Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
December 29, 1999
Catherine Gordon Courtauld Gallery Paintings Witt Library, Cortauld Institute of Art, 1998. 570 ills. CD-ROM $68.00

This CD-ROM opens with a visual witticism too canny not to have been intentional. When the disk is installed (easily done), the first screen reproduces part of Pieter Bruegel’s Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery, one of the real treasures of the Courtauld’s collection. In the detail, taken from the painting’s right-hand side, the user encounters a micro-crowd of onlookers, who bend forward, all eyes, all focus, all attention. These figures gaze toward a point at the screen’s lower left, while the foremost among them gapes in astonishment and tips a long-fingered hand downward, emphasizing the trajectory of sight. Here the sixteenth century interfaces with the twenty-first, and the object of the gaze is no longer the episode of Christ and the adulterous woman, but now the Courtauld Gallery’s logo. Clearly, religion and adultery aside, the user is in for a visual experience.

The Courtauld Gallery, installed in Somerset House, London, includes in its collection over 500 paintings, as well as some 26,000 drawings and prints, and works in such other media as sculpture, ceramics, and furniture. This CD-ROM is devoted to the paintings, all of which are reproduced and documented in 570 images. An “Info” item on the menu provides a brief history of the gallery and its collection, and various “Help” buttons guide the user through the CD-ROM’s more sophisticated features. For this review, I worked on an IBM ThinkPad (760ELD), and even though this machine is hardly state-of-the-art, I found it remarkably easy to make my way through the database, to secure “Help” when I needed it, and to print out the background information and the instructions for the CD-ROM’s use.

Clicking anywhere on Bruegel’s watchers brings up a screen where a series of four main choices await: images can be accessed by Artist, Subject, Date and Provenance, or Properties (medium, support, etc.). Choosing “Artist” allows the user to select images by individual painters, whose names are alphabetized in a scroll-down list on the right. Here, it is also possible to sort by national school or to bring up the Courtauld’s entire collection of paintings.

I chose to skim through the whole collection first, an option that gave me two further possibilities: with “Gallery,” the images appear on the screen without text, five across, on my computer roughly the size of very large postage stamps; whereas with “Short List,” each small image is accompanied by a caption that includes the standard information (date, title, medium, size), plus the work’s Courtauld inventory number.

In both cases the paintings are organized alphabetically according to artists’ names, and in both cases the user can click on “Full Reference” or “Full Image” for a further exploration of an image. The overwhelming majority of the reproductions appear in color, the exceptions seeming to be works that fall into the category of “school of,” “attributed to,” “in the manner of” (though there were a few images whose appearance in black and white was otherwise inexplicable). Clicking on “Full Image” then brings up a full-screen reproduction of the work, and on my laptop I found the color reproductions stunningly clear. Also on this screen, there is a zoom feature, which enables the user to delineate an area to be extracted and enlarged.

This part of the CD-ROM, all that I have described until now, is very much vaut le voyage. Having virtual access to an entire body of works provides an invaluable research tool as well as no small amount of visual pleasure. The organization of the material is intuitive, and navigating through the various screens can be accomplished easily.

Clicking on “Full Reference” brings up a screen with another small-scale reproduction, along with greater information about the work. Here, in addition to the physical properties of the painting, the data include its provenance and exhibition history, as well as its accession number, its Witt number, and codes for ordering a negative or a digitized image. Here, too, a zoom feature allows easy enlargement of an image’s details.

However, also on this screen is a series of notations about the work’s subject, made using a system called “Iconclass.” According to the documentation, Iconclass was developed in Amsterdam (1973–1985) by Henri Van de Waal and “comprises about 24,000 definitions of events, situations, persons, objects, and abstract ideas and is arranged in a clear hierarchical form.” The hierarchy begins with a series of ten categories, each of which has a myriad of subdivisions: 0 abstract, nonrepresentational art; 1 religion and magic; 2 nature; 3 human being, man in general; 4 society, civilization, culture; 5 abstract ideas and concepts; 6 history; 7 Bible; 8 literature; 9 classical mythology and ancient history.

Perhaps you can instantly see some difficulties with this system of classification. I certainly did, and as I pointed, clicked, and scrolled my way through this part of the CD-ROM, my initial enthusiasm was somewhat diminished. Here is how Iconclass works for Édouard Manet’s study for Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe. On the reference screen, along with a small reproduction of the painting and the standard museum documentation, appears the following list of Iconclass numbers and classifying terms:

31AA54 * washing and (AA) bathing in the open air
32B12 * reconstruction of life and culture of prehistoric man
31A2364 * lying on one side, with uplifted upper part of the body and leaning on one arm
33C52* whore, prostitute
31AA15* nude human figure, non-academic, non-idealised (WITT) (AA)female human figure
25H154* glade, Lichtung im Wald’ * (+1) landscape with figures, staffage
25H21* student love
46C232* rowing boat, canoe, etc.
43B12* picnic, alfresco, déjeuner sur l’herbe’
41A7751 * container made of plant material other than wood: basket

Even granting my Modernist distrust for hierarchies and hard-and-fast systems of classification, I still found this system problematic. The imposition of an arbitrary set of categories—arbitrary in kind and number both—seems ill-advised, as does the carving up of images into little icon-bites. Too broad and too narrow at once, Iconclass requires quite a bit of iconographic maneuvering to stuff those images into the available conceptual cells.

Then, too, I found difficulty with the slippage between “fact” and “interpretation,” with the semantic variances from one part of the text data to another. Up until Iconclass, the CD-ROM had functioned as a highly satisfactory visual database, the text for which had been limited to more or less factual notations. Certainly there were judgments to be made about dates or spellings or titles, and just as certainly I could envision a human being, or teams of human beings, keying the data onto a disk, but this information arrives with a relatively high degree of “authorlessness,” seeming to lack the intermediary of an intellect or “voice.” With Iconclass, however, the words and numbers come packed with extensive and highly idiosyncratic acts of interpretation, though these, too, are presented within a deadpan and numbered format as if they comprised documented information. Here, the disparity between the various types of signifieds was jarring, as was the eccentricity or microscopy of some of the Iconclass notations.

Regarding Manet’s Déjeuner sur l’herbe, is it useful to know that the painting contains one item that is a “container made of plant material other than wood: basket”? And if this is the degree of detail with which the user must contend, then why no reference to the clothing, the fruit, the roll, the flask, the bird (which does seem to be there, though the frog does not)? And is the concept “student love” really commensurate with the fact that the right-hand figure wears what appears to be a student hat?

The bottom line for this CD-ROM? The visual database is excellent and definitely worth the acquisition, but I have real reservations about the utility of Iconclass. In another part of the CD-ROM, the Iconclass categories can be used to access images by subject, and while I can imagine that someone might find it useful to determine which of the Courtauld’s paintings feature such things as “deer,” “toes,” “flowers,” “dairy products,” “fences” or “disease” (“toe” yielding Degas’s Two Dancers on a Stage; “disease” Van Gogh’s Self-Portrait with a Bandaged Ear), I thought this part of the venture was rather peculiar.

Most museum boutiques feature spectacular’ CD-ROMs geared to the general public. These are the jazzily packaged, techno-equivalents of the coffee-table book, with lots of bells and whistles and some twenty/sixty/a hundred Top Hits embedded in music, graphics, and extra-lite text. Scholars’ needs are different, and it seems that they are still greatly in need of definition. One group that has been active in the effort is the Multimedia Working Group of Archives and Museum Informatics. In 1997 they drew up a list of guidelines for evaluating kiosks, websites, and CD-ROMs, and this extremely useful document can be obtained from their website:

Jane Mayo Roos
Professor Emerita, Hunter College and the Graduate Center of CUNY