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.
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 would find a book artist to reprise the codex part of the collaborative tradition.
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.
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 asAmandine Alessandra, Tien-mien Liao, Lucas Neumann andJosé ErnestoRodríguez.
“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.
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.