FM reviews
First Monday


Wahrman Dror Wahrman.
Mr. Collier’s letter racks: A tale of art and illusion at the threshold of the modern information age.
New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.
cloth, 288 pp., ISBN 978–0–199–73886–1, US$34.95.
Oxford University Press:



I would not be surprised to discover one of Edward Collier’s trompe–l’œil paintings hanging in the office of an archivist or even in the reference room of an archives. The leather straps of the racks typically held newspapers, letters, notebooks, writing implements, and other documents — all painted in that late seventeenth century Dutch realism style — that seem like intimate personal archives of the period. What better visual representation of the archival impulse than one of Collier’s illusionist paintings? But, as historian Dror Wahrman demonstrates, these paintings are far more than expressions of some kind of antiquarian fantasy about printed ephemera, writing technologies, and old documents.

As it turns out, Collier’s paintings carried coded messages about the media revolution he was living through, a revolution different in technology and scope than our present one, but one that was no less profound or at times unsettling. Through careful analysis and rebuilding of the inventory of Collier’s paintings, historian Wahrman constructs a foundation for an intricate assessment of the subjects of the paintings. Wahrman focuses on the variations, seemingly confusing, in the paintings, initially concluding, “These concerns with fixity versus volatility, stability versus change, and form versus content are among the most important and surprising aspects of Collier’s art; and I believe that they derived from his understanding of the transformations in the printed form during his lifetime.” Collier’s paintings were an effort “to capture historical change. What prompted Collier’s innovation was his ambition to use his paintings to freeze–frame a revolution. A revolution, moreover, that was itself all about motion. A media revolution” (p. 18). Wahrman brings the artist back to life, revealing his relevance for our own historical junction.

The chosen form of the paintings is the “vanitas,” displaying a “collection of objects chosen and arranged to remind the viewer, through a familiar grammar of visual signs, of the transience of life and the vacuousness of worldly success” (p. 23). Collier’s changes in painting technique and purpose, coming later in his seemingly established career, emerged as he moved from Leiden to London and faced the realities of a major media change, the appearance of the cheap printed book and pamphlet. As one might expect, time and its passage is a major theme of Collier’s paintings, a “game” the artist played, according to Wahrman, about how documents marked, sometimes effectively and sometimes not, the passage of time. And Wahrman, as a historian, confesses how the artist duped him in this game, initially ignoring Collier’s “protocols”: “Where he raised the possibility that authors are not necessarily who they claim to be, I treated it as a curiosity. Where he showed that publication dates could be tampered with, I trusted them. Where he drew attention to the unreliability of authors’ proclaimed credentials, I historicized this observation so that it could not impact the credentials of any author I cite. Where he insisted that every kind of information is suspect, I brushed it off. This, after all, is my craft: he is creating illusions; mine is sifting historical truth from untruth” (p. 79). Doing this is a challenge, since, among other games Collier plays, the artist signs other names to some of his paintings (at least fourteen in fact), making research about his art production more difficult than should be expected. Adding to the task is that Collier often hides or disguises his and others’ signatures in the creases, folds, and margins of the manuscripts and printed documents.

Our historian recounts the challenges he faced in developing a complete inventory of Collier’s paintings, noting that because these paintings were not particularly valuable when they were created they were easily discarded or even mislabeled and forgotten (even when housed in museums). Assembling as much of a complete set of the paintings as possible, Wahrman then carries out a detailed examination of the content of these paintings. For example, almost functioning as an archivist, Wahrman examines Collier’s representation of postmarks, concluding “In painting these modern postmarks, like the date–marked pamphlets and the twice–dated news, Collier was displaying the signs of rapid movement, dynamic circulation, and precise timing. The letter rack trompe–l’œils may have originated in the tradition of still life, but their details conspired to remind the viewer that within their own sphere of action, life was anything but still” (p. 45). Today, some may think of the contents, at least that comprising the traditional paper formats, of our archival repositories as freezing time in a period of rapid change; the postmodernists among us may focus on the ever evolving digital documents and see time and change facing forward. Collier was responding in his art to some of the same issues.

Wahrman reads into the paintings various aims of the artist. The letters depict “trust,” surrounded by the tools used to create them and evidence of who wrote them, suggesting ”familiar critiques of the weaknesses of printed documents in comparison to handwritten ones” (p. 51). Collier painted the printed royal speeches at least 40 times, emphasizing the strength of printing to be its ability for replication. Archivists will be interested in this assessment, as Wahrman writes, ”This is an astonishing number. I am unaware of any other example of a visual ‘archive’ of a document, let alone a mass–printed one, reproduced in oil on canvas so many times, certainly not before the twentieth century” (p. 51). At a later point, Wahrman discusses the nature of the artist’s archive, one consisting of paintings rather than documents (there are few records related to Collier it turns out) and raising all the challenges of interpreting visual sources. Wahrman does acknowledge a ”rich archival record“ concerning Collier’s life in Leiden, such as his marriage and subsequent marital life. His other personal life is a lot less documented, such as in England, where the “only clear archival trace” of the artist’s 15 years is a “travel pass” (p. 130). At times, it is easy to feel that Wahrman over–interprets what the paintings represent, especially given the absence of any archival sources where Collier comments on his own art, but this suggests the possibilities of additional research and speculation about the kind of commentary on shifting notions of information that artistic renderings can provide.

One of the most surprising aspects of this study arrives near the end of the book. For all who have examined these paintings as providing evidence of how documents and printed objects may have been stored or displayed in homes in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, we are told that there is no evidence that such letter racks existed! This opens up possibilities for additional research by archivists and others in the imagery depicting information and evidence, an intriguing invitation for new work for archival scholars. This is a rich study, enhanced by an ample supply of great reproductions of Collier’s art.

Wahrman deftly uses the visual evidence to make his case, and the book suggests many ways that those interested in information revolutions, archives, the history of the book, and related topics could engage in new visual studies. It is another example of how interdisciplinary our discipline is and what we can learn by reading into the work on records and information by scholars outside our immediate sphere. In the case of Wahrman’s work, this is a study that its lack of reference to archival research does not detract but, instead, suggests new possibilities.

Mr. Collier’s letter racks also is not a study driven from theoretical models, but one emerging from original archival research and broad examination of art research and archival/information scholarship suggesting new theoretical paths. Wahrman hints at this in his acknowledgements, writing, “I have written in these pages about the Web 2.0 as this project’s condition of possibility, a modern technology of communication that allowed me to discover a story that had previously been too scattered to be put together. But the insistence on the novelty of our own media revolution hides another truth: how new media allow for the revival of a traditional, pre–modern economy of favors and gifts, albeit now with global reach. My chase after Collier was only possible because of the amazing number of people, many of whom I have never met, who generously responded to e–mail queries with information, images, documents, and advice” (p. 258). While archivists are sensitive to the fallacies in the claims about the unique Information Age, they also should be aware of what their own scholarship about the creation, preservation, and symbolism might contribute to our awareness of what the notion of an information age really means. — Richard J. Cox, University of Pittsburgh. End of article

Copyright © 2012, First Monday.

Review of Mr. Collier’s letter racks: A tale of art and illusion at the threshold of the modern information age
by Richard J. Cox.
First Monday, Volume 17, Number 11 - 5 November 2012

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