Magnificent Obsessions at the Barbican: When Hoarding Turns into Art


Most of us collect something – T-shirts, comics, action figures, anything we’re irresistibly drawn to – and while we might consider it “art,” the Barbican Centre’s new exhibit shows just how artistic such a stash can be. Magnificent Obsessions: The Artist as Collector re-creates famous artists’ personal collections, ushering you into a world of curious oddities and wondrous objects.

As you and your family walk into this concrete bunker of a gallery, elegantly designed by Dyvik Kahlen Architects just for this show, you’re astonished at the variety and expanse of works on display. As you move from room to room, stopping to get a closer look at everything, you peruse the private collections of 14 post-war and contemporary artists – including Damien Hirst, Martin Parr, Andy Warhol, Peter Blake, and Jim Shaw – alongside their own artworks. With rooms bursting at the seams with kooky objects, it feels like you’ve wandered off into an offbeat junkyard, with surprises at every turn. As every artist has a dedicated room, one moment you’re admiring bell jars stuffed with tropical birds, and in the next? Ventriloquists’ dummies and Victorian dolls.

The majority of these items has never been displayed to the public in the UK before, so now is your chance to marvel at the curious memorabilia, rare artefacts, and natural history specimens these artists collected over their lives. Walk into Andy Warhol’s room and you feel like you’re inside his New York townhouse, with a haphazard array of auction house junk so close you could just reach and touch it (but please don’t). All that’s missing are the price tags. Damien Hirst offers you his collection of unsettling medical models and taxidermy artifacts, and fills his room with glass cabinets jammed with human skulls and even a mutant seven-legged, two-bodied lamb.

The show works best when it surprises you, so we don’t want to give too much away, but would you ever have expected celebrated photographer Martin Parr to be obsessed with Soviet space dog ephemera? Or for ceramicist Edmund de Waal to have a fascination with 17th-century Japanese sculptures? Walk into each new space, and you’re bound to find something delightfully unexpected. It feels a little transgressive to be exploring each of these personal and passionately curated collections — some of them are rather touching and colourful, like the expansive array of more than 1,000 scarves collected by American designer Vera Neumann, whilst Jim Shaw’s display of thrift store paintings might make you wonder what joys can be found in your local charity shop.

So next time your parents or partner accuse you of being a hoarder, you can tell them you’ve started to curate your own personal collection. But be warned – Rembrandt was so obsessed with collecting that he eventually went bankrupt.

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