One (the?) aim of art writing is to interpret with words. But the imagery of so much art is so strong, that verbal language can only play an ernest second fiddle, happy just to be at the gig.
(Works of literature isolate themselves on shelves and in libraries. Aware they fail to represent the visible world, they content themselves with creating numerous new worlds unto themselves.)
But twas not ever thus. In the beginning there was indeed the word. Religious art was famously for the illiterate. And centuries later the illustrative arts were pressed into the service of science.
You can see how uneasy the relationship between knowledge and image remains. Wikipedia, the world’s favourite source of germane facts, will limit itself to marginal and no-cost imagery.
Allen’s show harks back to a time before the deluge. Less was once more. A miniature black and white illustration, along with columns of academic text, would give the imagination plenty to go on.
The authority of bygone encyclopaedias was such that even the most casual reader could learn to see the world through a prism of classification, sober order and, yet, no small degree of wonder.
Nothing like this can be imposed on the world wide web. Pixels are hazy compared with the rigours of print. Digital photography, in its ubiquity, lacks the intensity and intention of the diagram.
And some of the mystery too. Allen’s show collects antique imagery which ranges around a much larger planet when the ends of the world were visited in books rather than google Earth.
But as can be seen from the careless photograph at the head of this piece, the repositories of info are now bursting at the seams. The history of knowledge has exploded on us.
Ambrosine Allen: The Art of the Small can be seen at DOLPH, London, until 19 March 2016. See web for opening times and directions.