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Lauren Bryant

Last modified: Tuesday, April 13, 2010

IU historian reveals 300-year-old painting puzzle in 2010 Distinguished Faculty Research Lecture

April 13, 2010

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Call it 'Print 2.0.' As the 17th century drew to a close, new printing technologies allowed information to circulate much faster, farther and more broadly than ever before.

But at what cost? The advent of modernity in Western Europe certainly had its dissenters. Among them was Edward Collier, an artist whose observations on modernity remained hidden for 300 years. In the 2010 Distinguished Faculty Research Lecture, historian Dror Wahrman will reveal the tale of his sleuthing to discover Collier's messages.

"Collier is a mysterious and virtually unknown painter from the late 17th and early 18th centuries," says Wahrman, who is Ruth N. Halls Professor of History in the College of Arts and Sciences at IU Bloomington. "But I argue that his paintings are an ingenious commentary on the media revolution of this period and on the birth of modern politics."

A Dutch-British still-life artist, Collier (c. 1640-1708) lived most of his life in Leiden, where he specialized primarily in vanitas still lifes. In 1693, he moved to London, where he encountered a new media environment that prompted him to start a new genre of compositions -- trompe l'oeil letter racks filled with printed documents, handwritten letters, and other objects. In dozens of these paintings, Wahrman says, Collier employs a secret language, replete with minutely coded messages, witty games, intricate allusions, and private jokes.

"Collier has been neglected, even forgotten, precisely because his secret messages have never been noticed, let alone understood," says Wahrman. "Once deciphered, his message-in-a-painted-bottle turns out to be nothing less than a sophisticated and incisive critique of modernity."

Collier painting

Image courtesy of Dror Wahrman

Tromple L'oeil Letter Rack, by Edward Collier. 1701. Oil on canvas.

Wahrman, who is working on a book-length exploration of Edward Collier's paintings, will deliver his lecture "The Collier Code: A Tale of Art and Illusion at the Threshold of the Modern Information Age," on April 28. To accompany the lecture, the IU Art Museum will be exhibiting two Collier paintings -- one vanitas still life and one trompe l'oeil letter rack -- from April 20 to May 30.

The 2010 Distinguished Faculty Lecture takes place in the Grand Hall of the Neal-Marshall Black Culture Center at 3:30 p.m. The public is welcome.

The DFRL lecture series is co-sponsored by the Office of the Vice Provost for Research and the Office of the Provost at IU Bloomington. Begun in 1980, the lecture event recognizes the research achievements of an IU Bloomington faculty member and is accompanied by a $3,000 award to support the distinguished lecturer's continuing research.

Past DFRL awardees include Elinor Ostrom, David Weaver, Peter Bondanella, Meredith West and David R. Williams.

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