Open Book: Dulwich Picture Gallery and the Science Museum (1996)
This object exchange between an art museum and a science museum was a meditation on the communicating vases of matter and spirit. I brought together Joshua Reynolds’ camera obscura, now in the optics collections of the Science Museum, with his portrait Girl With a Baby (c1782), and conjoined them in a purpose built case at the Dulwich Picture Gallery. In the Optics Gallery at the Science Museum, I filled the void in the case made by the loan of the camera with Lyne Lapointe’s enigmatic work, Pharmacie, a pastel box in which each colour has had attributed to it a noun which relates metaphysically to the colour itself.
Reynolds’ camera obscura folds down into a box disguised as a book, and when unfolded, its green leather curtain is very like a woman’s skirt. Hanging the half-length portrait above the unfurled skirt created one body from the two objects, both of which would have been so familiar to Reynolds.
A modest project, it nonetheless involved complex loans and brought the Dulwich Picture Gallery in contact with the Science Museum for the first time, as well as positioning Reynolds’ portrait and instrument in the same room together for the first time in over 200 years.
Arguably, this work brings together into closest contact the three pre-occupations I had at the time: history of optics, history of the book as a form, and fine art as a philosophical investigation of matter. The chemistry of pigments, the physics of light, the convention of portraiture, the rapport between mother and child, the metaphysics of the experience of colour — all were brought into close contact.
From my text for the exhibition leaflet:
In Reynolds’ Girl With a Baby, two figures form a fused body. We sense the same substance that goes to make them both up also, strangely, makes them distinct: it is pigment, in delicate variation. With an abandoned brush stroke, a sure handling of raw pigments and bitumen in suspension, Reynolds has proposed that these two bodies are one in the field of energy he has made manifest, as if the paint itself were iron shavings clustering subtly around the two poles of the magnet which so deeply attracts them. It is a field which bonds these two bodies together forever.
Reynolds’ camera obscura folds down into the shape of a book with a spine, a headband, a fore-edge. The conceit of making an object a likeness of something else is a disguise that reveals a great deal, rendering visible through metaphor things otherwise invisible. Much ‘knowledge’ is contained in this ‘open book,’ which in this juxtaposition becomes both the Girl’s lower bodily stratum, and also the site of the origin of Reynold’s paintings — of which she herself is one.
Displayed within the case usually occupied by Reynolds’ camera obscura, Lapointe’s pastel box opens out much like the camera obscura, showing approximately 120 pastels, all of which have been ‘used’ by an artist, and each of which has a label. In the Optics Gallery, there are already a number of references to artists’ tools in light and colour: the prismatic camera lucida, the Dark Glass of Claude Lorraine, Reynolds’ camera obscura, artistic uses of the hologram. Optics is both an element of physics and a tool for its study: Lapointe’s pastels, too, are artists’ tools, but also a work of art, quietly addressing the complex subjectivity of our experience of colour.
The Optics Gallery at the Science Museum was created in the early 1980s by Senior Curator of Classical Physics, Neil Brown, and is sadly no longer in place. By the time I created Open Book in 1996, it had already been a mecca for me (and doubtless many other artists) for some time. This was five years before Hockney and Falco published Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters (2001). I never really understood what the fuss was all about — it is obvious that artists use instruments, optical and otherwise, and always have. This is an important meeting point between the history of science and the history of art, just as it is between science and art tout court.
It was also in the early 1980s that Lyne Lapointe and I incorporated a camera obscura as a punctum in the facade of the building of our first large-scale site specific project, Projet Building / Caserne #14. If you are interested in optical instruments and their epistemologies, I highly recommend Techniques of the Observer: On Vision and Modernity in the Nineteenth Century, published seven years after Projet Building / Caserne #14, in 1990.
Open Book was the first of many times that I would work with the collections and curators at the Science Museum; it was also the first time I worked with James Peto. James, then working at the Whitechapel Art Gallery, was the curator for Open Book. Lyne and I had first met him in 1990 when came to Montréal to interview us while working for AN Publications, researching his article ‘Roles and functions’ in Susan Jones’ Art in Public: what, why and how (1992). I would later work with James again at the Design Museum, as an assistant curator on his exhibition there entitled You Are Here: The Design of Information (2005).
I was to explore the continuity between matter and spirit in much greater depth later at the Science Museum, with Atomism & Animism (1999).
[Image References: Girl with a Baby, by Sir Joshua Reynolds (nd: c 1782); Installation shots of Open Book by Rose English; detail of Lyne Lapointe’s pastel box work, Pharmacie, photo by Paul Litherland]