Books On Books Collection – John Gerard

Alpha Beta (2005)

Alpha Beta (2005)

John Gerard 

Small quarto book chain-stitched in boards, with a paper label to the upper cover, 40 pages, H275 x W272 x D15 mm, housed in a paper four-flap enclosure H175 x W278 x D16 mm. Signed edition of 20, of which this is #18. Acquired from the artist, 29 July 2020. Photos: Books On Books Collection.

In the playground of the alphabet, papermaking, calligraphy, page design and layout, image and text, printing and binding, John Gerard has created an outstanding and contemplative work of book art and the book arts. Eastern and Western traditions meet on the page and in the material and structure: Coptic-style binding, handmade paper and spirited brushing of the letters right up against the geometric constraints of Jan Tschichold’s diagram for deriving the text block’s ideal space and positioning from the Golden Ratio.

The cover’s paper label shows the image of Jan Tschichold’s canon for page layout, which is reproduced on every page of the work. Each letter of the alphabet is messily scrawled in black over and over to fill the mathematically precise text area defined by Tschichold’s canon.

The text and label papers for Alpha Beta are handmade from cotton and hemp using a velin mould with Gerard’s early watermark depicting the Eifeltor Mühle (Eifeltor Mill) and the letters S and G (Studio John Gerard). The weight of the paper is about 150-180gsm. The lettering is done with Indian ink, and the printing of Tschichold’s diagram, with a proofing press using a photo-sensitive nylon plate. The cover papers are also made with cotton and hemp using a coagulant with slightly different pigmented pulps, which creates the decorative speckled look.  The sewing thread is linen.

Tschichold’s “canon” is but one among four. The others belong to Villard de Honnecourt, J.A. Van de Graaf and Raúl Rosarivo. Online, Alexander Ross Charchar’s dynamic diagram “The Dance of the Four Canons” delightfully illustrates the development of the Western craft and science of page layout.

Seifenblasen (2013)

Seifenblasen (2013)

John Gerard

Artist booklet, stitched with linen thread, two sheets hand-made of cotton and abaca fibers, the cover sheet being double couched using a layer of colored pulps, the inner sheet printed in 14p Book Antiqua in relief printing. H200 x W150 mm. Edition of 100 unnumbered copies. Acquired from the artist, 29 July 2020. Photos: Books On Books Collection.

Inspired by the 19th century poem “Seifenblasen” (“Soap Bubbles”) by Theodor Fontane, John Gerard uses pulp painting to create the shifting prismatic colors displayed on the surface of a soap bubble. By layering different colored pulps on a sheet of plain wet pulp, he evokes the same pleasure, color and lightness evoked by the words.Here is a loose translation:

Soap Bubbles

Children to show their delight 
Send soap bubbles up to the light. 
How they shimmer in the sun — 
Some big, some small. 
Blown with a mouth just so, some
Hold out a whole second —
But several there — 
Yes! — hold on for two. 
One rises as high as the house — 
Bumps there — then it’s over.

Gerard seems drawn to respond to things displaying a tension between spirit and form, be it the tension of soap bubbles or the tension between repeatedly scrawled letters constrained by a canonical grid.

Der Panther (2013)

Der Panther (2013)

John Gerard

Leporello of two connected sheets of hand-made cotton and hemp paper, pulp-painted with red and black lines. H140 x W130 mm (unfolded approx. 770 mm). Unnumbered, signed edition of 25 copies. Acquired from the artist, 29 July 2020. Photos: Books On Books Collection.

Rainer Maria Rilke’s poem “The Panther” embodies the tension that Gerard seems to love. Three stanzas in black 12 pt Book-Antiqua pace across the leporello like the panther behind what seem to him “a thousand bars”, which Gerard evokes in black and red pulp painting on the reverse of the leporello. Fully open, the torn top edge slopes and rises like the back and shoulders of the panther as it strides and turns in the smallest circle it can make. The bars behind, or in front of it, end above the lower edge in rounded shapes like the panther’s paws, whose texture the soft and rough handmade paper mimics.

The alternation of black and red pulp echoes the tension between the cage and panther’s heart in the poem, and the leporello opens and closes on the panther just as its own pupil’s nictitating membrane slides open, then closes on its world. Reportedly, at Augusta Rodin’s behest, Rilke stood before the animal’s cage in the Jardins des Plantes in Paris for nine hours. At the end of the poem, he has placed the reader/viewer inside the animal, absorbed the reader/viewer through the animal’s movement and gaze. Gerard’s artist booklet — by giving the reader/viewer a chance to see through the panther’s eyes — makes Rilke’s poem just as tangible as Rilke’s poem makes the panther and its world.

Gerard’s three works belong with the Books On Books Collection’s first seven books of the Rijswijk Biennial. His Alpha Beta even features in that series’ Papier op de vlucht = Paper takes flight (2006) and contributes to two of the collection’s sub themes: abecedaries as well as the technique of pulp painting. Seifenblasen and De Panther exemplify the sub theme of “reverse ekphrasis” represented by works such as Barbara Tetenbaum’s version of Michael Donaghy’s poem “Machine” or herman de vries’ argumentstellen 1968 / 2003 (de wittgenstein — tractatus — ) (2003). Gerard’s two works are, in fact, the epitome of transforming a literary text into an artwork.

Further Reading

Abecedaries (in progress)”, Books On Books Collection, 31 March 2020.

The First Seven Books of the Rijswijk Paper Biennial”, Books On Books Collection, 10 October 2019.

Looking Back and Forward from the Paper Biennial 2018”, Bookmarking Book Art, 24 June 2016

Margins and making objects that live forever”, Bookmarking Book Art, 20 August 2014.

Claire Van Vliet”, Books On Books Collection, 8 August 2019.

Corbett, Rachel. “From You Must Change Your Life: The Story of Rainer Maria Rilke and Auguste Rodin”, Poetry Magazine, 31 August 2016. Accessed 11 August 2020.

Bookmark – Margins and making objects that live forever

Craig Mod modulates on margins here in Medium (18 August 2014).

Text printed on the best paper with no margins or unbalanced margins is vile. Or, if we’re being empathetic, sad. (For no book begins life aspiring to bad margins.) I know that sounds harsh. But a book with poorly set margins is as useful as a hammer with a one inch handle. Sure, you can pound nails, but it ain’t fun. A book with crass margins will never make a reader comfortable. Such a book feels cramped, claustrophobic. It doesn’t draw you in, certainly doesn’t make you want to spend time with the text….

On the other hand, cheap, rough paper with a beautifully set textblock hanging just so on the page makes those in the know, smile (and those who don’t, feel welcome). It says: We may not have had the money to print on better paper, but man, we give a shit. Giving a shit does not require capital, simply attention and humility and diligence. Giving a shit is the best feeling you can imbue craft with. Giving a shit in book design manifests in many ways, but it manifests perhaps most in the margins.

Reiterating his point by analogy, Mod channels the late designer George Nakashima:  “in order to produce a fine piece of furniture, the spirit of the tree must live on. You give it a second life … You can make an object that lives forever, if used properly.

For the fundamentals underlying Mod’s scatologically and poetically emphatic truth, you cannot find much better than Alexander Ross Charchar’s essay on the craft and calculations of “page canons” by Villard de Honnecourt (13th century!) , J.A. Van de Graaf, Raúl Rosarivo and Jan Tschichold:  “The Secret Law of Page Harmony“. Most delightful is Charchar’s dynamic diagram “The Dance of the Four Canons” illustrating the workings of each page canon:

Copyright 2010, Alexander Ross Charchar.

The Further Reading suggested by Charchar and his commenters is excellent, and I would only add Marshall Lee’s Bookmaking. For those who are irritated with the imposition of the print paradigm on the digital reading experience, there is a useful pointer to applying the page canons to website design that will cause a rethink of that irritation and equally make the imposers think harder as well.

For those who care about the book, what it is evolving into and the role that heart, mind and design still play in that process, read Charchar’s”The Secret Law of Page Harmony” –again and again.