Thursday, February 23, 2023

On These Wall: Inscriptions and Quotations in the Buildings of the Library of Congress by John Y. Cole. Photographs by Carol M. Highsmith

The public art of America’s secular cathedral
On These Walls
, published in 2008, is a photography book showcasing the art and architecture of the Library of Congress in Washington, DC. The subtitle, “Inscriptions & Quotations,” makes the book sound less exciting than it is. It’s not really so much about the quotes and text that adorn the LOC’s walls but more about the visuals that accompany them. This book is chock full of beautiful photographs of the murals, mosaics, sculptures, stained glass windows, and architectural details of the world’s largest library. The images include artworks found in the Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and John Adams buildings. The Jefferson building, however, being the Library’s flagship edifice that was lavishly decorated in the late 19th century, is the main attraction and gets the lion’s share of coverage.

At 9 x 10 inches and a half an inch thick, this isn’t quite a coffee table book, but it certainly isn’t a pocket guidebook either. The paper is of high quality, and the printing is impeccable. The photography is by Carol Highsmith, one of America’s greatest documentary photographers of the 20th century. After taking hundreds of thousands of photos all over America, she donated her entire body of work to the Library of Congress and graciously entered all her images into the public domain. It’s hard to imagine a more fitting photographer for this subject.

The photographs here include very few room-sized interior shots. Almost all the pictures focus on a particular work of art. This is not a comprehensive guide that attempts to document every artwork in these buildings. Instead, it gives the reader a general idea of the decorative theme or scheme in each room or hallway, and then shows a couple examples from each room. The captions provide information on the artists who created the artworks and also describes paintings and sculptures that are not pictured. For example, the text tells you that the Northwest Corridor of the Jefferson Building has nine lunettes (semicircular murals) painted by Edward Simmons depicting the nine Muses of Greek Mythology. It shows you photographs of two of these Muses, then lists the rest, also pointing out that under each Muse is a quotation by Alexander Pope. The photos are so beautiful they leave the reader wishing for more. Perhaps there is a book out there that documents every single artwork in the LOC, but if so it would be a huge and expensive book.

I have an art degree, but I only recognized the name of one artist discussed in this book: Elihu Vedder. Unfortunately, this romantic style of allegorical figurative art from the Gilded Age has since fallen out of favor among art scholars and critics, but On These Walls celebrates these great artists as they deserve. Not only is the art beautiful, but the symbolism is interesting and the subject matter inspiring. The Library of Congress is the ultimate monument to America’s intellectual heritage, similar to the Panthéon in Paris, but minus the tombs. (The art and inscriptions in the LOC actually celebrate achievements of all nations, but with a clear emphasis on European heritage and a predominance of American names.) Each room celebrates great achievements in literature, the arts, sciences, humanities, and industry. Like the cathedrals of Renaissance Europe, the decorative art delivers both an education and a sermon, but in this case it’s a secular sermon, one that champions human intellect and creative intrepidity. That’s a fitting message for an American library, and this is one library, and one book, that will make you proud to be an American.  
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