Tour Draws Visitors to Intersection of Literary, Visual Arts

Michelle Polyak, Staff Writer

It’s often said that a picture is worth a thousand words, but the written word’s impact on visual art is rarely considered, much less the idea of bookmaking itself as a form of visual art. Though last Friday afternoon was brisk, a fair number of students, faculty and community members braved the cold to satisfy their curiosity on this subject at the Books in Art event at the Allen Memorial Art Museum. Liliana Milkova, the Allen’s curator of academic prgrams, organized the event with College sophomore Jesse Gamoran. Gamoran is the student coordinator of the Oberlin College Student Friends of the Library, the on-campus organization that also sponsored the event. SFOL aims to engage students with all of the libraries on campus in various ways, from fostering communication between the students and the libraries to organizing various interdisciplinary events such as the Books in Art presentation.

The Books in Art event consisted of a tour led by Milkova, along with Professor of Renaissance and Baroque Art History Christina Neilson, Professor of Medieval Art History Erik Inglis, Curatorial Assistant Sarah McLusky, OC ’13, and Special Collections/Preservation Librarian Ed Vermue. The tour guides led visitors through six paintings in the Renaissance and Baroque traditions that depicted books or images from those books; five books that spanned the Medieval, Renaissance and Baroque periods; and a leaf from a 15th-century missal, a manual for the celebration of Mass.

“We hoped that our audience could first think about the role that depictions of books, reading and writing played in the visual arts, and then encounter similar books first hand in the more private space of the museum’s Wolfgang Stechow Print Study Room,” Milkova said. She, Inglis, Neilson, McLusky and Vermue took turns providing historical context for each work and leading a discussion with participants. The fruitful exchange allowed visitors from various backgrounds to consider one another’s perspective on books as an art form as well as their relationship to paintings.

Milkova began the tour by presenting a 16th-century Spanish painting titled “The Fountain of Life,” which, she explained, is one of the most complex allegorical paintings in the Allen’s collection. The painting is rife with Christian imagery, particularly symbolism found in the Book of Revelation, such as the fountain that both lends the painting its title and references the post-apocalyptic river of healing described in Revelation chapter 21. In accordance with Renaissance religious mores, the painting is divided hierarchically, with the heavenly top tier depicting Christ, Saint John the Evangelist and the Virgin Mary. According to Milkova, artwork that incorporates books like “The Fountain of Life” help us examine cultural values throughout time and space.

Though books depicted in paintings were essential for the presentation, its purpose was also to exhibit books themselves as more than literature, but a form of visual art. “We wanted our audience to experience the material presence, the physical characteristics and tactile qualities of the books’ ornate covers and pages covered with centuries-old annotations,” Milkova said. After viewing the selected paintings on exhibit downstairs, the group went to the Print Study Room to look at books that might have been depicted in such paintings.

There, Inglis led the discussion of a book of hours made by Dutch book illuminator Willem Vrelant in the late 15th century. The parchment pages were intricately decorated with iron gall, red inks, tempera and gold leaf. The book was a work of art, but as the audience found out, it was also wielded as an ideological weapon. Inglis pointed to a page where the image of a religious figure was smeared and the text crossed out and explained its historical significance — such marks indicate that the damage and destruction of liturgical books was an essential part of the Protestant Reformation. The representations of books in paintings and the physical books presented during the Books in Art event amplified the importance of books in history.

Vermue highlighted the importance of a book’s bindings. A strong binding coupled with careful conservation allows books to survive for hundreds of years. Furthermore, the binding is indicative of a book’s origins. The unique features and styles of bindings can help historians trace books back to an artist, or at least a region.

Books in Art was the first collaborative event between SFOL and the museum. Its success is encouraging to Milkova; she hopes that a similar event will be held next year with a focus on books in art. The new curator of Asian art, Dr. Kevin Greenwood, who will join the museum staff in May, will be an indispensable resource of expertise in preparation for this presentation.

“I thought that hosting an event at the Art Museum would help bring students interested in art to a SFOL event. The upcoming ‘Life of a Score’ event [which explores the relationship between music and books] will likely help bring students interested in music to a SFOL event,” Gamoran said.

The interdisciplinary nature of SFOL events help students and community members to consider how books contribute to various disciplines besides the literary, deepening their appreciation for book archiving and presentation. The cultural relevance of the material book is rapidly declining in the age of Kindles, Nooks and iPads; perhaps the work of the Allen and SFOL will help to keep it alive.