#CityLIS Student Perspectives: The librarianship of pictures by Matthew Peck

Student Perspectives is our series of guest posts written by current CityLIS students.

Current Information Science student Matthew Peck writes about the role of librarians in art exhibitions.


Johannes Vermeer, A Lady Writing, c. 1665

Johannes Vermeer, A Lady Writing, c. 1665

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


This post was first published on October 1st 2017, on ML Peck’s personal blog.

You can follow Matthew on Twitter.

If you are a current #citylis student or alumni and would like to contribute a post, please contact our Editor, James Atkinson.


About James

Information Assistant (Academic Services) in the Library at City, University of London.
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