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 – “Previously on …”

W is for %22window%22
W is for “window”.
© Myriapod Productions, 2013

“Previously on …”  Say the phrase and most listeners’ brains switch to a favorite channel and television series. It is part of our vernacular. It instantly evokes a compound state of remembering and anticipating.

Myriapod Productions embodies that state of mind in its animated alphabet-book film series Mysteries of Vernacular. Each book for each letter is an old yellowed or gray hardback whose pages turn by themselves to reveal silhouette figures that glide across the pages, accordioned illustrations from other works or carvings reminiscent of the book sculptures of Doug Beube, Brian Dettmer and Odires Mlászho – with each vernacular word and definition emerging from an old library card pocket or from beneath a flap or cutout on the page.  

The treatment of the letter W is particularly apropos to this compound artwork.  W is for “window”, which we are informed by Graham James (the narrator) is an example of the Old Norse technique of word invention called kenning. Kenning is the joining of two things (or rather two words for two different things) to designate a third thing: such as whale + road = whale-road = sea. Window is originally an Old Norse kenning word: windauga = vind (wind) + auga (eye). The book in the animation is Mikhail Sholokhov‘s The Don Flows Home to the Sea, a Nobel-prize-winning window on the life of the Don Cossacks during the Russian Revolution.

The book for the letter A (for “assassin”) is Karl Menninger‘s Love against Hate, whose theme of love’s shaping our instinctual aggressiveness suggests an ironic bent and wry, punning sense of humor in Jessica Oreck and her Myriapod team. The letter C for “clue” traces back to the ball of yarn (clew) that Ariadne gave Theseus to help him find his way out of the maze after killing the Minotaur, which is explained with an animation of George Bernard Shaw‘s The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism and Capitalism. C is also for “clever”.

D for “dynamite” plays out on the pages of A Number of Things, a satiric novel of Irish and British manners by Honor (Lilbush Wingfield) Tracy. Tracy became the fuse to a stick of dynamite planted by Bevis Hillier in his rival A.N. Wilson‘s biography of Sir John Betjeman. Hillier concocted a letter from Betjeman purporting to reveal an affair between Tracy and the Oxford don. Not only was the letter a hoax, but Hillier embedded an acrostic that spelled out “A N Wilson is a shit”.

Of course, X for “x-ray” is illuminated with George IlesLittle Masterpieces of Science, and naturally, Z for “zero” is accounted for with Teach Yourself Calculus. But this soupçon of humor runs out with H (what has “hearse” to do with Bernard Jaffe‘s story of chemistry?) and G (what has “gorgeous” to do with James Russell Lowell?) and F (what has “fizzle” to do with Mark Twain‘s Life on the Mississippialthough one can imagine his delight with the word’s eytmological kinship with flatulence?).

F is for %22fizzle%22
F is for “fizzle”.
© Myriapod Productions, 2013

Each letter, definition, chapter, volume, episode (?) of Mysteries of Vernacular elicits affection for, if not outright love of, words and language. Perhaps that is not just down to Oreck’s and team’s skill, humor and cleverness. After all, for most of us, the alphabet-book is our childhood entrée not only to letters and words but any aspect of the internal and external world we fancy. Just for ages 3-5, our bookstores and libraries have the ABCs of Asthma, Bible Verse, Colors, Dinosaurs, Engineering, Feelings, Golf, Halloween, Ice Cream, Jobs, Kangaroos, Love, Math Riddles, Nature, Origami, Pigs, Questions, Rocks, Sounds, Touch, Under the Sea, Vanishing (endangered species), Wildlife, Yoga and Zoos. And for the more app-minded, there is also Moonbot Studio’s contribution to the ABCs: The Numberlys.

Screenshot from The Numberlys, William Joyce, Moonbot Studios, 2012
Screenshot from The Numberlys
William Joyce, Moonbot Studios, 2012

Myriapod starts with the advantage of this long, long “previously on …” in our hearts and minds. In exploiting its advantage, Mysteries of Vernacular takes us on a gentle rootle round the attic and cellar of our language and social history.  The tradition of the abecedary and the disciplines of history and etymology offer a natural canvas on which Myriapod’s animation projects numerous techniques of book art. The intaglio carving reminds us not only of Beube, Dettmer and Mlászho but more so of Nerhol (the collaboration persona of Ryuta Iida and Yoshihisa Tanaka) and the work entitled Oratorical Type.

Oratorical Type by Nerhol (Ryuta Iida and Yoshihisa Tanaka)
Oratorical Type by Nerhol (Ryuta Iida and Yoshihisa Tanaka)
Oratorical Type by Nerhol (Ryuta Iida and Yoshihisa Tanaka)
Oratorical Type by Nerhol (Ryuta Iida and Yoshihisa Tanaka)

The Mysteries’ wooden desktop framing recalls Abelardo Morell‘s A Book of Books.

Water Alphabet, 1998 Abelardo Morell
Water Alphabet, 1998
Abelardo Morell

The animated book folds are enchanting (although they might have but do not aspire to the level of origami achieved by artists and craftworkers like Heather Eddy).

The Alphabet Tutorial Heather Eddy, 2011
The Alphabet Tutorial
Heather Eddy, 2013
little letters Heather Eddy, 2013
little letters
Heather Eddy, 2013

More extensively used and in keeping with the more two-dimensional feel of Mysteries is the technique of papercutting (as distinct from carving) on display with the letter W. The technique dates to the Tang Dynasty (618 -906 AD) but, in this context, harks back more recently to Victorian silhouette artistry.

Victorian Silhouette Abecedary
Victorian Silhouette Abecedary

The series of 26 episodes so rich in content and technique is addictive. You will find yourself, as with any well-done abecedary, wishing for more letters in the alphabet. Although there is a vast vocabulary of other vernacular awaiting treatment, at a production cost of $80,000 per episode, it is likely those words will wait a long time. So we are left with having to remember our anticipation. Not all anticipation is more often enjoyed in itself rather than its resolution. You have 26 windows of opportunity to learn in Mysteries of Vernacular.

Do not wait.