What Heaven Looks Like: Comments on a Strange Wordless Book

James Elkins. Laboratory, $25 (128p) ISBN 978-1-946053-02-2
A cryptic artifact—a small, plainly bound book with a simple inscription and 52 untitled watercolor paintings by an unknown artist—is the source of endless fascination in this alluring annotated reproduction with commentary by art historian Elkins (On Pictures and the Words That Fail Them). Little is known about the original manuscript (which is held at the University of Glasgow’s Special Collections Library): “No one knows who painted it, or when,” Elkins explains, noting that the paper was made in Holland toward the end of the 17th century. But he examines the paintings one by one in an attempt to piece together their origin story. The delicate watercolors were apparently inspired by the images the artist saw in the cut ends of wood logs. Miniature worlds and dragons reveal themselves in the painted ripples, and Elkins muses over the images and reoccurring motifs, drawing on his understanding of religious unrest in 17th-century Europe to color his interpretations. In addition to being a study of the watercolors, the book gives readers insights into how art historians approach artworks about which not much is known. Brief discussions of the paper and the Latin wording in the manuscript add layers of intrigue to the mystery of the artifact’s provenance. 56 color illus. (Sept.)
Reviewed on: 06/19/2017
Release date: 09/01/2017
Genre: Nonfiction
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