This season, the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library is closing the gap between the visual arts and the art of literature.
On Saturday, Beinecke will unveil a trio of new exhibits that will draw on materials from across its collections. According to Beinecke’s Research Librarian Elizabeth Frengel, who curated one of the exhibits, the three shows were conceived and planned independently but are connected by an emphasis on visual elements atypical of library exhibitions. “Under the Covers: A Visual History of Decorated Endpapers” features the designs on the inside covers and front or back pages of books dating from the 15th century to the present day. A second exhibit entitled “Blue: Color and Concept” explores uses of the color blue in arts and letters of the 19th and 20th centuries. A third exhibit, “Stephen Tennant: Work in Progress,” highlights the archives of upper-class 20th century bon vivant Stephen Tennant, who maintained close friendships with authors such as Willa Cather.
Curator of Poetry at the Collection of American Literature Nancy Kuhl, who curated “Blue,” called the connection between the three exhibits a “happy coincidence of visual cohesion.”
“All three new shows are about classic items you find in a library, but they display a new type of research interest,” said Curator of Modern Books and Manuscripts Timothy Young, who curated “Stephen Tennant.”
Perhaps the most explicitly visual exhibit in the trio is “Under the Covers,” which displays the art of endpapers, some made of marbled paper or silk and some printed with maps, photos or illustrations. Endpapers originally were used to protect illuminations at the beginnings of books from volumes’ rough, rudimentary covers, Frengel said, explaining that over time, endpapers began to serve decorative — and even narrative — functions. Good children’s books in particular, Frengel noted, use endpapers to invite readers into the tale: the map of the “100 Aker Wood” that appears in the endpapers of “Winnie the Pooh” inspired the exhibit, she explained.
Kuhl’s “Blue” includes both literary and historical artifacts pertaining to the word “blue” in its physical and metaphorical senses. The exhibit features blueprints of Coney Island, movie posters from Warhol’s “Blue Movie,” in which “blue” refers to pornographic materials, and Langston Hughes’s blue cigarette case. The exhibit draws heavily from the Beinecke’s extensive holdings dating from the Harlem Renaissance, a movement that prominently featured blues music.
Kuhl said that the variety of media “Blue” uses allows the exhibit to explore poetic connections and visual rhymes.
“The exhibit shows a different way to approach research — different ways to ask questions and to reveal associations,” she said. “The exhibit has something in common with the way poems work.”
Young said that “Stephen Tennant” takes a similarly evocative approach to research. Rather than displaying an end product or answering a question, Young explained, his exhibit is meant to provoke interest in Tennant’s archives — to suggest that there might be something in the materials displayed worth researching.
Tennant, an illustrator and an unsuccessful novelist, was never especially famous in his own right, Young said, explaining that Tennant’s archives are significant largely because of the letters from and portraits of famous literary figures they contain.
“Libraries have started to pay attention to objects as objects and not just as conveyors of history or stories,” Young said. “We’re not afraid anymore to show books just for their beauty.”
Frengel said that it is unusual for the Beinecke to debut three individual exhibits simultaneously, adding that the library typically displays one main exhibit at a time, sometimes with one or two peripheral shows. She attributed this year’s trio in part to the great deal of work involved in launching the major exhibitions that celebrated the Beinecke’s 50th anniversary last year. Dividing the library’s display space among three independent exhibitions, each with its own curator, allows for “a breather,” Young said.
The opening reception for the exhibitions will take place on Friday, Jan. 24.