(Click here to see a slideshow of these stunning tools and charts.)
When material culture really matters, there is something dematerialized about its materiality. Most people will agree that a beautifully designed chair—or a beautifully designed pair of scissors—has an aura about it. The truth is that no purely utilitarian analysis can describe the cultural significance of a man-made object, even the most blandly utilitarian one. Poets and painters understand this. So do the smartest historians, curators, and collectors.
In the past few weeks I’ve kept coming back to a couple of remarkable new books. They have set me to thinking about the suggestivity of material culture. Andrew Alpern, an architect, has produced a lavishly illustrated guide to his collection of drawings instruments—compasses, protractors, sectors, and the like, many dating back to the eighteenth century—and the result is a hymn to the exactitudes of architectural practice. There can be a sneaky—and sometimes even a subversive—luxuriousness about these tools. In Cartographies of Time: A History of the Timeline, the historians Daniel Rosenberg and Anthony Grafton have made a fascinating narrative out of changing representations of the idea of historical time. They have woven their text through a series of eye-catching reproductions of more than six centuries worth of printed and drawn timelines. (The design of some of these diagrams and charts involved precisely the drawing instruments that interest Alpern.) Cartographies of Time, which is among other things a study in styles of diagrammatic analysis, underscores the poetic colorations that shape and sometimes perhaps even define our sense of history. Both Alpern’s instruments and Rosenberg and Grafton’s diagrams underscore a modernist belief that form, while following function, is also an expression of feeling, although the feelings are not necessarily easy to describe. There is a psychology and also a sociology of style, manifest in the way that a tool is shaped or a diagram is organized.
I know there are some communities within our technophile culture, I’m not sure how large or how small, that take a particular interest in technologies past. You see this in the vogue for Victoriana that has overtaken bohemian Brooklyn and its various outposts and colonies. Taxidermy is having a revival. Nineteenth-century men’s clothing and furnishings are all the rage. Enormous maps and charts, designed to hang in public school classrooms, are popular at the flea markets. Indeed, Cartographies of Time has its origins in a feature that Rosenberg worked on for Cabinet, the quarterly review with offices in Brooklyn that mixes art and history and the history of science to achieve a brainy stylishness that is well nigh irresistible. The hipster appeal of both these books, and I would not underestimate it, has nothing to do with hipster lite; it’s the real McCoy, grounded in scholarly avidity and original thought. Both volumes might be described as salutes to the nerd imagination through history. That the authors may themselves be a bit nerdy makes them especially sympathetic to the material they are presenting.
Alpern’s book certainly has the perfect nerd title on its dust jacket: Catalogue of the Andrew Alpern Collection of Drawing Instruments at the Avery Architectural and Fine Arts Library Columbia University. The instruments—made of brass, nickel silver, steel, silver, and ivory—come in elaborate sets. While here and there, especially on some French eighteenth-century models, you find bits of playful engraved decoration, what is compelling is the severe, proto-modern, form-follows-function precision of these objects. Alpern, a serious collector, likes to have his instruments in complete sets in mint or near-mint condition, and that means many of them are in their original containers. There’s a particular charm about the eighteenth-century sets, which were packed away in a compact box, shaped like a flatted-out covered cup, known as an étui. Compared to the larger collections of instruments produced in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, arranged in rather somber cases with dark interiors, there is a coziness about the eighteenth-century sets, a sense of the architect as a figure who is still slightly casual, sitting down to work whenever and wherever inspiration strikes, removing his instruments from an étui made of wood or silver, covered in leather, shagreen, or tortoise shell. Some story about the shifting nature of professional identity can be read through these instrument cases, the earliest of which have an aristocratic swagger that shifts to a cooler sort of professionalism in the nineteenth century. When I study the close-up photographs in Alpern’s book, I sense the physicality of the draftsman’s work, the manipulation of lines to make forms, the envisioning of the three dimensional in two dimensions. There is even an instrument known as an ellipsograph, which, as Alpern explains, “permitted circles to be drawn in perspective (where they are actually ellipses, but perceived by our brains as circles if the rest of the drawing is properly in perspective).”
Perspective—our perspective on world history—is the subject of Rosenberg and Grafton’s easygoing, brainy Cartographies of Time, a book that bears comparison with two of my favorite illustrated volumes of all time: Mario Praz’s Illustrated History of Furnishing (1964) and A. Hyatt Mayor’s Prints and People: A Social History of Printed Pictures (1971). What Rosenberg and Grafton have in common with Mayor and Praz is a feeling for the poetic powers of material culture, for the way that stylistic evolutions express changing worldviews. By looking at timelines and how their shape and form have morphed over the years, Rosenberg and Grafton manage to describe the evolving physiognomy of the historical imagination. This book does for timelines what Grafton’s glorious The Footnote: A Curious History did for footnotes. It takes intellectual confidence to compose a text that partners with pictures without overwhelming them—that allows the images to dance and sing. Mayor and Praz had that confidence. So do Rosenberg and Grafton.
Rosenberg and Grafton are formalists, at least up to a point. “Addressing the problem of chronology,” they write, “and especially the problem of visual chronology, means going back to the line, to understand its ubiquity, flexibility, and force. … Our idea of time is so wrapped up with the metaphor of the line that taking them apart seems virtually impossible.” The challenge here becomes to see how many ways the idea of time and the metaphor of the line can be wrapped together. We find that history has been represented through parallel columns, concentric circles, checkerboards, and flow charts, with each linear structure yielding its own emotional and intellectual implications, ranging from cool and classical to jumbled, chaotic, even expressionistic. Perhaps a romantic sense of history has rarely been as tellingly encapsulated as in Edward Quin’s An Historical Atlas, first published in 1828. Here maps of the world as it was known to Europeans at particular periods in history are surrounded by dark storm clouds, with the clouds gradually rolled back to reveal more and more brightly illuminated terrain. It’s the revelation of historical time as Caspar David Friedrich might have conceived it. Flash forward to the twentieth century, and you’ll meet The Histomap, a long, unfolding chart, published by Rand McNally after a design by an amateur historian, John Sparks. Here the flowing streams of various cultures, each stream defined by a different band of brilliant color, convey a swaggering optimism. Rosenberg and Grafton quote Herbert Spencer, whom Sparks apparently admired, explaining that “when a man’s knowledge is not in order, the more of it he has, the greater will be his confusion of thought.” Cartographies of Time, from beginning to end, is about our perennial attempts to bring order to disorderly experience.
The elegance of many of the engraved plates in Cartographies of Time and the chaste beauty of the instruments in Alpern’s collection suggest a mastery of experience. For some, all of this can be counted as a prehistory to the elegance of the iPhone, and they are not entirely wrong. What of course worries some of us about the wired world is that it may tend to alienate the imagination from artisanal experience—although the more deeply you understand the new hardware and the new software the less true that may be, I’m not sure. The eighteenth-century fellow with his drawing instruments in their spiffy shagreen case surely had something in common with the twenty-first century architect sketching on his iPad. And anybody as obsessed with diagrams as some of the seventeenth-century antiquarians featured in Cartographies of Time would have shouted for joy had they been able to time travel to the twenty-first century and take a crash course in the new technology. But if you want to imagine the past as prologue, you also have to entertain the thought of the present as epilogue. Can the artisanal imagination outlive artisanal practice? And without the artisanal imagination can the creative imagination survive? Such are the larger questions that are provoked by these voluptuous volumes in which—nifty thought—the nerds rule.
Jed Perl is the art critic for The New Republic.