Bookmarking Book Art – ABCs

Remember the entry about the alphabet-book film series Mysteries of Vernacular? 

W is for "window". © Myriapod Productions, 2013
W is for “window”.
© Myriapod Productions, 2013

With his “Medieval Letter People“, the marvelously named Eric Kwakkel opens my eyes yet again to the materiality of the letter in books and book art – and prompts this renewed but brief hunt for abecedaries.

The human body is one of the most common objects encountered in art, whether in paintings, sculptures or other objects. Things have not changed much since medieval times, when artists loved to fill their work with human figures – commonly saints or individuals affiliated with biblical stories. Among the great diversity of depictions, there is one type that stands out in that the body is used (or rather, abused) to express something other than itself. These particularly fascinating and often amusing depictions are found on the medieval page. We see people bent and stretched into unnatural shapes in order to change them into something for which the book was created: letters (Fig. 1).

Fig. 1 – British Library, Add. MS 8887 (15th century) – Source
Fig. 1 – British Library, Add. MS 8887 (15th century) – Source

Kwakkel teaches at the University of Leiden, about ten miles from where I am writing. His online essays wear their learning lightly on the screen and bring the past to life, repeatedly connecting it with our not-so-different present thinking. Seeing the date of the letter G above made me wonder, how did we think about the ABCs during the overlap between illuminated scribal books and the printed book? Kwakkel’s entry on the model or pattern books from which scribes and illuminators would learn to form and decorate those introductory letters adds to my curiosity. Even as late as 1530, eighty years after the invention of movable type, these model books were still being created in parchment. For how long do technologies overlap and co-exist?

In 1529, Geoffroy Tory — “born typographic” —  published Champ fleury, more treatise than abecedary, to explain the design of type according to the Golden Mean. As his subtitle declares, Tory was not bending the human form to the letter but rather explaining The Art and Science of the Proportion of the Attic or Ancient Roman Letters, According to the Human Body and Face – finding the ideal shape of the letters in the human form and face.

Geoffroy Tory, Champ fleury; translated into English and annotated by George B. Ives. New York, Grolier, 1927.
Geoffroy Tory, Champ fleury; translated into English and annotated by George B. Ives. New York, Grolier, 1927.

The 1927 translation into English, magnificently designed by Bruce Rogers, one of the preeminent typographers of the twentieth century, can be found online in the University of Delaware’s ABC: An Alphabet Exhibition and even on CD from Octavo Editions, which also includes the original French and so brings the overlap from the born typographic to the born digital – at least in the medium if not the author.

As more recent evidence supporting Kwakkel’s assertion “things have not changed much since medieval times”, I offer up the New York Museum of Modern Arts’ 2012 exhibition “Artists’ Alphabets”, which celebrated book art abecedaries.

John Rieben. A Is the First Letter of the Alphabet. Printer: Screen Print Diversified. 1965-66. Lithograph, 50 x 35" (127 x 88.9 cm). Gift of the designer (not on view) Literacy begins with the alphabet. From the early twentieth century to today, modern artists have used the familiar ABC book, or abecedary, as a point of departure for diverse themes. In this exhibition, each letter of the alphabet is represented by a publication, revealing the abecedary as a learning device enjoyed well beyond childhood. From the Museum of Modern Art exhibition organized by Jennifer Tobias, Reader Services Librarian, MoMA Library. August - October 2012.
John Rieben. A Is the First Letter of the Alphabet. Printer: Screen Print Diversified. 1965-66. Lithograph, 50 x 35″ (127 x 88.9 cm). Gift of the designer (not on view). From the Museum of Modern Art exhibition organized by Jennifer Tobias, Reader Services Librarian, MoMA Library. August – October 2012.

One entry in particular – Stop the Violence: Character Studies by photographer Francois Robert  – contributes to this medieval heritage of the flesh made into word: his letters are formed of human bones.

Tien-Min Liao, a New York-based designer whose work surely deserved a place MoMA’s 2012 exhibition, offers a far gentler and more gestural ABC for my last specimen. Early in 2012 before the MoMA exhibition, she created her alphabet in what she calls a “typographic experiment” to explore the relationships between upper-case letters and lower-case letters and record how they transform into one another.

Inking shapes onto her fingers, hands and arms, she manipulated or “gestured” them into the corresponding shape of an upper-case letter. Then, without removing or redrawing the inked-on shapes, she adjusted her gestures or the perspective on them to change the upper-case letter to a lower-case of the same letter.  As shown in her illustrations below, she even created an italic version of her “Handmade Type”.

Handmade Type: a typography experiment Tian-Min Liao, March 2012
Handmade Type: a typography experiment,Tien-Min Liao, March 2012

The videos she created to show the transformation of each letter are exceptional, delightful. The banner headline on her site runs forward and backward, turning the HANDMADE into handmade and vice versa.

Unlike my other specimens, though, Tien-Min Liao’s abecedary is available only online. Without my imagining it as a book as well – bound in linen, with a metal handclasp closure or in a solander box including ink, brush and a CD with instructions on handmaking my own alphabet and with a Digital Object Identifier to keep up with her work –  the technological overlap has now run backwards or full circle: the flesh become letter, the fleshly letter become digital.

 

Bookmarking Book Art – Mending Pages

M4qPagG - ImgurR6fTbxTmpG4XVO - ImgurWilliam Dean Minter, Senior Book Conservator in the Digitization and Preservation Department at Pennsylvania State University drew my attention to these images. At first, they reminded me of passages in Annie Tremmel Wilcox’s A Degree of Mastery, in which she describes mending rare books with kozo paper under the hawkeye of the late Bill Anthony. Then, dreamcatchers sprang to mind. DreamcatcherWhat were the images, sounds and thoughts caught in words now missing on these pages, words slipped from the dreamcatching pages? But book artist Esther Kibby, who teaches photography, graphic design and web design at the Art Institute of Dallas in Texas, came up with the most telling association: kintsugiKintsugi

Kintsugi (or kintsukuroi) is a Japanese method for repairing broken ceramics with a special lacquer mixed with gold, silver, or platinum. The philosophy behind the technique is to recognize the history of the object and to visibly incorporate the repair into the new piece instead of disguising it. The mastery of the book restorer is to invisibly repair the book. Our “dreamcatcher” restorer seems to have in mind the kintsugi philosophy and lets the repair draw attention to itself and creates “a new piece”.

In the hands of a book artist, such a technique could generate ironic expressions of biblioclasm: the restored book that is no longer a book? Or echoes of Walter Benjamin’s presumption of and preoccupation with the modern world’s fragmentary nature? Or the pain and sorrow of Al-Mutanabbi Street?

Bettina Pauly, The Sun that Rises, 2013
Bettina Pauly, The Sun that Rises, 2013.  Made for An Inventory of Al-Mutanabbi Street.

 

Or a tongue-in-cheek answer to those horrified by the destruction of “the book”?

When the Japanese mend broken objects, they aggrandize the damage by filling the cracks with gold. They believe that when something’s suffered damage and has a history it becomes more beautiful. —Barbara Bloom