A Picture Is Worth A Million Laws

Library PhotoQuick: How do you illustrate the essential nature of the complex legal subject of involuntary manslaughter?

Answer: She slips on a banana, tumbles toward the poor fellow ahead of her on the sidewalk with a force that pushes him forward into the sharp edge of a cane, which is being perhaps recklessly held parallel to the sidewalk and under the arm of the fellow in front of him. The cane pushes the poor victim’s eyeball right out like a billiard ball.

How do you get students studying a perhaps slightly boring subject — taxation on protruding structures — to pay attention? Maybe with an image of a humorously busty woman leaning on the railing of a balcony.

Those charming graphic aids to the study of the law are among the visual treats available to behold in “Around the World with Law’s Picture Books,” the new exhibition at the Lillian Goldman Law Library, in the basement level of the Yale Law Schoo on Wall Street.

The show contains 18 items from 15 countries in 10 languages, representing all the continents except Antarctica. The production of law books on the southernmost continent has been somewhat slow, said curator Michael Widener.

Widener is the Yale Law School’s rare book librarian. His background decades ago in broadcast journalism and storytelling is one reason he’s been drawn to build the unique collection of illustrated law books from which the show is drawn.

“An exhibition is storytellng. I love this stuff. There are times when an image can tell a better story than words,” he said.

The show is curated by Widener and his wife, retired Spanish language professor Emma Molilna Widener, and is a companion to a much larger show titled “Law’s Picture Books: The Yale Law Library Collection” at the rare-book Grolier Club in New York City, which Widener mounted with his colleague Mark S. Weiner.

Both shows pull from the remarkable and unique collection of 1,500 illustrated law books dating from the 15th century down to today, which Widener has been building since his arrival at Yale in 2006.

The New York show, which has been glowingly reviewed in The Wall Street Journal and other places, closes on Nov. 18 — but the companion show at the Yale Law School rare book library, a jewel in its own right, runs through Dec. 15.

Widener started thinking about the contribution of images to the stereotypical text-heavy business of the law when he purchased a book for the University of Texas, his gig before Yale.

That tome, which is in the Grolier show, is “De alluvionum ijure universo,” a 16th-century treatise on alluvium — that is, soil deposited on a shoreline by a river — and riparian rights.

“A river changes course, there’s an island in the middle. Who owns it?” Widener asked rhetorically. “It’s much easier to explain in pictures than in words.”

Widener wanted to make sure law books across countries, languages, and continents appeared in the show. To include Australia, he purchased a 2002 book with illustrations on aboriginal land rights. An image from that book, open in one of the two vitrines in the basement library, gets at the heart of two radically different perspectives on the nature of property with both succinctness and power.

And who knew that in the middle of the French Revolution, with so much going on over at the guillotine, that one Jean Bouchotte had time to publish a pamphlet calling for the legalization of divorce, certainly a byproduct of the revolution?

The frontispiece for that document shows a woman, statuesque as Justice herself, pointing to the sandal on floor in front of her and declaring: “See this shoe? When it hurts my foot, I take it off.”

Next up for Widener is a show that will feature law books that he thinks are simply beautiful. He hasn’t decided on a title.

“Around the World with Law’s Picture Books” runs through Dec. 15 during regular hours of the Lillian Goldman Law Library Annex, 127 Wall Street. Click here for more information.


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