The impulse to record one’s presence or mark a place as special is manifest across time and space. The oldest surviving pictures made by humans are in caves in Cantabria, Spain, where they were discovered in the late 19th century. Three thousand years ago, an unknown Native American artist painted a series of anthropomorphic figures on a canyon wall in the San Raphael Swell of southwestern Utah. In the early 19th century, a Navajo artist crafted an elaborate painting depicting the intrusion of a Spanish expedition into Canyon de Chelly. A few decades later, on an expedition to California in 1846, the Philadelphia artist Edward Kern reproduced a drawing on a cottonwood tree that depicts Spaniards and Native American assistants riding horses to lasso long-horn cattle.
While maps are not, strictly speaking, pictures, they reflect a similar concern for controlling space and defining one’s relationship to it. Perhaps that metaphysical connection explains our penchant for supplementing maps with images of faraway places. If we cannot mark the place itself, we make it visible on a surrogate.
Among the oldest maps at Yale is a simple mappa mundi in an early 15th-century French manuscript of a text by Roman historian Gaius Sallustius Crispus about Catilina’s conspiracies. Jerusalem occupies the center of the map. The continents of Europe, Asia, and Africa are decorated with architectural images reflecting contemporary conceptions of local custom. Two centuries later, European map-makers were more concerned about accurately representing geographic knowledge, but the impulse to illustrate maps had not abated. Catalan chart-maker Joan Rizo Oliva adorned his map of the Mediterranean world with exotic animals and warriors attired in regional garb and armed with distinctive swords. To commemorate Francis Drake’s circumnavigation (1577-80), Flemish cartographer Michael Mercator cast silver medallions that traced the navigator’s path.
Scenes from New York
No contemporary artist has more humorously explored the relationship between our sense of geography and the pictures we construct to represent it than Saul Steinberg. Maps, of real and imagined places, or, more accurately, of space as Steinberg’s mind imagined it, are recurring subjects in his work. Perhaps his most famous “map” is of the world as seen looking westward from 9th Avenue in Manhattan. Steinberg’s personal papers at Beinecke contain his preliminary sketch, completed in 1975, for the cover of the March 29, 1976, issue of The New Yorker, and the large format poster created to meet popular demand for an image that expressed better than any words could the complex relationship between New York, its residents, and the rest of the world.
Masood Ali Wilbert Warren attended the Art Students League in New York from 1932 to 1935 and earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts in mural painting from New York University in 1939. The Beinecke Library holds nearly a dozen of his Scribble Book notebooks, which he filled with quick, elegant sketches of African-Americans on the streets of New York and in the U. S. Army. Warren’s fluid drawings evoke a sense of motion. Looking at them one can sense the turning of a man’s head or the bending knee of a woman leaning into the gentle embrace of a male friend. Warren’s ability to capture movement at rest culminated in a series of bronze sculptures for which he gained national recognition
Roy DeCarava’s photographs of African-American life in New York following World War II reflect his lifelong connection with the city. His photograph Lingerie – New York, 1950 shows four African-American adolescents passing time on stairs and windowsills in front of a local business. Their long-sleeve white shirts, ties, suspenders, and dress shoes hint at the responsibilities that accompany their emerging maturity, even as they clamber across the building with the unchanneled energy of youths at play. The images exhibited are dust-grain photogravures made in 1991 by Paul Taylor and Clary Nelson.