A couple weeks ago I went to the AAUW book sale in Holland, Michigan. The sale is held in the Holland Civic Center where the old gymnasium is lined with folding tables stacked high with used books organized according to genre. If you show up Saturday morning, you can buy any book you like for one dollar. By Saturday afternoon, a whole grocery bag full of books is only five dollars. For bibliophiles on a budget, it's like Christmas morning.
One of my purchases this year was a worn copy of The Golden Age: Manuscript painting at the time of Jean, Duke of Berry by Marcel Thomas. The lavishly illustrated 14th and 15th century manuscripts shown in the book were originally commissioned by kings, princes and nobleman. Filled with intricate, handmade, gold-illuminated illustrations, these books were all terribly expensive. A library full of them was a true status symbol, and the Duke of Berry had just such a library.
Most of the illuminators - the people who illustrated the books - were anonymous. Some of them, of course, were monks, but others were men (and occasionally women) who were hired to do the work. We don't know a lot about the lives of these illustrators-for-hire, but we do know that their position was not an esteemed one. They were merely workmen who had to keep their clients happy in order to hang on to their jobs. That so few of them signed their work is not surprising since it hardly constituted a creative expression on their part. In fact, some of the designs in the manuscripts were made by multiple artists - one who painted the marginalia (the borders), one who painted the background, and another who painted the main figures.
Still, a few artists were known by name, particularly the three Limbourg Brothers, who were hired by Jean, the Duke of Berry, to create a book of hours - a book used for reciting prayers. I've admired the work of these brothers before, and as I flipped through my new book, I came across stunningly beautiful images of their work - a painting of naked Eve dangling the forbidden fruit in front of Adam and a painting of a young, aristocratic woman about to be betrothed to her husband in the verdant month of April. And yet, as masterful as the images might be and as much as I love the Limbourg Brothers' work, I had a hard time slowing down enough to focus on any one image. Like the Duke of Berry, I have many, many books. In fact, I have access to far more books than he did. So how do I slow down enough to look at one image when I have access to so many?
This, I think, is the challenge of being a reader today. Far from struggling to afford reading material, most of us cannot get away from things demanding to be read, looked at, consumed.
Which reminds me of a painting by the contemporary artist Vincent Desiderio. It's called Cockaigne, which is a reference to a much earlier painting by Pieter Bruegel, called The Land of Cockaigne. Both paintings are about gluttony. Bruegel's is about a mythical land where people have more than enough to eat and thus eat far too much. Desiderio's is about an all-too-real place, the place we all live in, where we can gorge ourselves on imagery.
The images on the pages of the books in Desiderio's painting are famous - miniature images of paintings by Vermeer, Matisse, Masaccio and others. As viewers, we struggle to take them all in and find ourselves, like the men in Bruegel's painting, intoxicated by the overabundance. Part of what Desiderio is communicating here is the challenge of being an artist today: when the culture is already saturated with more images than anyone can possibly take in, how do you manage to make your artistic voice heard? How do you choose an artistic language, when you could draw inspiration from any one of these many artists?
Contrasted with that of the medieval illuminators, our position as painters today is truly strange. They knew exactly what they were supposed to do - make an illustration that would please their patron. We are not always sure what to paint, and many of us couldn't say who exactly (if anyone) we are trying to please. They didn't even bother to sign their names to their work. We aggressively brand and promote ourselves. They had limited artistic influences and worked in a style similar to that of their peers. We have almost unlimited access to the art of other cultures, places, and times, and we try to be unique.
None of this, of course, is going to change soon. We can't return to the age of handwritten books, and we shouldn't romanticize it. And yet, every once in awhile I find it necessary to take a short break from the visual feast that is our culture, to stare out at nature or close my eyes until I have built up an appetite again, and then slowly, quietly, look at one image and try to see it with something resembling fresh eyes.