File spoon-archives/avant-garde.archive/avant-garde_1996/96-11-03.013, message 72


Date: Wed, 16 Oct 1996 09:55:21 -0400
Subject: D.O.A.


   The Washington Post, October 16, 1996, pp. B1, B8.


   The Dictionary That's All Art

      34 Volumes Contain a World Of Knowledge

   By Paul Richard

      As the worldwide information flow accelerates toward
      overload, the quickness of visual comprehension becomes
      increasingly important, more important than vocabulary.
      Reading letters in a row is too slow and too linear. The
      information packets we send each other nowadays are as
      likely to be images as mere strings of words.

      The art boom -- the catalogues, the picture books, the
      traveling to monuments, the growth of museums -- is a
      part of this. If Americans love art, it is old art they
      love best -- statues, formal gardens, fine Old Masters
      paintings, carvings out of Africa, temples, carpets,
      castles, the whole panoply together.

      That's what the Dictionary of Art is about.


   Today in Manhattan at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, a
   gathering will be held to mark the publication of the
   immense Dictionary of Art, a five-foot shelf of tomes.

   Thirty-four stern volumes marching all the way from
   "A.A.A." (American Abstract Artists) to "Zyvele" (Henry,
   English architect, 1320-1400). Twenty-eight million words;
   41,000 articles by 6,700 specialist historians in 120
   countries; 15,000 images; 720,000 index entries. Cost
   $8,800.

   The books are heavy, handsome, green -- and subtly
   subversive. Though redolent of libraries, rolling bookcase
   ladders and learned erudition, the volumes of the
   dictionary, through the images they conjure, remind us that
   the visual matters more and more.

   The dictionary, edited by Jane Turner and published by
   Grove's Dictionaries Inc., a division of the British firm
   Macmillan (founded 1843), might look anachronistic, but its
   scholarship is new.

   For 200,000 years, as long as humans have been human, art
   or something like it -- the image that communicates -- has
   been central to society. But only in the age of the jet
   plane and the photograph, the fax and the computer, has a
   work like this been possible. The photograph, the movie,
   the television, the Internet -- all of these are visual.
   Microsoft's Bill Gates, who has spent a fortune of his own
   on the 16 million images in the Bettmann Archive,
   understands this well. As the worldwide information flow
   accelerates toward overload, the quickness of visual
   comprehension becomes increasingly important, more
   important than vocabulary. Reading letters in a row is too
   slow and too linear. The information packets we send each
   other nowadays are as likely to be images as mere strings
   of words.

   The art boom -- the catalogues, the picture books, the
   traveling to monuments, the growth of museums -- is a part
   of this. If Americans love art, it is old art they love
   best -- statues, formal gardens, fine Old Masters
   paintings, carvings out of Africa, temples, carpets,
   castles, the whole panoply together.

   That's what the dictionary is about.

   The art was there before, of course, but the learning
   wasn't. Before our times, the objects were misattributed,
   their dating snarled. And Western academic knowledge of the
   art of Africa, the Americas and Asia was little more than
   nil.

   As recently as 1841, when John Ruskin, the most influential
   English art historian of the age, journeyed south through
   Europe to see the stones of Venice, he had to take along a
   candle, brushes and a sketchbook, and he mostly went by
   horse.

   Neither Ruskin nor his students, nor anyone before them,
   had access to the knowledge in this Dictionary of Art. The
   crucial books weren't written yet. As an academic
   specialty, the study of art history did not yet exist.

   Today it is an international enterprise. Every country in
   the United Nations gets an entry in the dictionary.
   (Afghanistan gets 27 pages, Albania gets 10.) More than
   20,000 individuals -- painters, sculptors, architects,
   patrons and the like -- get small, fact-crammed
   biographies. And articles more general, on styles or
   materials -- on mirrors, say, or altars, or individual
   museums, or high tech or lithography -- are found
   throughout the books.

   And ample though it is, the dictionary functions chiefly as
   a key to a library far larger. Its bibliographies are vast.
   Its 41,000 articles are buttressed by citations to 300,000
   other texts.

   Taking the Plunge

   The birth of the Dictionary of Art can be dated precisely.
   It was conceived at a party, in England, on the evening of
   Nov. 21, 1980. British Macmillan, which publishes Kipling,
   Yeats and Tennyson, and which specializes in reference
   works, was celebrating the issuance of its 20-volume sixth
   edition of Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians.
   Harold Macmillan, the former prime minister and a
   descendant of the founders, was there, as was Nicholas Byam
   Shaw the company's chairman. So was Ian Jacobs, director of
   the project that would eventually produce the Dictionary of
   Art.

   "The dictionary was Shaw's idea," says Jacobs. "We're a
   private company, you know. Our financial resources are not
   unlimited. But by the summer of 1981 we'd decided to go
   ahead.

   "Soon thereafter we hired our first editor, the art
   historian Hugh Brigstocke, and began to do a sketch. We
   didn't want merely another book on the history of
   paintings. We wanted more architecture, and more on
   techniques and materials and conservation, and more on
   decorative arts, on furniture, for example, and much more
   on non-European cultures, on Asia, Africa and the Americas.
   We began by commissioning papers from some 150 different
   specialists -- on how their fields might be covered, and
   who might do the work.

   "What it came down to was an enormous exercise in dividing
   up the pie. How much space should be devoted, say, to
   Albanian as opposed to Guatemalan decorative arts? Should
   Islamic calligraphy be treated separately, or should it be
   seen -- along with Koran stands, bindings, illuminations,
   all of that -- as part of a general essay on the arts of
   the Islamic book? How much space should we devote to the
   whole idea of patronage? To furniture? To glass?

   "The book turned out to be more than half about Western
   art, but not much more. We have a huge article on the
   history of the garden, which is entirely global. Our piece
   on palaces is global, too. So is the article on the mirror.
   We have some 450 articles on France, and about as many on
   German art, and only 62 on Japan. But numbers don't tell
   the whole story. Our article on China is the longest in the
   book.

   "The big difficulty was pictures. The whole copyright
   problem is extremely knotty. Pictures are much harder to
   get than words. If you think about it, 15,000 images on the
   history of art is next to zero. Nearly every article,
   theoretically, might have been accompanied by 10, or 20, or
   a 100 images. The dictionary, if you like, is visually not
   much more than a tantalizing appetizer. It tells you where
   to find the images, but it doesn't reproduce them. It isn't
   a book of pictures. It's a data bank of text."

   Did You Know ... ?

   The dictionary is full of quaint and curious lore.

   The employees of Pindar, a company in England that managed
   the project's database, were so taken by the dictionary's
   accounts of the ways that art folk have died that they
   compiled a booklet of excerpts from the dictionary called
   the "Dictionary of Death: The Pindar Book of Bitter Ends."
   Drownings, executions, plague and falls from scaffolding
   are among the subjects covered. Kalashoka, the 7th-century
   Indian king, was murdered by his barber; Russian painter
   Vasily Vereschagin (1842-1904) was killed in an explosion
   on the battleship Petropavlovsk; and Yerasimos Sklavos, the
   sculptor, was crushed in 1967 when one of his granite
   carvings fell on him.

   And did you know that the words "canvas" and "cannabis"
   share the same root?

   The dictionary is dense with such lore.

   + On London: "Settlement seems to have begun in the fifth
   millennium B.C.... A quantity of fine bronze swords, axes,
   and spearheads recovered from the Thames suggests that
   death rituals were associated with the river.... In
   September, 1666, the Great Fire of London destroyed 13,200
   houses."

   + On lithography: "The term was first used in French on a
   music cover c. 1803; however, its Prague-born inventor,
   J.N.F. Alois Senefelder, preferred the term 'chemical
   printing.' "

   + On Los Angeles: "Art in Los Angeles during the 1960s was
   described by Peter Plagens as 'cool, semi-technological,
   industrially pretty.' "

   + On Michelangelo: "The characteristic most closely
   associated with him is *terribilita*, a term indicative of
   heroic and awe-inspiring grandeur.... The man himself has
   been assimilated to this image and represented as the
   archetype of the brooding, irascible, lonely and tragic
   figure of the artist. This popular view is drastically over
   simplified.... He was below average height, wore a sparse
   beard, and had 'horn-colored' eyes flecked blue and yellow.
   [He] was a good judge of a horse. For years a kidney stone
   made urination painful for him. ... [His sculpture] is
   idiosyncratic, of exceptional expressive power and
   strikingly limited range. It consists in the main of
   monumental marble statuary.... He jokingly told Vasari that
   he had 'sucked in the chisels and mallet' of his trade with
   the milk of his wetnurse, a stone-cutter's wife from
   Settignano.... Michelangelo's sexual history is
   unknowable."

   A Show of Support

   Douglas Lewis says: "It's a touching project, isn't it,
   putting so much on paper in an age when paper is partially
   obsolete?"

   Lewis is the curator of sculpture at the National Gallery
   of Art. He is also a contributor to the Dictionary of Art.

   "It's been tried before, putting all of art history in a
   reference work," he said. "There is a parallel project
   going on in Leipzig, but it's limping. The five-volume
   McGraw-Hill Dictionary of Art appeared in 1969. It's
   useful, but small. And then there is the grandfather of
   them all, which was initiated at the turn of the century by
   two German scholars named Thieme and Becker. The first
   volume of Thieme-Becker came out in 1900. The 40th appeared
   in 1950. But by then so much of what they'd published was
   obsolete that, bless their hearts, they started all over
   again.

   "Thieme-Becker is essentially a collection of biographies.
   Being German it is exceptionally thorough. They put in
   every historical artist whose name they could come up with
   but it's basically a dead white male compendium. And it's
   completely unillustrated. The Dictionary [of Art] is far
   more selective. They cut out lots of minor figures. To get
   in you had to matter to the history of art."

   Lewis wrote a piece for the dictionary on Natchez, Miss.,
   the capital of Cotton Kingdom architecture, as well as
   pieces on who made, used, sold and collected Renaissance
   bronze plaquette. "I also wrote on Queen Catherine of
   Cyprus: They poisoned her husband and her infant son, but
   she reigned on for another 15 years. She also helped
   discover Giorgione....

   "The fees, as I remember, were $50, or $75, small potatoes.
   We could take the money as cash, or as credit for buying
   the dictionary itself."

   Other local scholars contributed as well. Mattiebelle
   Gittinger, a research associate at the Textile Museum,
   wrote on Indonesian textiles. Christraud M. Geary of the
   National Museum of African Art wrote on the art of Bamileke
   of the grasslands of Cameroon; Alan M. Fern, director of
   the National Portrait Gallery, submitted articles on
   figures as diverse as the etcher Joseph Pennell, the critic
   Sadakichi Hartmann and the scholar Holger Cahill, the
   guiding force behind the Index of American Design.

   William Adair, a local specialist in the history of picture
   frames, says he "had to condense 200 years of American
   frame history into just 3,000 words. It was like writing a
   haiku."

   In the pages of the dictionary all these varied articles
   are illustrated sparsely if at all. Rising from these
   volumes is an inevitable speculation: a vision of the day
   when a student in say, Idaho, might spend an afternoon
   wandering through the CD-ROM version -- which does not yet
   exist --  summoning to his terminal photographs that record
   the history of art.

   But we're not there yet. We're not even close. The
   photographic archive at the National Gallery of Art, which
   was established in 1943, already possesses, in one form or
   another, 8.7 million photographs of works of art. But these
   images have not yet been digitalized and will not be soon.
   Copyright is only one of the problems. Retrieval is
   another: Think how many paintings are called "Untitled," or
   "Landscape With Figures." Another trouble with these
   archives is that many of their images are accompanied by
   captions that cite the wrong artist, or the wrong
   collection, or are otherwise out of date.

   Someday, when electronic data storage has increased
   sufficiently, all 34 volumes of the dictionary may be
   available on disc. And someday all the images an art
   browser might want may be similarly accessible, retrievable
   with a click. But that day is not yet. For now, and for
   some years to come, the path to images and art lore will be
   the path acknowledged by the Dictionary of Art, a path that
   runs through the pages of books.

   [Two photos] (1) Editor Jane Turner had the last word on
   what went into the 34 volumes of me Dictionary of Art. The
   mammoth set will be unveiled today In New York. (2) It's a
   tall order, but the Dictionary of Art attempts to give a
   comprehensive look at art through the ages and around the
   world.

   [End]









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