The Coffee Table

Eco Eco

Frequently a journalist's crutch, lists are no deficit in the works of the exuberant Umberto Eco.

Book Cover In Boston the gem known as the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum once hosted the Eye of the Beholder, artist-in-residencies that invited diverse creators such as children's book illustrator Ashley Bryan, performance artist Lee Ming Wei, installation artist Joan Bankemper, photographer Abelardo Morell, and author Sandra Cisneros to spend time at the museum and then share their thoughts with a civilian audience. It's a programmatic gesture many museums adopt, not in the least Paris's Louvre.

For the better part of two years novelist and philosopher/semiotician Umberto Eco (The Name of the Rose and Foucault's Pendulum)--following in the footsteps of artists Robert Badinter, Toni Morrison, Anselm Kiefer, and Pierre Boulez--was in residence at the museum, choosing as his theme of study "the vertigo of lists." And one of the products of his observations is a splendidly illustrated monograph, The Infinity of Lists: An Illustrated Essay (Rizzoli), apparently a sequel to his non-pareill investigations History of Beauty and On Ugliness. This tome is, in essence, a tour through art, literature, and music based on the theme of lists, an investigation of the phenomenon of cataloging and collecting. Additionally, Eco maintains that the impulse to accumulate, to collect, is a reoccurring passion in Western culture.

Eco elaborates:
The subject of lists has been a theme of many writers from Homer onwards. My great challenge was to transfer it to painting and music and to see whether I could find equivalents in the Louvre, because frankly when I suggested the subject I had no idea how I would write about visual lists...

The search for The List in the corridors of the Louvre was as exciting as hunting the unicorn. Painting has a beauty that is born of accumulation; art embodies the plurality and variety of reality in the limits of the form. From Antiquity down to the 19th century we have been prisoners of the picture frame; in painting, the frame tells us that 'everything' we should be interested in is inside it. I want to invite people to go beyond the form of the physical limits of the picture, to imagine the etcetera, a very important concept that suggests that it may continue. I want to invite people when they look, for example, at the Mona Lisa to go beyond what is most obvious and to observe the background landscape and wonder whether it extends into infinity--something that Da Vinci perhaps intended. To look at a picture as if we had a movie camera that would do a travelling shot to show us the rest.
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