The Power of Pictures
Friday, October 4, 2013 to Monday, December 16, 2013

Social Commemoration and Public Spectacle

     To share our experiences and preserve the memory of events across time and space, we have created a vast repository of documentary pictures. No matter their verisimilitude, such pictures are not neutral representations of the external world; they embody their creators’ perceptions and purposes. They frame experience, imposing boundaries upon the world and focusing our gaze upon particular aspects of a person, place, or event. They may present us the opportunity to see something for the first time, or compel us to look again, in a new way, at something familiar. In every case, they offer the opportunity of seeing our world through someone else’s eyes.

     Written at the end of the 14th century, Honoré Bonet’s L’Arbre des batailles became a popular manual for European military commanders. Beinecke’s copy, produced a century later in Flanders, includes more than a dozen illuminations by the Master of Bruges. The images include Bonet’s presentation of his manuscript to Maximilian I of Austria, the coronation of an emperor, and the crowning of the king of France. Rich in detail, the pictures reminded readers of royal prerogative and the formal events that symbolized and expressed that authority.


     From the 16th century, royal and aristocratic families of Europe staged festivals to mark births, deaths, weddings, coronations, and visits. Cities, noble families, and wealthy individuals competed to hold the most elaborate events. They employed artists, composers, choreographers, and architects to develop their spectacles. Seeing the festivals as a reflection and guarantor of their status, they hired artists and engravers to illustrate commemorative books. In 1685, when Ernst August, Elector of Hanover, visited Venetian aristocrat Marco Contarini, his host commissioned a series of entertainments. A commemorative booklet included ten engravings, one of which recorded the procession of guests into Contarini’s courtyard.

     Many festivals were communal affairs. Bologna's Festa della Porchetta commemorated the Feast of St. Bartholomew and the victory of Bolognese forces over Frederick II in 1249. The celebration, conducted annually for five centuries, featured a banquet before the Palazzo Maggiore as well as acrobats, games, singing, and dancing. Giant floats, stages, and theater props were constructed to accommodate each year's theme. The scope of activity is reflected in the volume commemorating the festival of 1695.

     From the moment that Matthew Perry steamed into Uraga Harbor in February 1854, Japanese artists rushed to illustrate his “black ships.” They employed a wide range of techniques to convey news of the confrontation with the Americans. Woodblock prints and crude black-and-white “kawaraban” broadsheets accompanied larger traditional paintings. Over the last two decades, John Robinson, grandson of E. J. Beinecke, has helped the Library build a representative collection of Japanese depictions of Perry’s expedition.

     Above is a painting by Osai, made at the request of the merchant Nagao. Osai’s painting pays particular attention to Perry’s steamships – a technological innovation that scholars believe persuaded Japanese leaders to reconsider their policy of excluding foreigners. The inscription in the upper right corner observes “their ships have high masts and great speed.”


     Public spectacle was not always celebratory, nor its commemoration uplifting.  In 1731, Amsterdam booksellers Bos and Bouman published a poem by Gysbert Tysens, illustrated with six images depicting the fate of a pair of gay men from their private socializing and public appearance through their arrest and execution. The Dutch caption Tydelyke straffe voorgesteld ten afschrik aller goddeloze en doemwaardige zondaren translates as “Temporary penalty proposed to quench all wicked and damnable sinners.”

    The earliest photographs of war were made by an unknown daguerreian in Saltillo, Mexico, in 1847. Twelve daguerreotypes in a walnut case depict U.S. Army troops, General John Wool and his staff, Lieutenant Abner Doubleday, the Virginia Regiment, an artillery battalion, and scenes around town. The presence of the photographer when the image was made lent an eye-witness authenticity to war photographs that paintings or prints struggled to attain. Perhaps the photographer of the Civil War, Alexander Gardner, put it best when he suggested, “Verbal representations of such places, or scenes, may or may not have the merit of accuracy; but photographic presentments of them will be accepted by posterity with an undoubting faith.”


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