“My Arcadia” and Romantic Creation in America’s Midwest

On a recent visit to the Chazen Art Museum located on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus I stumbled across a literal cabinet of curiosities. Sculptor Martha Glowacki’s mixed media sculpture titled “My Arcadia”, composed in 2000 [pictured below] is an eerie dark wood Victorian inspired cabinet of fifteen drawers and opening at the top that holds three plants preserved in smoky graphite. Viewers are welcomed to open each drawer, and when they do they might react on a scale of disgust to delight in seconds.

“My Arcadia” (2000)

Contents include but are not limited to: an antique vanity hand mirror, etchings from old scientific animal experiment studies, archival photos of rural Wisconsin agricultural sites, a graphite cast, and a cat carcass. Among these oddities excepted poems from Goethe and Rainer Maria Rilke —one the greats of dark German Romanticism and his equally gritty Modernist successor, can also be found. In order to conceptually piece together the contents of these drawers and the literal Romantic contents I sat down with Glowacki to discuss her work, and more specifically how she figures the scientific and material turns in her art within the larger context of Romantic creation in the present day.

In the most generous and mystical way that an artist can be Glowacki openly confessed she knows very little about Romanticism, Rilke, and Goethe. In return, I relayed to her my poor working knowledge of the history of science. Glowacki chose the poems out of the sheer passion and connection she felt communicated from the poetry to the cabinet, rather than some deliberate reference to the tensions of Romantic, Enlightenment, and Modernist thought. Together Glowacki and I ventured into the curious cabinet by opening each drawer and discussing the contents—first her implications and then my own interpretation.

The contents of the drawers confirms how Glowacki has always been drawn to the intersections of natural history, artifact collection, and the alignments of the creative process with the regenerating cycle of life. We spoke of life in light of New Materialist and post-human turns to decenter the human, which corresponds to both the material contents and how the sculptor accounts for thematic construction of the piece. For Instance, one drawer holds a swerving organic form of animal skeletons and bones, each completely dusted with steel colored graphite. In opposing corners of the animal-plant form are two 18th century scientific etchings of the circulatory system of the human heart, and the other of the circulatory system of a single leaf. Similar to the placement of the wood and animal skeletons the material manifestation of Glowacki’s vision equalizes human, animal, and plant within the cabinet drawer and references life before and beyond the building of the cabinet. In this regard “My Arcadia” functions as a collection of objects that announce the excess of life that cannot be contained in any elegiac form.

Though “My Arcadia” was intended for an exhibit of various artist’s own take on a “cabinet of curiosity” , Glowacki explains how she approached the piece with the same attitude she expresses toward contemporary art trends—with purposeful disregard—she does not follow the crowd, and claims she never has. Instead, Glowacki unknowingly embraces what we recognize as the Romantic spirit for artistic creation.

With even greater affinity Glowacki’s work preceded the scientific turn in Romantic studies, of which fellow NASSR bloggers have taken up through the intersections of Romanticism with geology, climate studies, medicine, and botany, to name a few. She’s attracted to the writings of Enlightenment science and continuously critiques certain scientific concepts from the era, such as strict analytical zoological classification and dissection. And ala, what may be the remains of a tree or some small animal skeleton are not revealed to spectators — the nature is Glowacki’s cabinet, though preserved, cannot be figuratively pinned down. These life forms are afforded new lives under the glass casing, lurking within cabinet drawers, and silently waiting for the next curious spectator to respond with their own emotion instead of another prescription to objectively analyze.

What’s most striking about “My Arcadia” and the privilege of speaking with the artist is how unaware she was of the Romantic tradition, but yet it seems to be she’s been living within the spirit of the creative process and philosophies since she was a little girl who chose spend hours interlaced between the natural wonders of the outdoor and local natural histories museums. Thus, I locate Glowacki as an example of the persistence of Romanticism at work in the present day, and alas perhaps our fascinations with the 18th century movement isn’t as esoteric as some might think.

Below are the excepts Glowacki included in the piece from Goethe’s “The Holy Longing”, followed by Rilke’s “Moving Forward.” For more information on Glowacki’s work please see her artist website marthaglowacki.com

Distance does not make you falter,
now, arriving in magic, flying,
and finally, insane for the light,
you are the butterfly and you are gone.

And so long as you haven't experienced
this: to die and so to grow,
you are only a troubled guest
on the dark earth.--Goethe



The deep parts of my life pour onward,
as if the river shores were opening out.
It seems that things are more like me now,
That I can see farther into paintings.
I feel closer to what language can't reach.
With my senses, as with birds, I climb
into the windy heaven, out of the oak,
in the ponds broken off from the sky
my falling sinks, as if standing on fishes.--Rilke