Books On Books Collection – Serena Smith

Ekphrasis (2020)

Ekphrasis (2020)
Serena Smith
Case bound with letterpress printed cloth cover H700 x W460 x D20 mm. 23 folios: 2 end leaves, 1 title, 10 hand-colored images printed on to 225gsm Simili Japon, 10 bronzed text printed onto translucent paper. Edition of 5, of which this is #5. Acquired from the artist, 5 January 2023.
Photos: Books On Books Collection. Photos and videos: Courtesy of the artist. Displayed with permission of the artist.

The word ekphrasis refers to the literary practice of verbally representing a visual representation. Think of the poets Keats, Auden and Jarrell using words to “recreate”, re-present, evoke or respond to works of art — an antique urn, a painting by Brueghel, or Donatello’s sculpture of David. Novelists, too. Think of Henry James’ The Ambassadors in which the narrator Lambert Strether describes an imagined stroll through a landscape painting he’s viewing.

Serena Smith has a different point of departure for Ekphrasis. Her dwelling and studio back onto a Leicestershire country park — “part arboretum and part community”. Highlighted with maple, Tibetan cherry and Himalayan birch, the planted woodland of ash and beech with its defined paths offers up “artefact of living trees” as much a constructed work of visual art as any urn, painting or sculpture.

In this bookwork, ten pages of text printed on translucent paper overlay ten images printed from stone. The text reflects on the “wandering, watching and thinking that happens in the parkland”, but then it turns internally to the studio, the ephemera collected from the woodland, and the stage before the images come into being. The process of making becomes an object of the ekphrastic text: smoothing the stone, using a tool to guide the pencil, sharpening the pencil. And gradually the work reveals itself as a self-reflexive meditation on natural and artificial creation, on word and image, and on trace lines of growth and decay.

The translucent pages of text create a palimpsest-like effect over the folios of images. Until the translucent folio turns, the text is indecipherable. As the pages turn, the textual and pictorial play off one another.

Close-up of text

Single-page view of first lithograph

The lithographic image divides into three parts. The jigsaw-like lines around the image of bark come from a stencil tool, and the result chimes with planning lines of landscape architecture, feeding insects’ tracks in the bast, the shape of lichen and ultimately the Ogham runes mentioned in the text and depicted at the end.

First of three-part close-up of the first lithograph

Second of three-part close-up of the first lithograph

Third of three-part close-up of the first lithograph


The following ekphrastic words bring the lithographic process to life. Taken together, the glossary, Smith’s descriptive text and its ekphrastic focus on the lithographic process transform her stone into a kind of Ogham stone itself.

As the drawing progresses I wonder if the hands of Celtic scribes also tired, whilst scoring the lines of Ogham script into fragments of wood. Cutting short repeated grooves against the grain an effort would have been felt, different to that which allowed the tool to willingly travel along the pathways of growth. Perhaps they too made use of a device to control the errant gesture, and aid inscription of measured lines of written text. This can only be speculated.

What the remaining Ogham stones do tacitly share are ciphered incisions that scale their lichen clad faces with a purposeful regularity that resists embellishment. Contouring the edges, the cut lines navigate uneven corners without detour, and prompt me to ask if these scribes, flesh pressed into stone, also briefly held their breath while negotiating the changes in direction prescribed by the matrix.

A version of the text and all of the images can be found in Smith’s brief essay published by IMPACT Printmaking Journal (Spring 2020) and in the following slide show (courtesy of the artist).

Ekphrasis pp. 34,35 detail

Further Reading

Abecedaries I (in progress)“. Books On Books Collection.

Brynja Baldursdottír“. 10 March 2023. Books On Books Collection.

Notes on “Inverse Ekphrasis” as a way into book art“. 16 June 2022. Bookmarking Book Art.

Ager, Simon. “Ogham“. Omniglot: The Online Encyclopedia of Writing Systems and Languages. Accessed 10 February 2023.

Tompkins, Willis W. 1960. Ogham : A Brief Account of the Language and Its Alphabets, Usages by the Druids, and Some Applications in Cryptology ; the Whole Compiled from Various Sources, Edited, Arranged and Furnished with Examples of Alphabets Engraved on Wood. New York: Ogham.

Graves, Robert, and Eileen Hogan. 1978. Ogham : Each Letter of the Alphabet Is Presented with a Colour and Bird All Three Beginning with the Same Initial ; the Whole Alphabet Forms a Calendar of Seasonal Bardic Lore Based on an Interpretation by Robert Graves of the Cyphers Used in the Book of Ballymote. London: Burnt Wood Press.

Books On Books Collection – Honorine Tepfer


Stéphane Mallarmé (text); Honorine Tepfer (art & design)
Accordion fold with embossed paper cover. Cover – H325 x W255 mm; Book – H320 x W250 mm, 34 pages. Edition of 48, of which this is #5. Acquired from Studio Montespecchio, 2 February 2022.
Photos: Books On Books Collection. Displayed with permission of the artist.

Before his sudden death in 1898, Stéphane Mallarmé was planning a deluxe edition of Un Coup de Dés Jamais N’Abolira le Hasard with Ambroise Vollard, an entrepreneur and publisher. A single-volume version of the poem did not appear until 1914. Issued under the direction of Mallarmé’s son-in-law Dr. Edmond Bonniot through the Nouvelle Revue de France (NRF), it omitted intended prints by Odilon Redon, used the typeface Elzevir rather than the Didot that Mallarmé preferred, and did not precisely follow his layout. We know all this because of correspondence between the poet, Redon and Vollard and because the Sorbonne’s Bibliothèque littéraire Jacques Doucet and Harvard’s Houghton Library hold proofs of the deluxe edition with Mallarmé’s handwritten corrections and instructions.

Mallarmé’s placement of words and lines was intentional and precise. Even before the planning for the deluxe edition, he wrote of what could be achieved with type size and layout:

Pourquoi — un jet de grandeur, de pensée ou d’émoi, considérable, phrase poursuivie, en gros caractère, une ligne par page à emplacement gradué, ne maintiendrait-il le lecteur en haleine, la durée du livre, avec appel à sa puissance d’enthousiasme: autour, menus, des groupes, secondairement d’après leur importance, explicatifs ou dérivés — un semis de fioritures. [Oeuvres Complètes, 2 227]

“Why — couldn’t a considerable burst of greatness of thought or emotion, carried in a sentence in large typeface, gradually placed with one line per page, hold the reader’s bated breath throughout the entire book by appealing to his or her power of enthusiasm: around this [burst], smaller groups of secondary importance, explicating or deriving from the primary phrase — a scattering of flourishes.” [Arnar, 234]

The NRF edition 1914 edition makes quite a few sad missteps as Robert Cohn pointed out in 1967. Tepfer’s inspiration to restore the intended layout follows in the footsteps of Mitsou Ronat & Tibor Papp (1980) and Neil Crawford (1985). She visited the Doucet library to examine the proofs and layout. Following the layout was not difficult, but with the scarcity of Didot, Tepfer needed to select another typeface. She chose Baskerville. Given that Firmin Didot was inspired by John Baskerville’s experimentation with thick and thin strokes, the choice adds historical interest, although Bodoni might have been nearer the mark. Below are Tepfer’s double-page spreads across which Mallarmé’s burst of thought appears one line per page among the “scattering of flourishes”.

The book’s central double-page spread, beginning with COMME SI / “AS IF”) in the upper left and ending with COMME SI / “AS IF” in the lower right, mimics the throw and fall of the dice and provides another example of the semantic and typographic play that Mallarmé describes above.

Like the artists before her — Redon (1897), André Masson (1961), Mario Diacono (1968), Marcel Broodthaers (1969), Jean Lecoultre (1975), Ian Wallace (1979) and Ian Tyson (1985) — Tepfer had to solve the puzzle of relating image to text. This is the difficult path of inverse ekphrasis: what and how the visual, tactile and conceptual works of art that come after Mallarmé’s text can be. We are more used to ekphrasis where the object, painting or sculpture comes before the text — like Achilles’ shield before Homer’s description, or the Grecian urn before Keats’ ode, or Brueghel’s Fall of Icarus before Auden’s Musée des Beaux Arts. Homer, Keats and Auden vie with the art of the crafted object to put that object (and more) in front of us with words. With the inverse, the crafted objects vie without the words to put Mallarmé’s poem (and more — and sometimes less!) in front of us. Tepfer’s solution?

A simple line runs across the debossed front and back covers. As Tepfer wrote in June 1990 about her journey into Un Coup de Dés: La ligne d’horizon était un sujet de ma hantise / “The horizon line was my obsession”. As the folded paper cover opens, a single geometric, abstract image appears — debossed and embossed on blank paper. Except for a single round dot, everything is linear. Two separate lines angle across the space. One cuts through the debossed horizon line that lies beneath a series of closely spaced horizontal lines — suggesting clouds? The other, longer one cuts at a different angle, creating a foreground from two sets of parallel lines that have slipped or shifted like tectonic plates. Could the round dot be the single-dot side of a die rolling down a slanted deck or broken mast? Could the longer slanted line be a broken mast? Could the shifted parallel lines be a broken handrail?

Rather than trying to track back to verbal images in the poem, though, perhaps we should recognize Tepfer’s prefatory image as a kind of substitute for Mallarmé’s preface in 1897 — the one he preferred we not read. He wanted us to look. To see les blancs. To hold thought and emotion like our breath across the space of the book. With her simple rectangle of blank paper, with the absence of ink, with the geometric solidity of the horizontal and slanting lines, and with the velvet softness of the velin d’Arches across her version’s accordion folds, Tepfer encourages us to look, see, hold meaning in abeyance and sense it.

Further Reading

“Mitsou Ronat & Tibor Papp“. 16 November 2020. Books On Books Collection.

Ian Tyson & Neil Crawford“. 7 February 2022. Books On Books Collection.

Arnar, Anna Sigrídur. 2011. The book as instrument: Stéphane Mallarmé, the artist’s book, and the transformation of print culture. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. Pp. 231-35, 348n.

Cohn, Robert Greer. 1967. Mallarme’s masterwork: new findings. The Hague: Mouton.

Mosley, James M. 7 November 2011. “Elzevir Letter“. Typefoundry: Documents for the History of Type and Letterforms. Accessed 28 March 2022.

Tepfer, Honorine. June 1990. “Toute realité se dissout”. La Part du Livre, No. 2. Paris: Ed. Le Temps qu’il fait.

Books On Books Collection – Michalis Pichler

Un Coup de Dés Jamais N’Abolira le Hasard: Sculpture (2008)

Un Coup de Dés Jamais N’Abolira le Hasard (Sculpture) (2008)
Michalis Pichler
Offset and laser gravure, perfect binding. H325 x W250 mm, 32 pages. Acquired from Printed Matter, 10 April 2020.
Photos: Books On Books Collection.

Appropriated and sculpted bookwork was taking off in numerous forms even before 1964 when Marcel Broodthaers half-embedded the last fifty copies of his poetry book Pense-Bête in plaster. Bruno Munari had introduced libri illeggibili (“unreadable books”) in 1949. John Latham had already encased books with plaster in Shelf Number 2 (1961) and much else in his various skoob works. Tom Phillips’ line-by-line, found-book alteration A Humument was underway, first appearing in 1970, as was Dieter Roth’s string of sausage books Literaturwurst (1961-74). So Broodthaers could have taken any of several directions before deciding to replace Mallarmé’s lines of verse in Un Coup de Dés N’Abolira le Hasard: Poéme (1914) with printed and engraved placeholders in paper and anodized aluminum, respectively, to create Un Coup de Dés N’Abolira le Hasard: Image (1969).

Le Vite dei Libri 26 directed by Giulio Maffei, 12 January 2016. Accessed 14 August 2020.

Son of Giorgio Maffei (bookseller, curator, scholar and book artist in his own right), Giulio Maffei has made video catalogues for Studio Bibliografico Giorgio Maffei since 2015. Each catalogue is a work of video. In this twenty-sixth outing, Maffei has created a video from the 1914 edition and Broodthaers’ 1969 Image version of Un Coup de Dés.

By 2008, Michalis Pichler had an even greater wealth of forms from which to choose for his double appropriation/homage to Mallarmé’s Poème and Broodthaers’ Image. Since the ’80s scores of book artists had been introduced to ingenious structures by Hedi Kyle and Keith A. Smith, among others, so why not an Aunt Sally’s shipwreck of string, canvas and torn paper? Long-Bin Chen had been sanding books and phone directories into busts since the ’90s, so why not a bust of Mallarmé from old editions of Un Coup de Dés and a bust of Broodthaers from catalogues of his works (a variation on Buzz Spector’s treatment)?

Instead Pichler appropriates Mallarmé through Broodthaers’ design and production: an efficient and direct double appropriation. He follows the trim size and layout of the 1914 and 1969 works. Further underscoring the double appropriation, he reprints verbatim Broodthaers’ preface (the full text of Mallarmé’s poem set in small type as a single paragraph with obliques separating the lines of verse). Like Broodthaers, he produced limited editions of three versions: 10 copies in plexiglas (rather than Broodthaers’ 10 in anodized aluminum), 90 copies in translucent paper (just as Broodthaers had done) and 500 copies in paper (rather than Broodthaers’ 300). Where Broodthaers had solid black stripes, though, Pichler substitutes laser cuts in the translucent and paper editions and engraving or abrasion in the plexiglas edition. Hence Sculpture (2008), rather than Image (1969) or Poème (1914).

Not until 2016, though, was Pichler able to cap his double appropriation. Just as Broodthaers had held an exhibition entitled “Broodthaers: Exposition littéraire autour de Mallarmé” (Antwerp, December 1969), Pichler held one entitled “Pichler: Exposition Littéraire autour de Mallarmé” (Milan, December 2016). Like the Broodthaers exhibition, Pichler’s was an opportunity to showcase his own work: it was his first solo exhibition in Italy. Like Broodthaers, he included the Nrf 1914 edition, but also included numerous other editions and translations that had occurred since. Also, key to Pichler’s artistic intent, he included a host of other artists who by appropriation had made homage to Un Coup de Dés … Poème and, in some cases, Broodthaers’ … Image.

Book art is so self-referential in its instances (think of Real Fiction: An Inquiry into the Bookeresque by Helen Douglas and Telfer Stokes) and as a genre (think Burning Small Fires by Bruce Nauman) that appropriation offers a natural next step. In Pichler’s case, the subtlety of that step comes in how he reaches through Broodthaers’ Image all the way back to elements of Mallarmé’s Poème to achieve his aims.

When Broodthaers first appropriated Mallarmé’s layout, type sizes and roman/italic styles, he was engaged in a kind of reverse ekphrasis. Usually ekphrasis runs from the work of art (say, a Grecian urn) to the text in response (“Ode on a Grecian Urn”). Here, the poem and its shape come first, then the work of art — the Image of the poem. By calling his exhibition an exposition littéraire, Broodthaers underscored this. By calling out the shapes on the page, he elevated the original’s semblances of waves, an abyss, a foundering ship and a constellation and, in exposing them, performed a kind of literary study as well as artistic work.

Count it down from Pichler’s appropriation of Broodthaers’ exposition littéraire, from the inclusion/appropriation of other artists’ appropriations of Poème and/or Image, from his own work of book art Sculpture, from his own other works: Pichler’s appropriative ekphrasis is squared, cubed or perhaps raised to the fourth power. Clearly, book art and appropriation are Pichler’s chief palettes — or rather his twin decks from which, as DJ, he mixes what he calls “Greatest Hits”. The phrase simultaneously names Pichler’s imprint on Sculpture‘s cover and the series on his website. The series includes other appropriations such as Every Building on the Ginza Strip (2018) from Ed Ruscha and Some More Sonnet(s) aka Poem(s) (2011) from Ulises Carríon. “Greatest Hits”, however, suggests another subtlety in Sculpture, albeit one best appreciated in the context of all the exhibitions.

The first instance of Broodthaers’ exhibition in Antwerp included a continuous playing of the artist’s tape-recorded reading of the poem. In Cologne for its second instance, Broodthaers renamed it Exposition littéraire et musicale autour de Mallarmé. Broodthaers was simply taking Mallarmé’s musical cue in Un Coup de Dés’s preface, which advises reading the poem as if it were a “score” for music to be heard at a concert and its blank spaces as “silences”.

Taking Mallarmé’s and Broodthaers’ musical cues and that of his piano-roll-like slots in Sculpture, Pichler created for his exhibition Un Coup de Dés Jamais N’Abolira le Hasard: Musique, a piano-roll version of the poem to be played by any visitor who cared to sit and pedal the pianola on which it was installed. So in further appropriation of Mallarmé through Broodthaers, Pichler’s piano roll turns the empty spaces, where the words and black strips would be, into music while the blanks around them become what Magnus Wieland calls “white noise”.

Un Coup de Dés Jamais N’Abolira le Hasard: Musique (2009) Michalis Pichler

In traditional literary ekphrasis, the referring text can stand on its own. Homer’s description of Achilles’ shield does not require a side-by-side engraving or painting of what Hephaestus forged. Nor does Auden’s exposition of Breughel’s Landscape with the Fall of Icarus (c. 1560) need an art history book to hand.

But without the context of the exhibition, the presence of other appropriations, or even Pichler’s translucent and plexiglas editions, what to make of Pichler’s paper edition on its own? The traditional Nrf cover design suggests no surprise to come, although the trim size looks non-traditional in today’s market. The book’s slimness, subtitle and preliminaries also warrant a raised eyebrow: how can this be a sculpture? Turning the pages, the reader/viewer comes to the cuts and sees through to the pages beneath. Shadows move through the leaves. The laser cut technique hints at something that a die cut does not. Do the burnt edges where the laser has cut suggest a more surgical approach to book burning, an allusion to burning decks, or a 19th century and 20th century legacy to the white spaces?

Both Mallarmé and Broodthaers noted the intent to draw attention to the white space of the page. Pichler appropriates both the poet’s and artist’s form and intent. He sculpts a conceptual double-palimpsest not by overwriting the first level of overwriting but by removing it and the original layer altogether. The core subtlety of Pichler’s paper edition of Un Coup de Dés lies in those empty spaces defined at their burnt edges and by the blankness around them. For Sartre, Mallarmé was the poet of nothingness. Broodthaers appropriated the nothingness with black ink. Pichler has appropriated both. The paradox is a work that stands on its own by invoking and eliminating what it appropriates.

Further Reading

Durgin, Patrick. “Witness Marcel Broodthaers: The docile aphorism“, Jacket2, 24 October 2014. Accessed 6 August 2020.

Gilbert, Annette, and Clemens Krümmel. Thirteen Years: The Materialization of Ideas from 2002 to 2015 (Leipzig: Spector Books, 2015).

Sartre, Jean-Paul; Ernest Sturm, trans. Mallarmé, or the Poet of Nothingness (University Park: Penn State University Press, 2004).

Sowden, Tom. “Exploring Appropriation as a Creative Practice,” MDPI Arts / Issue 8 / Volume 4 (2019). Accessed 6 August 2020.

Wieland, Magnus. “Sculpture Lecture Reading Un coup de dés“. Accessed 6 August 2020.

Among the other artists in Pichler’s Exposition littéraire autour de Mallarmé were these whose works are also represented in the Books On Books Collection: Jérémie Bennequin, Jim Clinefelter, Sammy Engramer, Cerith Wyn Evans, Rodney Graham, Brian Larosche, Michael Maranda, Guido Molinari and Eric Zboya.