Sunday, June 7, 2009

Livre d'artistes and Beautiful, Wonderful Things

This is all a bit delayed; last weekend was my birthday, and the celebrations kept me tired for pretty much the whole week (plus various other events that tagged along...an extended two night going away party, a lecture/dinner that stretched past midnight, etc etc). But I'm here! And I'm going to tell you about an exceptional Society of Bibliophiles lecture last Thursday (argh, 10 days ago now...)!

I've been a bit lapse about going to the Bibliophiles events over the past term, mostly because they just happened to be at inconvenient times for me. I had contacted an intern at the Taylorian, however, about some work she was doing with livre d'artistes, and somehow got passed along the chain until the librarian at St. John's College Library dropped me an email to suggest I come see their collections (I didn't even know they had them! And I did a whole essay on them! And I work at the library! Do you see how hard it can be to find things out in Oxford?). It just so happened that they were showing them at a Bibliophiles event last week, so of course I joined :).

Let me just start by pointing out one of the things that bothered me about the presentation. Although the terms can theoretically overlap in some situations, and neither one is particularly well defined, artists' books are generally not considered the same thing as livre d'artistes, although they were presented interchangeably. Works are usually considered livre d'artistes when they represent the efforts of a talented and often famous artist to illustrate a work -- however, they usually work with the author to illustrate the work, rather than doing it independently. In this way, the art and text should represent a more unified whole. There are some really impressive early examples of this sort of thing by artists such as Picasso and Joan Miro.

Then there are artist's books. Stephen Mallarme's Un coup de des is a perfect example. It's widely available to look at online because it's out of copyright (at least some copies). Here's a bit of it from Wikimedia commons:
The poem, while not illustrated, has been cited as representative in the shift towards typography as art, a trend which continued to develop into what is now considered the artist's book. Rather than an illustrated book that unites that artist and the author in a discussion over illustration, an artist's book tends to be (sorry for the vagueness, but it can cover so many sorts of things) a work in which the book itself represents or helps to represent the text in some way. In certain cases, this means a more traditional format that plays with design, typography, or art. In other cases, it can be more extreme -- Colin Hall's Book in a Jar is a particularly unpretty example. Often, however, the books are strikingly beautiful. For some really interesting browsing, the National Art Library at the Victoria and Albert Museum has some truly amazing pieces. Check out their collections and find background information here.

So. After all that, what we were looking at the other night were livres d'artistes -- beautifully illustrated books in which the artist and the author worked closely together to develop illustration that represented the text and the impression that was to be conveyed. Now that I've delivered my lecture, I'll show you some of the beautiful artists we looked at. St. John's has collected quite a few pieces, both by being lucky enough to have a librarian interested in them, and then, as the collection grew, by becoming known as a good place for artist's to send the works. The former librarian and collector/lover of the books pulled out quite a variety for us, displaying them and then letting us peruse them on our own. We also learned quite a lot about engraving techniques.

My favorite artist was Hector Saunier:

Corbeau. From Galeria Exodo


Beeeeeaaaautiful, no?

Also worth checking out: Atelier 17, where many of the artists we looked at were trained.

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