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).
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.
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.
A more recent effort to tie letters to the human character, if not physiognomy, is Character Traits (2019) by Russell Maret. This is a book of many alphabets. As Maret describes its inspiration: “struck in quick succession by a few different descriptions of human character traits, most poignantly one by Frank Worsley, the Captain of Ernest Shackleton’s Endurance expedition: “The rapidity with which one can change one’s ideas…and accommodate ourselves to a state of barbarism is wonderful.” Suddenly, the lettering book idea came back to me, but with an added depth. Rather than a specimen of lettering inspired by Henry James’ insightful humor, I began to imagine a book in which the texts reflected a broader picture of the human experience, touching on some of the darker (and/or comedic) realities of the human condition. I began gathering texts in notebooks as I came across them.” (In Progress: News and Notes from Russell Maret’s Studio, 8 April 2018.)
Another modern instance supporting Kwakkel’s assertion that “things have not changed much since medieval times” was the New York Museum of Modern Arts’ 2012 exhibition “Artists’ Alphabets”, which celebrated book art abecedaries.
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”.
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 also as a book – 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.