorabilia and to hear stories of the writers and filmmakers he’d known throughout his career. Ackerman’s collection inspired a large number of filmmakers and writers, and the tragedy of his life was the need for him to sell off parts of the collection.

Visitors to the Ackermansion went to see the collection, but the lure of the Bleak House is the prospect of seeing into the mind of the creator of The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth. In Daniel Zalewski’s recent article on del Toro for The New Yorker, he recounts seeing a mounted Malaysian stick bug that the filmmaker bought during a childhood visit to New York. Twenty years later it appeared in Pan’s Labyrinth where it transforms into a chattering pixie. Quoting del Toro, “That’s why I collect images. All this stuff feeds you back” (Daniel Zalewski, “Show the Monster: Guillermo del Toro’s quest to get amazing creatures on screen,” The New Yorker, 7 February, 2011). The Bleak House becomes, for the fanboy (and occasional art historian), another puzzle, much like the fragments in Bacon’s organic hoard, through which the viewer might understand the mind of its inhabitant.

For del Toro, as for Sigmund Freud, part of the collection’s value comes from his psychic connection to his beloved objects. Later in the article Zalewski tells of del Toro’s trip to Wellington, New Zealand with his family to work on The Hobbit. His traveling companions also included the maquettes of the Angel of Death from Hellboy and Mr. Wink, the eyeless monster from Pan’s Labyrinth. The project never got off the ground and his assistants reported that he was miserable, even with two-dozen boxes from his collection accompanying him. Unlike Freud’s move to London, del Toro’s objects were not enough; he would only be happy back in Los Angeles in the Bleak House.

Like Freud’s “embarrassment of objects,” the collections of things amassed by artists and the spaces in which they are kept promise to provide the key to understanding the creative mind. The identity of the collector and the space of the collection becomes inextricably linked, as is described in Derrida’s ‘ontopology,’ where brief or permanent separation from the Gesamtkunstwerk, as in the cases of Freud, Schwitters and del Toro, proved traumatic. The link between the understanding of Bacon’s childhood trauma of confinement and the cramped space of his studio is based on the same idea. The current fascination with hoarders and collectors has democratized the aura of the collector’s space as viewers gawk in fascination at the nifty stuff (or pathological hoard) and every home becomes a Gesamtkunstwerk.