Books On Books Collection – Vítězslav Nezval

Abeceda/Alphabet (1926/2001)

Alphabet (1926/2001)
Vítězslav Nezval / translated by Jindřich Toman and Matthew S. Witkovsky
Facsimile and translation of Abeceda. Perfect bound paperback, H305 xW235 mm, 72 pages. Acquired from Ergode Books, 1 July 2021. Photos: Books On Books Collection.

From the Afterword:

The 1926 book Alphabet (Abeceda) is a landmark achievement in European modernism. Its frequent reproduction in exhibition catalogues and scholarly articles has made it a key symbol of Devětsil (1920-ca. 1931), the Czech artists’ collective within whose ranks the book was conceived, and its importance is increasingly measured in international terms as well. The book consists of a series of rhymed quatrains by Devětsil poet Vítězslav Nezval, titled and ordered according to the letters of the Latin alphabet. Facing each set of verses is a Constructivist photomontage layout by Karel Teige, a painter turned typographer who was also Devětsil’s spokesperson and leading theorist. Teige developed his graphic design around photographs of dancer and choreographer Milada (Milča) Mayerová, a recent affiliate of the group, who had performed a stage version of “Alphabet” to accompany a recitation of the poem at a theatrical evening in Nezval’s honor in April 1926… The project to create a new alphabet epitomizes the proselytizing attitude of avant-gardists in various fields in the years after World War I. From Dada poetry to Constructivist architecture and design, from calls to overhaul theater to revolutions in literary theory, a panoply of experiments took the alphabet as their model or target and disclosed the potency of this elementary linguistic structure as a trope for creative renewal and social revolution.

Full scan of original Czech edition here.

The Afterword mistakenly asserts that there was no precedent for Mayerová’s choreography and performance of the alphabet. In fact, the Athenian dramatist Kallias (late 5th century BCE?) wrote Grammatike Theoria, sometimes called “a spectacle of letters”, the ABC Show or ABC Tragedy, in which actors and a chorus sang and danced the twenty-four characters of the new-fangled Ionian alphabet. What does seem to be without precedent is the collaboration across poetry, dance, typography, photography and bookmaking.

Carrying on the collaborative tradition and more emphatically challenging gender stereotyping, here is Paulina Olowska dancing Abeceda at the Simon Lee Gallery’s 2019 exhibition of Tomaso Binga/Bianca Menna‘s works, which included Alfabetière Pop (1976), his/her nude alphabet portfolio. If only Tomaso/Bianca or Paulina would find a book artist to reprise the codex part of the collaborative tradition.

Further Reading

Anthon Beeke“. 21 June 2021. Books On Books Collection. n.d. “Paulina Ołowska“. Accessed for update, 31 January 2023.

Gagné, Renaud. 2013. “Dancing Letters: The Alphabetic Tragedy of Kallias”. In Choral Mediations in Greek Tragedy, ed. R. Gagné and M. Hopman, Cambridge University Press 282-307.

Lawler, Lillian. April, 1941. “The Dance of the Alphabet”. The Classical Outlook, 18: 7, pp. 69-71.

Wikipedia. 1 July 2021. “Paulina Olowska“. Accessed 8 July 2021.

Another key performance in Paulina Olowska oeuvre was the Alphabet, which was inspired by the book ABECEDA by Karel Teige, a key figure in the Czech avant-garde who in 1926, in collaboration with Milca Mayerova, created an experimental “mobile alphabet”. Referring to Teige’s project, Olowska combines rhythmicity with a constructivist fascination with typography and points to the rhetorical function of dance: three performers arrange their bodies into 26 letters, from A to Z, confronting the alphabet of written language with the “alphabet” of gestures and movements, creating a new system for expressing meaning. Alphabet was first shown in Berlin in 2005 (Galerie Meerrettich). In 2012 it was exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and in early 2014 it was presented at the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw.” Wikipedia.

Wise, Jennifer. 1998. Dionysus Writes : The Invention of Theatre in Ancient Greece. Ithaca ; London: Cornell UP.

Books On Books Collection – Anthon Beeke

Alphabet (1970)

Alphabet (1970)
Anthon Beeke, Geert Kooiman and Ed van der Elsken
Portfolio. Kwadraatblad series format, 250 x 250 mm, 30 folios. Acquired from Prentework, 26 May 2021.
Photos of the work: Books On Books Collection. Images of the production process: Nederlands Fotomuseum / © Ed van der Elsken. Images in individual folios: © Geert Kooiman. Copyright in the work: © Anthon Beeke Archive Foundation.

Beeke devised “The Body Alphabet” around 1968/69. It came in response to the “sexual revolution” of the 1960s and in reaction to functional typography. The designer Pieter Brattinga had published Wim Crouwel’s New Alphabet (1967) in the Kwadraatblad series and followed that up with Gerard Unger’s A Counter-proposal (1967) and Timothy Epps and Christopher Evans’ Alphabet (1970). Brattinga must have felt that “bad boy” Beeke’s tongue-in-cheek response modelled on Baskerville fit the bill as a final coda.

The portfolio’s cover has three panels that fold and overlap around the folios. The exterior is shown above. The interior below displays a spread of 55 small photographs from the photo shoot, showing the models standing around waiting to be directed into position for the relevant letter. Once the models were in place, the shot wad taken from above. Some letters like M required as many as 12 models.

Photo of interior of portfolio: Books On Books Collection. Images of the production process: Nederlands Fotomuseum / © Ed van der Elsken.

Baskerville may have been Beeke’s template, but the letters G and Q stray far from it. The serifs in the G’s lower right stroke are misdirected. The Q is too oval, and its swash is missing the left-hand stroke characteristic of all the Baskervilles. In fact, a hunt through Rookledge’s Classic International Typefinder for similar Q’s suggests Century as a closer template. Nevertheless, the intention is winning and a challenge to subsequent pursuers of the naked alphabet. And there have been a few, such as Olivia Brookes and Anastasia Mastrakouli as well as “digital” alphabetists such as Amandine Alessandra, Tien-mien Liao, Lucas Neumann and José Ernesto Rodríguez.

Photos of the work: Books On Books Collection. Images in individual folios: © Geert Kooiman. Copyright in the work: © Anthon Beeke Archive Foundation.

Photos of the work: Books On Books Collection. Images in individual folios: © Geert Kooiman. Copyright in the work: © Anthon Beeke Archive Foundation.

“The Body Alphabet” shoot has the air of a live-model art class, and the result is not prurient or exploitative, even with the child to form the smallest points of punctuation (Tinelou van der Elsken, the daughter of Ed van der Elsken, is the model for the ‘comma type’ in the alphabet). Sexist? Non-diverse? For near-perfect balance, the Books On Books Collection should have an artist’s book or portfolio available from self-partnering Tomaso Binga (something like the self-portraiture in Living Writing), but Beeke, René Knip and Spinhex & Industrie Drukkerij have more than addressed the issues with the following remarkable work.

Body Type (2011)

BODY TYPE (2011)
In “Body Type” and “Naked Numbers” © Anthon Beeke Archive Foundation. In the publication © Spinhex & Industrie Drukkerij/René Knip
Boxed book and two portfolios. Box: 318 x 318 mm. Booklet: 300 x 300 mm, 40 pages. Portfolio of “BODY TYPE”: 304 x 304 mm, 39 folios. Portfolio of “body type set”: 300 x 300 mm, 87 perforated sheets. Edition of 100, of which this is #69. Acquired from Boekhandel De Slegte, 22 June 2021.
Photos of the work: Books On Books Collection. Displayed with permissions.

Designer René Knip and Spinhex & Industrie Drukkerij have preserved two important artifacts in typographic and design history and brought them to renewed artistic life. In a way, the collector gets to participate. Body Type arrives as a sealed time capsule requiring a razor to open it and let out the past. Inside are three glossy works lying atop a ribbon pull. The first work is a softcover book, its spine sewn with red thread to match the title on the front cover. Announcing the renaming of Beeke’s Alphabet (1970) as Body Type, it is cheekily set in Crouwel’s New Alphabet (1967) to which Beeke’s original “naked ladies alphabet” had responded. These are the two artifacts preserved, in Crouwel’s case, by use of his alphabet for the titles and section headings and, in Beeke’s case, by extension of his typeface and recreation of the photoshoot that originally realized it. Given their deaths at the end of the last decade (Beeke in 2018, Crouwel in 2019), Body Type provides a valuable juxtaposition of their reflections (Crouwel’s preface and Beeke’s essay).

In addition to his narration of the old and new shoots, Beeke shares an insight about an influence beyond the foil that was the New Alphabet. As Beeke puts it, “If Wim Crouwel pointed to the future, then I was going to perfect the past,….” What he found in the past was a Folies-Bergère-inspired alphabet by Erté (Romain Petrovitch Tirov).

The second work in the box is a portfolio containing a full-color recreation of the original 1969 alphabet and punctuation marks with the addition of Naked Numbers. On the inner side of the portfolio’s wraparound, Ed van der Elsken’s black-and-white production shots sit side by side with the new color production shots. The full color folios themselves present on one side the character constructed with human bodies and on the other side the corresponding character from Crouwel’s New Alphabet.

Further Reading

Abecedaries I (in progress)“. 31 March 2020. Books On Books Collection.

Previously on …“. 5 February 2014. Books On Books Collection.

Steven Heller and Gail Anderson“. 8 May 2021. Books On Books Collection.

Brooke, Olivia, and Julian Deghy. N.d. Naked Alphabet. Website. Accessed 7 June 2021.

Devroye, Luc. N.d. “Anastasia Mastrakouli“. Type Design Information. Accessed 7 June 2021.

______________. N.d. “José Ernesto Rodríguez“. Type Design Information. Accessed 7 June 2021.

Erté. 1978. Erté graphics: five complete suites reproduced in full color – the seasons, the alphabet, the numerals, the aces, the precious stones. New York: Dover.

Gierstberg, Frits, Rik Suermondt, Tamara Berghmans, and Joost Grootens. 2012. Het Nederlandse Fotoboek: een thematische selectie, na 1945. Rotterdam: NAi Uitgevers.

Goetz, Sair. “Letterforms / Humanforms“. 11 June 2020. Letterform Archive. Accessed 7 June 2021.

Middendorp, Jan. 2004. Dutch Type. Rotterdam: 010 Publishers.

Miller, Meg. 2 October 2018. “Celebrating the Life of Anthon Beeke With a Look Back at His Naked Ladies Typeface“. AIGA Eye on Design. Accessed 12 June 2021.

Vasilevskaia, Dinara. 9 December 2013. “Body Type”. Designblog, Gerrit Rietveld Academy. Accessed 15 June 2021.