The librarianship of pictures

Having read the preparatory materials for the first day of my LIS classes, I’ve been thinking about two art exhibitions I saw recently. In particular, about the role of librarianship in their compilation. Both exhibits were about thematic connection between works, and the influences that artists have on each other. Using the language of literary theory, you might call this intertextuality, but of course these were images, not words. Regardless, the stated aim of the shows was to supply the context and background that would not be apparent in the absence of the collected materials.

Vermeer and the Masters of Genre Painting: Inspiration and Rivalry is a show jointly put on by the Musée du Louvre, in Paris, the National Gallery of Art, in Washington, DC, and the National Gallery of Ireland, in Dublin, which is where I saw it. The title tells the story. And, while it does feature a number of Vermeers (roughly a third of his extant output), the exhibition includes work by a number of his contemporaries, including Pieter de Hooch, Gerrit Dou and Jan Steen. The show groups three to four paintings by thematic concept and contrasts the intellectual and aesthetic treatment of their shared ideas. The compilation of these miniature catalogues is remarkable, all the more so for the fact these are not reproductions, but original 17th century artworks. Looking, for instance, at a wall displaying women writing letters, rendered by different artists but with striking similarity, is illuminating. The same is true of a section dedicated to images framed by doorways or depictions of scientists, including the side-by-side display of Vermeer’s astronomer and geographer. One can imagine the rivalry amongst the represented artists; one does not have to imagine their inspiration. Direct quotation is rife and undercuts any notion that ‘remixing’ is an artistic approach unique to our time. Seeing these works next to one another highlights connections that would not be possible when viewed separately. But the illustration of these connections does not happen in a vacuum; rather, it evidences expert assessment and involvement.

Reflections: Van Eyck and the Pre-Raphaelites, at the National Gallery, in London, has a similar goal: demonstrating the influence of The Arnolfini Portrait (1434) on the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and the generation of British painters that followed. (In some ways, this is a more ambitious topic — hundreds of years separate the original from its proteges — but that leaves it also feeling more speculative; it is certainly more singular.) The concept is predicated on the fact that the National Gallery acquired the Van Eyck in 1842, and it was specifically regarded by Rosetti, Millais and Hunt as emblematic of the ‘pure’ (ie non-Mannerist) art they wished to emulate. At the time, Van Eyck was regarded as the originator of oil painting, and the artists wished to return to the first principles his work represented. The exhibition finds links in colour (jewel tones dominate), concept (serious topics suggested by specific symbols) and content (mirrors, especially convex ones, are so frequent in the Pre-Raphaelite painting they have a room of their own). Again, compiling these works in a meaningful way requires deep specialist knowledge.

So what does this have to do with librarianship? I guess that’s what I’m interested in grappling with. In her summary of a paper discussing the differences between digital humanities and library & information sciences, Lyn Robinson says a “traditional understanding of roles allows us to separate subject specialist expertise from the activities associated with the practice of LIS,” but that “distinction between subject specialism and LIS is now however, rather more blurry.” Her focus is on the digital, but isn’t everything digital these days? The Iconclass system was devised by art historians to index the elements of artworks, but surely this is in many ways a visual Dewey Decimal System. In order to find paintings with chandeliers or slippers or mirrors that may (or may not) reference Van Eyck’s, the curators of Reflections likely relied on this type of classification to prompt their research and develop their thesis.

So what discipline owns this type of work? Can a librarian curate, or is a curator acting as librarian? For that matter, who is even qualified to classify? Boundaries aren’t always productive, and Robinson describes library science as a “meta-discipline,” but I’d like to explore how LIS principles leach out into other areas of study. As I start the programme, I look forward to having the chance to reflect on this idea more and perhaps to think of other modes of categorisation of non-textual materials.

Image: Johannes Vermeer, A Lady Writing, c. 1665

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One thought on “The librarianship of pictures”

  1. I have returned to this after a week, having finally found a moment to comment, Matt. This blog is well designed, and I find your writing style elegant and engaging. Your descriptions of the exhibitions are lovely to read in themselves, but I am encouraged to see that you are thinking beyond the paintings to correlations and overlaps between art, curation and LIS. Your writing draws out how collections of documents, taking the artworks as documents in this case, can reveal more than the individual works. The processes of classification and grouping brings out more for us to see and to contemplate.

    I am interested in the boundary areas of LIS; where concepts from one discipline bleed into another. These ‘blurred’ landscapes. perhaps liminal environments, are places where it is interesting to re-examine how LIS can enhance knowledge and understanding. The edges of disciplines which furnish us with non-textual, non-traditional documents such as art or performance, offer exciting possibilities. Our new lecturer/artist-in-residence, Joe Dunne, will be exploring these ideas with us in respect to performance. We are looking at how LIS is experienced through the lens of the performing arts, and how LIS concepts might be communicated to new audiences through performance. There is clearly scope for similar, interdisciplinary explorations, such as between LIS and fine art, if you were thinking of a dissertation topic. Excellent work.

    Note: My original text posted on 8/10/17, was swallowed by the void. Here is another go.

    Liked by 1 person

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