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Comments on a Strange Wordless Book

by James Elkins

Pub Date: Sept. 19th, 2017
ISBN: 978-1-946053-02-2
Publisher: Laboratory Books

A mystery manuscript comes out for airing; wordless save for the title page, what does it mean?

It might be a delicious intrigue cooked up by Borges: a manuscript of fuzzy provenance, consisting of 52 paintings, rests unvisited on the shelves of a library for generations. Rediscovered, it proves fascinating—not least because it has no words but tells a story all the same of a world emerging out of primordial chaos. Elkins (Chair, Art History, Theory, and Criticism/Art Institute of Chicago; What Photography Is, 2011, etc.) hazards that the work is alchemical; in his smart commentary, he builds a case that it might have originated in Holland at the end of the 17th century or the beginning of the next one at the hands of a female artist. As he writes, though, “usually some telltale sign helps identify an anonymous artist: some stylistic quirk, or some figure or composition borrowed from another painting. At least so far, no such clues have broken the manuscript’s silence.” The figures depicted resemble the work of William Blake, with seemingly allegorical elements, as with one image featuring Greek gods and demigods gazing with interest at three nymphs, the viewer seeing this all as if from the opening of a cave. Elkins writes of the red and gold flecks and rather psychedelic palette, “colors have never had any meaning, much as people have tried to foist meaning on them. They say nothing in themselves, and they steal meaning from everything they cover.” Well, then. The storyline that emerges from the sequence, vignettes painted on what seem to be sections of cut log, may be anyone’s guess, but Elkins, reading visual clues, posits that the artist may have gotten tired of it all by the time the work was done. That won’t be true of readers of this book, who will likely remain fascinated from start to finish.

Some of his points invite argument, but Elkins’ knowing commentary helps the reader interpret the art. A fine addition to the odd-book shelf.