My Cyclostome Gallery, Part I : What I love in scientific art (2008.4.1[Tue])


I am writing this in my hotel room in Paris (December 2007). I wrote about the neighborhood of used and antiquarian bookstores near here in a previous column, and I’ve just returned from a stroll along the Seine, starting at Quai Voltaire on the bank opposite the Louvre, then heading southeast past Quai de la Tournelle across from Î le de la Cité, where Notre-Dame Cathedral stands, and Île Saint-Louis, all the way to Quai St. Bernard. You couldn't ask for a more scenic cityscape, but if I felt any sadness in my wandering of the opposite bank, it was due to my hunt for scientific prints. Having realized that I was in very real danger of getting carried away in my spending, I beat a retreat to my hotel without doing any sightseeing.

    The objects of my quest are bookplates from the 18th and 19th centuries. Monochromes have their own character, but the addition of hand coloring by water-based paints produces even richer effects. By the 20th century, printing with multiple colors of ink, at the expense of a marked loss of the charming quality of watercolors. This early color printing led directly to the printing technologies in use today, for which I'd be hard pressed to claim I was grateful. But I look for more than just paintings cleverly crafted to flatter the eye - in my searches, I hold out hopes for scientific accuracy as well. I described before how Audubon's famous birds were sketches from dead specimens. In the time leading up to John Gould's ornithological illustrations, birds came to be shown in more plausible poses within three-dimensional perspectives, so much so that they blend almost too perfectly into the composition. But no matter how nice these may look as works of art, I have to say they're not for me.

    However, when I myself try to define what I mean by "scientific images," it's more difficult than it might seem. Take Buffon's natural histories, for example Ethe animal subjects are presented in regularly spaced lateral views, preserving the scientific aspect, a kind of extension of the pictorial atlases that accompanied scientific treatises of the day. Plates that strive to best fill in the spaces between aesthetic sense and scientific accuracy seem as if they might belong in an atlas, without actually being so; like a work of art, but not entirely. In fact, that may be a nice encapsulation of the whole myth of natural history. But at the one extreme, these images are painted with the viewer in mind. No matter how scientifically valid they may be, at heart they are works of art. Which means they fall outside my scope. That said, neither border is distinct, and if I had to draw a line around what I considered to be scientific images worthy of my love, I'd have to say it was those that maintained their status as scientific works or academic theses, while unconsciously integrating an element of aesthetics; what one might call "natural historical images." And so in my collection of papers from the late 19th and early 20th century, there are many images that I feel suitable for framing.

    The plates on display along the Seine have all been cut out of scientific texts, wrapped separately in vinyl and sold for the equivalent of a fewthousand yen. Some were evidently taken from pre-print manuscripts, which provides a link to the publisher. I don't know who began this practice of book-breaking, but the prints available to us now are all of this variety, and to the best of my knowledge the strip of booksellers along the Seine has the best selection in the world. Without doubt. If you were to purchase these as complete books, the prices would exceed tens of thousands of yen per volume, and many would be bundled in multi-volume sets. Even if you did decide to bite the bullet and buy such a book, it's not an economical way to build a collection. Books kept in libraries suffer from thumbing, causing prints to flake and build-ups of oil from the skin. On top of that, as modern biological information now exceeds that found in these old books by orders of magnitude, their price become increasingly determined by their value as antiquarian books, meaning that the only for ordinary people to afford images from them is through breaking out and selling the individual pages, which also ends up attracting the odd bibliophile as well. You see people with some interest in natural history stop and think about how a print might look hanging in their den, and start browsing through the plates one by one, thinking about how much they'd be willing to pay, what type of frame it would look best in, or how to display it to best effect. I suppose I may have been programmed by my own habits, but I respect this sales practice and can't find anything critical to say about it. I still believe that there are a few volumes of the original books that contained the prints in my collection, including the ones I purchased today, and that if the urge struck me I'd be able to have a look through them, and perhaps even buy one intact if I desired.

    The wares on display at these shops along the river are not all images from natural history. In addition to plants and animals, you find prints of bygone customs, fashions, maps and landscapes, as well as newspaper and picture postcards of real antiquarian value, interspersed with cheap souvenirs of foreign manufacture, and poor-quality reproductions. It's a bit like the junk shops in Akihabara - you see real works of natural history side by side with dubious old postcards and ludicrous posters. The real and the bogus blend together, luring passers-by to stop and look, each with its price tag announcing its assessed value in plain terms for all to see. It's closer to the shabby arcade under the tracks in Kobe's Motomachi than what you find in Kyoto's Kawaramachi or the Kanda Jimbocho district of Tokyo. The sales technique is similar too; it's often unclear which shops are open and which are closed. Places you shouldn't even think about paying by credit card, and where the stated hours of business are only loosely honored. Places that seem from an altogether different world from that in which dedicated book fanatics ready to line up in front of shuttered doors before the start of day.

    It's better to visit after noon. After eating as well. Some of the shops will just be getting ready to open then. Perhaps enjoy an espresso at the Le Voltaire cafEat the southern side of the western end of Quai Voltaire before plunging in. When I go, my head is already swarming with natural history. Inject caffeine and I'm in overdrive. Cash in hand, bladder empty, I set off in search of my prey...

    And then it hits me: a visual feast, a spectacle as transfixing as violence, before which I find myself defenseless. The same items can be had in Japan, and even after import markups, they're still not priced beyond reason. In fact, one store I frequent in Kyoto has several of the same books on its shelves. But this is Paris... Buffon lived here, Lamarck, too; Cuvier and Geoffroy fought in the Academy. This is the birthplace of the very natural historical images I seek. L'embarras du choix. The history I love beckons me from shop fronts every few meters. If I give in to the temptation and just buy, no amount of money would suffice. I try to confine myself to turtles, lampreys, barnacles and other species related to me or my wife. Perhaps it goes without saying that, thanks to this lone Japanese customer on a two-hour binge, their stacks have been emptied of cyclostome prints.

(continued next issue)