Sunday, May 17, 2015

A gathering of continents that hardly anyone knows about

The information needs of diverse audiences remain a hopeless conundrum for Atlanta art reviewing sites—perhaps it is thus for all second-tier art scenes, or even first-tier ones, where the range of interests is even more immense. Even though websites have the physical potential for comprehensive coverage, limited budgets plus the limitations of overstressed editors and writers mean that huge quantities of information will never be distributed to the daunting variety of audiences who would find an event or an exhibition fascinating.

The gorgeous display of Joan Blaeu’s atlas from the Dutch Golden Age currently at Georgia Tech is a case in point. One friend, being told about it, excitedly said his fourteen-year-old son would love it. But how does one justify coverage of such out-of-the-way gems when there are so many mainstream exhibitions that are not finding writers to provide coverage of them? Discuss.

It is somehow appropriate that Georgia Tech should possess (through the foresight of librarian Dorothy Crosland a half century ago) a magisterial atlas of the Dutch Golden Age, Joan Blaeu’s Grooten Atlas of 1662-1665, and that the atlas should be on display through June 26 at the Robert C. Williams Museum of Papermaking, under the title “A Gathering of Continents.” Whatever judgment we place upon it in hindsight, the 17th century was an age of immense innovation (and not just in Europe, though at that moment the curve of change was tending spectacularly in Europe’s direction) and of enforced but not quite controllable globalization—in that respect it is not so different from the present century, to which Georgia Tech is contributing in ways that cry out for historical contextualization.

Blaeu’s nine-volume atlas was a compendium of what Europe had learned of the ways of the world at large, presented in a format that complimented Dutch industriousness and imagination. As is the case with all books, this sumptuously illustrated masterwork is difficult to display in a museum context, and for reasons of space the museum has presented only six of the volumes in vitrines, each volume open to a provocatively representative page. An indication of the rest of the astonishing contents appears in the form of wall panels of enlarged photographs accompanied by enlightening commentary.

The results are more than merely educational, although we could all use a refresher course in the growth of Dutch culture alongside Dutch colonial empire, and the economic expansion that fueled both enterprises. That is not the primary purpose of this exhibition’s prodding of our visual imagination, even if the sheer number of topics on which it touches ought to send us back to resources such as Simon Schama’s books, or at least to Wikipedia. The range of interests the Grooten Atlas encompasses is indicated by Blaeu’s declaration, “I hasten to lay before you the earth,” which appears as the enlarged wall text introducing the exhibition. The exhibition’s sampling of these interests includes elegant images of Stonehenge, city fortifications, fleets of ships, and characteristic costumes of African cultures, which are presented in the same visual format as the comparable double-page spread for Europe. The wall panels also highlight Blaeu’s celebration of the accomplishments of Tycho Brahe, whose contributions to celestial navigation were presented in the Atlas alongside Brahe’s discoveries in astronomy.

All this makes for an exceptionally rich spectacle, hidden away in Georgia Tech’s Renewable Bioproducts Institute and largely unnoticed by the thousands of drivers who pass by the structure at 500 10th Street. It’s unfortunate that the museum is open only on weekdays; the present exhibition plus the permanent displays and dioramas of the history of papermaking constitute an unusually family-friendly treat for art and history enthusiasts alike, and deserve wider exposure to a public that by and large has no idea they are there.

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