Books On Books Collection – Warja Lavater

Warja Lavater’s work first came to this collection’s attention through Jeffrey Abt and Buzz Spector. Entitled Jeu: livre en “papier modulé” (1980), the work had been included in an exhibition organized by Abt and, for which, Spector designed the catalogue: The Book Made Art: A Selection of Contemporary Artists’ Books, exhibited in the Joseph Regenstein Library, The University of Chicago, February through April 1986. No image of Lavater’s entry appeared in the catalogue, nor was an online image ever located. The description suggested that it was not a leporello, so later it came as a surprise that this was the form for which she was best known. Still, a vote of thanks to The Book Made Art for planting the artist’s name for future reference.

Three works in the Books On Books Collection represent Warja Lavater’s art: Le Petit Chaperon Rouge (1965), a tactile version of the same work (2008) and Spectacle (1990). The French publisher Adrien Maeght was Lavater’s most consistent champion, publishing several of her leporello works, including a now rare boxed set.

Le Petit Chaperon Rouge (1965)

Le Petit Chaperon Rouge (1965)
Warja Lavater
Accordion book in perspex slipcase.
Slipcase: H167 x W117 x D26 mm; Book: H160 x W113 x D20 mm, closed; W4.5 m, open. 40 panels.
Acquired from Patrick Wainwright Rare Books, 22 June 2022.
Photos: Books On Books Collection.

Abstract shapes stand in for the characters and settings in this retelling of Little Red Riding Hood’s journey through the forest to visit her grandmother. With the only text being that matching symbols to the cast of characters and settings, the tale is told wordlessly.

Knowing the story and having the cast to hand, the reader/viewer easily follows the shapes and colors into a new and artful experience of the folktale. But what if the shapes and colors cannot be seen?

Le Petit Chaperon Rouge (2008)

Le Petit Chaperon Rouge (2008)
Warja Lavater and Myriam Colin
Accordion book boxed in cloth-covered board box. Box: H190 x W130 x D75 mm; Book: H176 x W122 x D70 mm. closed;
W4.3 m, open. 40 panels. Acquired from Les Doigts Qui Rêvent, 30 October 2022.
Photos: Books On Books Collection. Displayed with permissions of Les Doigts Qui Rêvent.

Artist Myriam Colin and publisher Les Doigts Qui Rêvent (“Fingers that Dream”) addressed this question with print, Braille, cloths of different texture, leather, blind embossed shapes, plastic filaments and sewing.

Between the printed text and Braille-rendering for the cast of characters and settings, buttons of different cloths and different embossed shapes appear. In the opening scene, the red felt button for Little Red Riding Hood is of course smaller than the orange-brown broadcloth button for Mother, who stands before the raised rectangle for the house and looks over her daughter’s head at the forest of raised dots.

Later, the wolf’s belly becomes a large sewn pouch with the slit cut by the Hunter through which Grandma and Little Red Riding can be felt, ready to escape.

The brown leather button for the Hunter unites the felt Red Riding Hood, nubby-cloth Grandmother and broadcloth Mother in a clearing in the forest. A satisfactory conclusion for the sighted and visually impaired.

Spectacle (1990)

Spectacle: Pictoson Mural (1990)
Warja Lavater
H215 x W296 mm. 22 pages. Acquired from Antiquariat Übü, 3 August 2022.
Photos: Books On Books Collection. Displayed with permission of the publisher.

Spectacle is an origin story of shapes, signs, the sounds of language, their alphabetic representation and use to form words. It is similar to the tale in Il était une fois un alphabet (1951/2009) by Souza Desnoyer and Marcelle Marquet. In both, the separate worlds of vowels and consonants join to create the alphabet. In Il était une fois, the letters already exist, have anthropomorphic shapes and engage in familiar activities like voyages, feasts, dances and processions. The narrative has scenes and settings to carry it along. Spectacle‘s origin narrative, however, letters develop from a system of signs created/discovered by a wizard. An abstract shape himself, the wizard presides over the story’s unfolding across an abstract landscape. Even though Lavater maps a written version (in eight languages) of the tale to the panels, the pictorial narrative remains challenging.

Elliptical and shamanic, the written narrative itself is challenging. It may remind the reader of Italo Calvino’s Big Bang story “Sul far del giorno” (“At daybreak”) in his collection Le Cosmicomiche (1965) (“Cosmicomics“1968), to which Shirley Sharoff paid homage in OVI: objets volants identifiés dans le ciel d’Italo Calvino, a work contemporary with Lavater’s. The verticality of Lavater’s extraordinary leporello might also remind the viewer of Blaise Cendrars and Sonia Delaunay’s La Prose du Transsibérien et de la petite Jehanne de France (1913).

Somehow, though, despite its winged emblems of words, the eleventh panel with its regimented alphabet seems visually diminished, not quite the joyous spectacle promised by the text. For that, we would have to turn to William Joyce’s origin story The Numberlys (2014).

The Numberlys (2014)
William Joyce and Christina Ellis
Hardback, paper on board. H220 x W300 mm, 52 pages. Acquired from London Bridge Books, 15 April 2021.
Photos of the book: Books On Books Collection.

Further Reading

Beckett, Sandra L. « When Modern Little Red Riding Hoods Cross Borders… or Don’t…. » Meta, Vol. 48, No. 1-2, May 2003, 15–30.

Gromer, Bernadette. Winter 1991. “Tête à tête: Entretien avec Warja Lavater“. La Révue des livres pour enfants. No. 137-138, 40-48.

Meunier, Christophe. Posted 18 January 2013. “Les imageries de Warja Lavater : une mise en espace des contes…”. Les Territoires de l’Album: Espace et spatialités dans les albums pour enfants. Accessed 24 June 2022.

Perkins, Stephen. Posted 13 May 2022. “Warja Lavater, Little Red Riding Hood (1965/1971), Snow White (1974), and OURASIMA (1991)“. Accordion Publications. Accessed 23 June 2022.

Ribi, Carol Jana. 2019. “Warja Lavater’s folded stories. Work genesis and aesthetic impact” in Schulz Christoph Benjamin. 2019. Die Geschichte(n) Gefalteter Bücher : Leporellos Livres-Accordéon Und Folded Panoramas in Literatur Und Bildender Kunst. Hildesheim: Georg Olms Verlag.