THE BRITISH LIBRARY

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140 posts categorized "Visual arts"

04 May 2020

Alfons Mucha and his Art Nouveau books

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There is nothing more frustrating than being constantly told how successful you are, while deep inside you feel that you’ve never fulfilled your potential. At least, that’s how Alfons Mucha felt about himself.

Having been rejected by the Prague Academy of Arts (with the well-meant advice that he should look for a different career), Mucha persisted in his wish to become an artist. His resilience paid off: after his first poster of Sarah Bernhardt’s theatre performance was hung all over Paris, he became famous overnight. New commissions came in profusion, and brought a considerable income to Mucha, who spent his time designing beer, biscuit and cigarette adverts, theatre posters, and book and magazine illustrations.

Beer advert by Alfons Mucha featuring a woman drinking beer

Beer advert by Alfons Mucha. Wikimedia Commons 

He worked constantly. When the Parisian publisher Henri Piazza commissioned Robert de Flers to write L’Ilsée, Princesse de Tripoli for Sarah Bernhardt, Mucha had only three months to prepare 134 illustrations before the date set for printing. He had to work on four lithographs at a time in order to meet the deadline. The edition turned out to be a great success and was subsequently reprinted in Czech and German.

A page from Ilséa, princezna tripolisská with Art Nouveau illustrations by Alfons Mucha

A page from Ilséa, princezna tripolisská by Robert de Flers (Prague, 1901) Cup.410.c.305. Wikimedia Commons 

A page from Ilséa, princezna tripolisská with Art Nouveau illustrations by Alfons Mucha

A page from Ilséa, princezna tripolisská

But while Mucha managed to achieve financial success and become a well-known figure within Art Nouveau, he felt that he was wasting his talent on trifling jobs carried out in a style for which he did not have much respect: “(…) I am crushed almost to blood by the cogwheels of this life, by this torrent which has got hold of me, robbing me of my time and forcing me to do things that are so alien to those I dream about.”

While his professional life revolved around commercial advertising, Mucha turned to mysticism. He joined the Parisian Masonic Lodge, became involved in conducting séances, and, just as he did in his personal life, he longed to devote himself to a spiritual task in his work. In 1899 Mucha embarked on a project that he considered worthy of him: being a devout Catholic, he set out to publish his own edition of the Lord’s Prayer, Otčenáš, in which every line of text was accompanied by a whole-page illustration and Mucha’s commentary. In Mucha’s edition, God is presented as a protective, maternal force and the whole work abounded in Masonic and cabalistic symbols. By rendering the content of each line of the prayer in the form of an image, he aimed to present humanity’s struggle to achieve a higher spiritual state.

Illustration to “Lead us not into temptation” from Otčenáš

Illustration to “Lead us not into temptation” from Otčenáš (Prague, 1902) Cup.410.g.427. Wikimedia Commons 

Illustration to “Give Us This Day Our Daily Bread” from Otčenáš

Illustration to “Give Us This Day Our Daily Bread” from Otčenáš Wikimedia Commons 

Page with “Hallowed be thy name” verse from Otčenáš

Page with “Hallowed be thy name” verse from Otčenáš

Mucha issued the book in only 510 copies and expressed a wish for it never to be published again. As he saw Otčenáš as his greatest printed masterpiece and an embodiment of his religious credo, he did not want it to become yet another mass-produced commercial enterprise.

Zuzanna Krzemien, Curator East European Collections 

References:

Jiří Mucha, Alphonse Maria Mucha: His Life and Art (New York, 1989) f89/0298

“Alphonse Mucha and Ilsee, Princess of Tripoli”, available at https://davidbarnettgallery.com/experience-the-story-of-ilsee-princess-of-tripoli

Peter Davison, “Alphonse Mucha: Art, Music And Spirituality”, available at: https://corymbus.co.uk/alphonse-mucha-art-music-and-spirituality/

http://www.muchafoundation.org/

 

29 April 2020

Hendrik Nicolaas Werkman – a most unlucky printer

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Hendrik Nicolaas Werkman never was the luckiest of men. He lost his father at a young age and during his career as a printer he fell on hard times a couple of times. He always managed to overcome his problems with creativity and optimism, but on 29 April 1945, barely three weeks before his 63rd birthday and only three days before Groningen was liberated, Werkman was executed together with nine others. At the same time most of his works were destroyed in the battle for Groningen that raged at that moment.

Undoubtedly the best source of information about Werkman and the British Library’s holdings of his work is Anna Simoni’s article from 1976 in the British Library Journal, which is available for free online. Simoni, herself an exile from Nazi Germany, was curator for Dutch Collections from 1950 to 1981. It is thanks to her that the Library holds such an extensive collection of Werkman’s work and his clandestine works from the Second World War in particular.

Werkman was a painter before he was a printer. He was a member of the Groningen artists’ group De Ploeg (‘The Plough’) and took part in a exhibition of their work in 1938.

Self-portrait of H.N. Werkman
Self-portrait of Werkman from the catalouge of the 1938 exhibition, Lustrum tentoonstelling van schilderijen en zwart wit werken van leden van “De Ploeg” in de zalen van “Pictura” van 25 Sept. tot 10 Oct. 1938 ... (Groningen , 1938). Cup.406.b.97

His printed works are just as artistic as his paintings. They were called ‘druksels’, a word sitting halfway between modesty and irony. The word belies the work that went into them and the innovative techniques Werkman applied to them. Most titles are only a few pages long. They range from translations of the Psalms, and other religious texts to poems from the Eighty Years’ War and specially-written poems by both Dutch and foreign writers. The Library owns 41 titles Werkman published clandestinely between 1940 and 1944. Because of the scarcity of paper he used other materials, such as brown packing paper.

Print runs ranged from ‘a few copies’ to 40 to 150. As Simoni notes in her article (page 72) not all copies are the same. Hand pressed from several templates, Werkman would shift them slightly to make another version. The Royal Library (KB) in The Hague carried out a systematic research project on their own collection of ‘Werkmaniana’ which showed similar deviations in many copies. This makes them unique works, rather than part of a print run.

Hopefully similar research will be carried out on our collections, to see whether our copies differ from those at the Royal Library. Unfortunately for the time being this will have to wait.

Plate from 'Chassidische legenden' showing four figures in front of houses and trees
Suite 1, plate 2 from H.S. Werkman, Chassidische legenden [1942]. (Image from the website of the Dutch Royal Library)

With no access to our collections at the moment I refer to the webpages on Werkman on the Royal Library website for examples of images of his work. The Chassidische legenden (‘Hasidic Legends’) are among his most famous work. The British Library holds a facsimile edition of Werkman’s original of 1942/3 consisting of two sequences of ten loose druksels, each with the text of passages from Buber’s Die Legenden des Baalschem from the edition published in Berlin, 1932, in German, with F. R. A. Henkel’s commentary in Dutch. It was published in Haarlem in 1967 (C.160.c.15).

Later in 1945 a friend of Werkman’s, Willem Sandberg, then at the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam held an exhibition about Werkman. Other exhibitions would follow, the latest one was held in 2015 at the Groningen Museum.


Cover of a book about Werkman with the title superimposed on one of Werkman's pictures
Cover of H.N. Werkman, 1882-1945: leven & werk. (Zwolle, 2015) LF.31.b.11054

Marja Kingma, Curator, Germanic Collections

References and further reading

More on H.N. Werkman at the Royal Library, The Hague. https://www.kb.nl/themas/boekkunst-en-geillustreerde-boeken/de-blauwe-schuit-en-hn-werkman-1941-1944

Catalogus. H. N. Werkman, drukker-schilder, Groningen. Tentoonstelling, Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, 24 november tot 17 december 1945 ([Amsterdam, 1945]) X.805/2781.

Hendrik Nicolaas Werkman, Brieven rond De Blauwe Schuit, 1940-1945 (Amsterdam, 2008) YF.2010.a.9693

Anna E. C. Simoni, ‘Hendrik Nicolaas Werkman and the Werkmaniana in the British Library’, British Library Journal, vol. 2 (1976) 70-87

Dieuwertje Dekkers, Jikke van der Spek, Anneke de Vries, H.N. Werkman: het complete oeuvre (Rotterdam, 2008) LF.31.b.4972.

Willem Sandberg, Hendrik Nicolaas Werkman, 1882-1945 (Sacramento, 2004) RF.2019.b.31.

Het verborgen woord: drukken van Hendrik Nicolaas Werkman en andere clandestiene publikaties uit de collectie *** / samenstelling Marieke van Delft (The Hague, 1995) YA.1995.a.22294.

09 April 2020

PhD Studentship Opportunity - Caricatures from the Franco-Prussian War and Paris Commune

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We are delighted to announce that The British Library, in collaboration with The Department of History at Royal Holloway, is offering a fully-funded PhD studentship (fees and maintenance) on the theme: Caricatures from the Franco-Prussian War and the Paris Commune, 1870-71. The project will be co-supervised by Sophie Defrance and Teresa Vernon (British Library), and Robert Priest (Royal Holloway).

Caricature of a French soldier looking in a shop window

French caricature from the Franco-Prussian War, British Library Collections

The British Library holds a world-class collection of (mostly) French and (some) German caricatures in three separate collections bound in 55 volumes. There is also a small number of war-themed Italian, Swedish and Dutch illustrations and caricatures. The successful student will develop a PhD project that draws on this rich resource of over 5,000 caricatures and images produced during the Franco-Prussian war and the Paris Commune. Part of the collection was discussed in two blog posts here and here

This fascinating primary material represents a wealth of visual sources dealing with the War and the Commune. The caricatures, most of them coloured, touch on a wide variety of subjects, making fun of famous people and politicians, soldiers and civil populations. The project will add a new dimension to our understanding of several processes at key moments in French (and German) history: the development of French (and German) national identity, the creation of a modern popular culture, and the development of caricature as a medium. The forthcoming 150th anniversary of the Franco-Prussian war and the Paris Commune in 2020-21 offers us the chance to promote and foster scholarship based on an exceptional collection of visual primary sources. Students will be invited to propose a project that uses one or more of the following themes to bring this rich collection into a wider European context, such as ‘Prints as sources for a Franco-German history of 1870-1’ or ‘the international public for printed satire’. The project will also investigate the provenance and formation of the British Library’s collections: there are other known sets in the world, are in the V&A, Cambridge, Oxford, Heidelberg, Baton Rouge (Louisiana) and Minneapolis, and perhaps more to be discovered.

Drawing depicting the arrival of French prisoners

Arrival of French prisoners at Ingolstadt, 10 August 1870, British Library Collections

The project is part of the Arts and Humanities Research Council’s Collaborative Doctoral Partnership (CDP) scheme, which offers doctoral studentships as part of collaborations between a Higher Education Institution and an organisation in the museums, libraries, archives and heritage sector. The doctoral grant will cover fees and pay the student a stipend; the British Library will also provide a research allowance of up to £1,000 a year for agreed research-related costs. In addition to being able to draw on the researcher development opportunities and postgraduate community in both the Department of History and the Doctoral School at Royal Holloway, the successful student will become part of a vibrant cohort of collaborative doctoral researchers at the British Library, and benefit from staff-level access to its collections, resources and training programmes such as the Digital Scholarship Training Programme

The deadline for applications is 5pm on Monday 4 May 2020. All applicants must have a good reading knowledge of French and meet the standard UKRI residency requirements for Training Grants. The successful student will be expected to begin on 1 October 2020.

For further details of the studentship, and the CDP programme, see the British Library Research Collaboration page or download the advert directly on the Royal Holloway website.

To discuss the project further, potential candidates are very welcome to contact Sophie Defrance (sophie.defrance@bl.uk) or Robert Priest (robert.priest@rhul.ac.uk) in advance of submitting an application.

Additional reading:

Morna Daniels, ‘Caricatures from the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 and the Paris Commune’, Electronic British Library Journal, 2005.

Bettina Müller, ‘The collection of French caricatures in Heidelberg: The English connection’, French Studies Library Group Annual Review, 8 (2011-2012), p. 39-42.

W. Jack Rhoden, ‘French caricatures of the Franco-Prussian War and Commune at the British Library’, French Studies Library Group Annual Review, 6 (2009-2010), p. 22-24.

07 April 2020

Books that don’t look like books

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Did this librarian chop up a piano? Is this reader hitting the bottle? No, they are just holding Czech books in their hands.

Modern Czech book designers can challenge our way of thinking on what a book should look like and leave us puzzled as to why it was designed that way. Take for example a book that looks like a hip- flask — Trosečnikem z vlastni vůle, a Czech translation of Naufragé Volontaire by Alain Bombard, who became famous for crossing the Atlantic on a drifting boat. He did it alone without taking any provisions with him, assuming that the sea would provide him with enough food and drink to survive. The enterprise was inspired by a shipwreck whose forty-three victims were found dead a few hours after the ship sank, even though all of them were wearing lifejackets. As a doctor, Bombard wanted to prove that many of the shipwreck victims did not die of hunger or thirst, but of fear. His journey lasted for 65 days; he lost 25 kilograms and suffered from a visual impairment, but he made it to the end.

Book in the shape of a green bottle

Cover of Trosečnikem z vlastni vůle by Alain Bombard (Prague, 1964) C.188.b.129

Top view of book in the shape of a bottle

Top of Trosečnikem z vlastni vůle

It is not clear why Jan Sobota, the designer of the binding, decided to give Bombard’s book the shape of a bottle. It could be an allusion to the freshly-squeezed fish juice which constituted Bombard’s only drink for more than two months, or rather to how great it would feel to drink a bottle of anything else…

Our next item, the autobiography of a pianist, Rudolf Firkušný (1912-1994), is styled after a piano. The binding incorporates an actual piano keyboard applied to the front cover. Touching the book gives the same sensation as laying one’s hand on a musical instrument. The text of the book is printed as a facsimile of a manuscript on hand-made paper with unevenly cut edges, giving the reader the sense of reading Firkušný’s original memoir, and then reprinted in a regular font on later pages.

Photograph of a book styled after a piano

Cover of Rudolf Firkušný by Rudolf Firkušný (Prague, 1993) Cup.936/2167

Photograph of a book styled after a piano

Cover of Rudolf Firkušný

Text of Rudolf Firkušný

Text of Rudolf Firkušný

Besides books that can be mistaken for something else, we also have a few examples of bindings that involve the inclusion of another object. For example, the cover of Z motáků by Jan Kristofori incorporates a fountain pen and barbed wire (Kristofori was a graphic artist who spent seven years in prison for political reasons).

Book cover with fountain pen and barbed wire

Cover of Z motáků by Jan Kristofori (Prague, 1993) RF.2001.b.11

And here is Co je nesmrtelné aneb živé drahokamy, an autobiography of František Kožík (1909-1997), a Czech novelist. The cover is decorated with a hand-painted ribbon, an element of Czech folk costume.

Book cover decorated with a hand-painted ribbon

Cover of Co je nesmrtelné aneb živé drahokamy by František Kožík (Prague, 1994) RF.2001.b.12

And last but not least, a book that can be broken into two books. When you borrow Malovat slunce by Petr Nikl, it comes in one piece. But in order to read it, you need to dismantle what the library assistant gave you: you remove the blue paper ribbon (this requires some manual dexterity) and suddenly, instead of one volume of poetry, you have two of them – a small semi-circular booklet and a larger book. The latter provides you with a very interesting reading experience, as you read a book with a massive hole in the middle through which you can peep at your fellow readers.

Photograph of Malovat slunce showing the two parts of the book

Malovat slunce by Petr Nikl (Prague, 2018) [awaiting shelfmark]

Zuzanna Krzemien, Curator East European Collections

To learn more about the bottle-shaped book, read: https://blogs.bl.uk/untoldlives/2017/06/one-green-bottle-jan-sobotas-book-binding.html

24 March 2020

Against books that 'look like paper rags'

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The beginning of the 20th century witnessed a real boom of Cubist art in Prague. As the art historian Miroslav Lamač noted:

Prague became the city of Cubism with Cubist apartment blocks full of Cubist flats furnished with Cubist furniture. The inhabitants could drink coffee from Cubist cups, put flowers in Cubist vases, keep the time on Cubist clocks, light their rooms with Cubist lamps and read books in Cubist type.

Cover of 'Malostranský feuilleton' with a floral, geometric design

Cover (above) and endpaper (below), designed by Slavoboj Tuzar, from Jan Neruda, Malostranský feuilleton (Prague, 1916) Cup.408.pp.25.

Endpaper from 'Malostranský feuilleton' with a floral, geometric design

Following the spirit of the times, local designers turned away from the style of Art Nouveau towards modern art based on geometrical ornamentation, known as Czech Cubism or ‘angular style’. They believed that objects, including books, have their own inner energy, which can be released by introducing crystalline shapes and breaking the horizontal and vertical planes of the surface. This went against the traditional book design, which the Cubists found limiting and against “the needs of the human soul”. In their opinion, a book should be treated as a holistic entity – this was to be achieved by restricting the design to a very limited choice of repeatable geometric or floral shapes and grids which, on the one hand, create symmetry, and, on the other, introduce dynamics through broken lines.

Cover of 'Vsemu navzdory' with a repeated geometric design

Cover (above) and endpaper (below) from Otakar Theer, Vsemu navzdory (Prague, 1916) C.108.u.16.

Endpaper from 'Vsemu navzdory' with a repeated geometric design

An end had to be put to mass produced books that “looked like paper rags” – that, in a nutshell, was the manifesto of Czech Cubist book designers. The ultimate idea behind the design was to change the mind-set of the Czech middle class which, according to the Cubists, was devoid of any aesthetic sense. In their opinion, not only the content of a book was important; just looking at a book should be a source of immediate visual pleasure. In order to elevate society, they believed that art should be an integral part of the human everyday existence.

Cover of 'Demaskovaní' with a floral, geometric design

Cover, designed by Pravoslav Kotík, from Jan Opolský, Demaskovaní (Prague, 1916) Cup.410.f.251

Zuzanna Krzemien, Curator East European Collections

References:

Jindřich Toman, Kniha v českém kubismu = Czech cubism and the book (Prague, 2004) LF.31.b.923

10 March 2020

Jean Cocteau’s ‘Drôle de Ménage’

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The French poet, playwright, novelist, designer, filmmaker, visual artist and critic Jean Cocteau is best known for his novels, his stage plays, his films and decorative art, and for having been linked to the major artistic movements of 20th century France.

Cover of Drole de Menage with an illustration of the Sun, the Moon and their children

Front cover of Drôle de Ménage ('A Strange Household') (Paris, 1948) J/12316.w.67.

So this book might be surprising: it is the tale of the marriage of the sun and moon and of their children, written ostensibly for children. At the time of publication, in 1948, the theme and images would have strongly resonated, for children and adults alike, with Charles Trenet’s successful 1939 song “Le soleil a rendez-vous avec la lune”, a famous and humoristic metaphor of the impossible relationships between men and women. In Cocteau’s book, however, the Sun and the Moon eventually meet and marry. They have children, but can never find the time to look after them, having to work night and day. They have the idea of entrusting their education to a lazy balloon-seller dog: catastrophe! The children start to behave like dogs, and the experience ends in disaster. After crying a lot, which ruins both the summer holidays and the crops of that year because of the incessant rains, the Moon and the Sun find a wonderful Nanny, a Star, which also acts as a nightlight for the children (who nevertheless regret their wild dog education).

Illustration of the wedding of the Moon and the Sun

Wedding of the Moon and the Sun, Drôle de Ménage

It is hard to tell to what extent the book was really for children, and really an expression by Cocteau (who considered himself first and foremost a poet) of graphic poetry. Although usually writing for adults, Cocteau has written a lot about lost children, and the trappings of parenthood and education – from the Enfants Terribles in 1929 to Les Parents Terribles in 1948, turned into a film and a play in 1948. The book, printed in 2720 copies, is illustrated all over by whimsical, and sometimes scary (the blood-red image of a child, knife in hand, being taught by a dog how to kill chickens, stays with you) drawings by Cocteau, and coloured on each page by a big block of colour. In the “dedicace a nos jeunes lecteurs” (address to our young readers) Cocteau seems to play with his own artistic work: “Autre chose: si les couleurs de notre livre vous déplaisent, prenez vos crayons de couleurs et ne vous gênez pas” (“and another thing: if the colours of our book are not to your liking, take your colour pencils and don’t restrain yourself”).

Page from 'Drôle de Ménage' with an illustration of a child, knife in hand, being taught by a dog how to kill chickens

Illustration of a child, knife in hand, being taught by a dog how to kill chickens, Drôle de Ménage

Cocteau’s a-conventional take on the story, however, might lie in the colours: the book ends on the ambivalent image of the severe Nanny-Star holding the hands of quiet, but now sad, children – the only image coloured in grey.

Final page of 'Drôle de Ménage'. The severe Nanny-Star holds the hands of the quiet, but now sad, children.

Final page of Drôle de Ménage

Sophie Defrance, Curator Romance Collections

03 March 2020

Nordic Comics Today: A Day of Events

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On 13 March, the British Library are hosting two events under the banner of Nordic Comics Today. In the afternoon, we will welcome Kaisa Leka and Karoline Stjernfelt to showcase their work. Kaisa will speak about the life of a disabled woman in the world today, and how comic art responds to disability, while Karoline transports us to the 18th-century Danish royal court through her prize-winning graphic history I Morgen Bliver Bedre (‘Tomorrow will be better’). The event will be introduced by Dr Nina Mickwitz from the University of the Arts, who’ll ground us in contemporary comics cultures in the Nordic region.

Illustration of suffragettes marching and fighting with policemen from 'Women in Battle'

‘Votes for Women’ from Marta Breen and Jenny Jordahl, Women in Battle: 150 Years of Fighting for Freedom, Equality and Sisterhood (London, 2018) ELD.DS.339036

In the evening we turn to feminism and welcome best-selling author Marta Breen to talk about Women in Battle, the story of fearless females in the continuing journey towards rights for women today (created in collaboration with illustrator Jenny Jordahl and translated into English by Sian Mackie). Marta will be in conversation with Kaisa Leka and UK Comics Laureate Hannah Berry, as they discuss the power of comics and graphic literature to engage people around social justice.

Photo of Kaisa Leka

A photo of Kaisa Leka from her trip around the U.S.A. reproduced in Imperfect (Porvoo, 2017), awaiting shelfmark

There are some tickets remaining for both events. The afternoon is free to attend but still requires a ticket. We are also delighted to be able to display parts of the Hero(ine)s exhibition, first shown at the University of Cumbria and the Lakes International Comic Art Festival in 2018, which features iconic comic heroes re-interpreted and reimagined in their female form. This can be seen all day at the Knowledge Centre.

Double page from 'Place of Death'

from Kaisa’s Place of Death (Porvoo, 2015), YD.2019.a.6235

Comics and graphic novels certainly have a place amongst the Library’s universal and international collections, especially given the emergence of Comics Studies as an academic discipline in recent years. That’s not to say comics needed rehabilitating through academic approaches. It might be best to say, with Douglas Wolk, that comics are not a genre but a medium, and that graphic art cuts across genres. Also, the ubiquity of images in the internet age and the implications on reading habits go hand in hand with the fairly recent rise of graphic literature. So, if you want to understand the world today, a task which the BL’s collections are surely there to serve, then you need to read some comics!

Double page from 'Place of Death'

also from Place of Death

Let’s take a look at the work of our featured authors. Kaisa Leka, a Puupäähattu prize-winning Finnish artist and adventurer, has created numerous innovative books with her partner and ‘faithful sherpa’ Christoffer Leka. Imperfect (awaiting shelfmark) is a beautiful travel diary about their trip across the U.S.A. made up of the postcards they sent to Christoffer’s nephews and niece every day. Place of Death is a sort of parable about ‘fear and the kindness of strangers’, the characters being the authors’ (plus families’) alter egos.

Cover of Karoline Stjernfelt’s 'I Morgen Bliver Bedre' featuring ‘The King’, ‘The Queen’ and ‘The Doctor’

Cover of Karoline Stjernfelt’s I Morgen Bliver Bedre (Copenhagen, 2016) YF.2020.b.319

Karoline Stjernfelt’s I Morgen Bliver Bedre won the best debut category of both major Danish comics awards, the Ping Award and the Claus Delauran Award. To be published in three parts, ‘The King’, ‘The Queen’ and ‘The Doctor’, the exquisitely illustrated books take us to the late 18th century and the reign of Christian VII. The German royal physician, Johann Friedrich Struensee, wielded increasing influence in the court, having an affair with the Queen Caroline Matilda, and eventually becoming de facto regent in 1770. I Morgen Bliver Bedre captures that political chaos and the splendour of the court.

A ball scene from I Morgen Bliver Bedre

A ball scene from I Morgen Bliver Bedre

Marta Breen and Jenny Jordahl’s Women in Battle tells the story of women’s rights and we’re fortunate to hear about it just after International Women’s Day and just before the British Library opens its Unfinished Business: The Fight for Women’s Rights exhibition. It sketches 150 years of struggle through figures such as Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman and Malala Yousafzai. Marta and Jenny Jordahl have previously collaborated on the books 60 Women you should know about and The F Word, while Marta has also just published Hvordan bli (en skandinavisk) feminist (‘How to be (a Scandinavian) feminist’) (awaiting shelfmark).

Cover of 'Women in Battle' with illustrations of famous women activists throughout history

Cover of Women in Battle

Last but not least, we should definitely also say a word about our wonderful chairs for the events, Nina Mickwitz and Hannah Berry. Nina’s monograph Documentary Comics: Graphic Truth-telling in a Skeptical Age (awaiting shelfmark) shows the documentary potential of comics through early 21st century non-fiction examples. She has recently co-edited the collections (with Dr Ian Hague and Dr Ian Norton) Contexts of Violence in Comics and Representing Acts of Violence in Comics, and is currently interested in mobilities and negotiations of social norms and identities in comics, as well as the transnational mobilities of comics themselves.

Page depicting women’s struggle against slavery in 'Women in Battle'

Depicting women’s struggle against slavery in Women in Battle

Hannah Berry is the UK Comics Laureate and her graphic novel Livestock won the Broken Frontier Award for Best Writer. Check that out as well as her two previous graphic novels Britten and Brülightly and Adamtine here at the Library.

We look forward to introducing you to these exciting creative voices and stay tuned for more Nordic events at the library over the coming year!

Pardaad Chamsaz, Curator Germanic Collections

References

Douglas Wolk, Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels work and what they mean (Cambridge, MA, 2007) YK.2007.a.19819

Marta Breen, Hvordan bli (en skandinavisk) feminist (Oslo, 2020) awaiting shelfmark

Marta Breen and Jenny Jordahl, Kvinner I kamp: 150 års kamp for frihet, likhet, sösterskap! (Oslo, 2018), awaiting shelfmark

Nina Mickwitz, Documentary Comics: Graphic Truth-telling in a Skeptical Age (Basingstoke, 2015) awaiting shelfmark

Nina Mickwitz, Ian Hague, and Ian Norton, Contexts of Violence in Comics (London, 2019) ELD.DS.445377

——, Representing Acts of Violence in Comics (London, 2019) ELD.DS.445165

Hannah Berry, Britten and Brülightly (London, 2008) YK.2011.b.11102

——, Adamtine (London, 2012) YK.2012.a.19765

——, Livestock (London, 2017) YKL.2018.b.3075

24 January 2020

‘Humble books’: B. U. Kashkin’s wooden artist books at the British Library

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The nonconformist artist and poet Evgenii Mikhailovich Malakhin, better known as B. U. Kashkin or later Starik Bukashkin (‘Old Man Bukashkin’), is a legendary figure in Ekaterinburg, the Russian city where he spent most of his adult life. Sporting a large bushy beard, wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with the words ‘I am a great Russian poet’, and carrying a balalaika, B. U. Kashkin could be found walking the streets and creating art for much of the 1980s and 90s. In recent years, the so-called ‘Bukashkin Trail’, a walk through the area where a small number of his murals remain intact, has even appeared on alternative English-language travel guides to the city. Yet, B. U. Kashkin remains relatively unknown outside of Russia or even Ekaterinburg.

Cover of B.U. Kashkin (1938-2005): zhiznʹ i tvorchestvo uralʹskogo pank-skomorokha (Ekaterinburg, 2015) featuring a photograph of the artist

Cover of B.U. Kashkin (1938-2005): zhiznʹ i tvorchestvo uralʹskogo pank-skomorokha (Ekaterinburg, 2015) featuring a photograph of the artist. YF.2017.a.4031

Born in Irkutsk in 1938, B. U. Kashkin studied engineering before moving to Sverdlovsk (now Ekaterinburg) in the early 1960s to take up a post as a senior engineer for an electricity company. Although he was interested in philosophy and the arts, it wasn’t until the 1970s that he began exploring a more creative path. As well as experimental photography, he also wrote and self-published poetry, and painted and worked with wood (including chopping boards). He initially adopted the pseudonym K. Kashkin, which sounds similar to the Russian word kakashka (meaning a little piece of shit). In the late 80s, this morphed into B. U. Kashkin – from the word bukashka (meaning a little bug or, metaphorically, an inconspicuous person).

The first exhibition of his work was held in the mid-1980s and he later founded an art collective, ‘Kartinnik’, which took its name from the Russian word for painting or picture – kartina (and likely also kvartirnik, the word used to describe musical concerts or performance art held in private apartments in the Soviet Union in the 1960s-1980s). The group’s philosophy was based on the idea of art as a form of communication and not a commodity to be sold. In fact, B. U. Kashkin gave most of his art away for free to passers-by in the street. 

Photographs of three of B. U. Kashkin's murals

Photographs of B. U. Kashkin's murals taken by E. Polens, A. Shaburov, and V. Shakhrin, 1993-2000. From B.U. Kashkin (1938-2005): zhiznʹ i tvorchestvo uralʹskogo pank-skomorokha.

In the early 1990s, B. U. Kashkin expanded his canvas further, painting garages, rubbish bins, and fences around the city. Calling himself ‘the People’s Street Sweeper of Russia’ in a tongue-in-cheek jibe at the official People’s Artist title awarded by the State, his murals called for people to live harmoniously together and to take care of the city and nature. In this way, he was able to communicate his poetry and ideas with a wide, public audience. The performative aspect of B. U. Kashkin’s art has been likened to that of the skomorokhs, medieval East Slavic travelling street performers who sang, played musical instruments and entertained people with comic plays and acrobatic tricks. 

Inside of B. U. Kashkin’s wooden artist book, DRrrrr, featuring a painting of him cutting down a fir tree

Inside of Bukashkin’s wooden artist book, DRrrrr… ([Sverdlovsk?], [1993?]). RF.2000.a.48

B. U. Kashkin also made wonderfully playful and naïve wooden books, two of which are now held in the British Library. In the smaller of the two books, he juxtaposes the wooden canvas with the act of chopping down a fir tree, an important symbol in Russian culture. He himself is the woodcutter, bearded and dressed in a red tunic and red, white and blue hat – an ensemble he wore in real life and which can be found throughout his art. Measuring just 6.5cm x 5.5cm, the book is entitled DRrrrr… (evoking the sound of the saw) and features the name of the ‘publisher’, skromnaia kniga (‘humble book’), on its cover.

Cover of Kora featuring a dog, a cow, a bird and a fish

Cover of Kora: av-ai ([Ekaterinburg?], [1993?]). RF.2000.a.47

The second of B. U. Kashkin’s wooden books held by the Library is marginally bigger in size (9cm x 7cm!). Aptly titled Kora (tree bark), the cover features a dog, a cow, a bird and a fish, along with animal sounds. Once again B. U. Kashkin makes an appearance, this time with his infamous balalaika and an assortment of music-playing friends and animals. The books are part of a series B. U. Kashkin made using birch (also a symbol of Russian culture and beauty) and other types of bark in the early 1990s.

Inside of Kora featuring B. U. Kashkin and an assortment of music-playing friends and animals

Inside of Kora: av-ai

Following his death in 2005, staff and students of Ural State University worked to build the B. U. Kashkin Museum in the university. As well as holding rare artefacts and archival material related to B. U. Kashkin, the museum also serves to promote cultural projects and interdisciplinary research. The Ekaterinburg Museum of Fine Arts similarly collected artworks from different periods of B. U. Kashkin’s life and held an exhibition to mark what would have been his 80th birthday in 2018.

Katie McElvanney, Curator Slavonic and East European Collections

26 December 2019

One of the very best Danish bookplate artists: two recent Ebba Holm acquisitions

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According to Otto Wang, author of niche publications in defence of the reputation of Danish ex-libris, and writing in 1927, no one had received more praise for their bookplate artistry than Ebba Holm. A painter, engraver and illustrator, Holm became most famous for 108 linocut illustrations to a 1929 edition of Dante’s Divine Comedy, in Christian Knud Frederik Molbech’s translation. Otto Wang sees Holm as belonging ‘to the not too many Danish artists who have really been interested in this special little art [of ex libris] and realized that it is necessary to cultivate it and subject it to a special study’.

In Wang’s survey of Holm’s ex libris art, he suggests the artist has given us two of the greatest Danish bookplates, one being for Harald and Karen Abrahamsen (answers on a postcard) and the other being Ebba Holm’s own. Recently, the library acquired L’Opinion et l’amour, a 1830 French book belonging to Holm herself, so we are lucky enough to be in the possession of this famed ex libris. Sadly we don’t know much about Holm’s personal library, and whether she had chosen the book because it was a historical novel written by a woman, Madame de de Saint–Surin, who had also written about the Middle Ages, or for its pretty binding by Janet, a Parisian bookbinder known for his decorative tastes. In any case, it is exciting to see her choice for this most personal design:

Ebba Holm’s ex libris featuring a knight on a horse

Ebba Holm’s ex libris from Madame de Saint Surin, L’Opinion et l’amour (Paris, 1830), awaiting shelfmark

Holm’s love of medieval imagery, or of all things medieval, is expressed in her own bookplate, which features a knight (or could it be Joan of Arc?) holding a spear from which floats a banner displaying her name.

The library has since also acquired a copy of Johannes Jørgensen’s Dantestemninger (‘Dante moods’), a limited edition from 1928, which features a quartet of poems first published in Jørgensen’s collection Bag alle de blaa Bjærge (1913) here in large format alongside four striking woodcuts by Ebba Holm. Our copy has a small book label designed by the illustrator and stuck on the inside back cover. It bears her initials and is adorned with what looks like a heraldic eagle.

Ebba Holm’s initials underneath an eagle

Ebba Holm’s initials underneath an eagle

Jørgensen and Holm were both Italophiles. Jørgensen (1866-1956) lived in Siena from 1914 and wrote the lives of St Francis of Assisi, Catherine of Siena and St Bridget of Sweden after his conversion to Catholicism around 1895.

The Dantestemninger were written at the time he was composing his work on Catherine of Siena and his research into the period allowed Jørgensen to explore an interest in Dante. As Jørgen Breitenstein has written, the poems often explicitly recall Molbech’s translation of Dante, as we see at the end of Jørgensen’s first poem’s reference to Inferno III, 1: ‘og fører ind til Staden, fuld af Jammer’ (‘Per me si va ne la città dolente’ / ‘Through me the way into the suffering city’). That said, Jørgensen portrays a wet, foggy, autumnal forest that has no real parallel to Dante’s Inferno, and Holm depicts a lost forest-bound protagonist in the first woodcut.

Jørgensens Inferno

Jørgenson’s Inferno in a Northern European sylvan mood

Holm might be said to deviate from Jørgensen’s second poem as she depicts the protagonist’s encounter with Beatrice. Holm’s scene might be based on Dante’s Florence but the city is also simple and industrial, the encounter itself without any of the symbolism of Jørgensen’s (and Dante’s) association of Beatrice with fire and flames.

Woodcut depicting the meeting of Dante and Beatrice

Dante meets Beatrice

The third poem deals with Dante’s exile from Florence and the fourth with Dante and Beatrice’s ascension in Paradiso.

Woodcut of Dante in exile. He is sitting under a tree and his hand is resting on a book. Florence is depicted far in the background.

Dante in exile

Woodcut depicting Dante's ascension to heaven

Dante in paradise

Holm’s illustrations here are accomplished without being remarkable but they can also be seen as preparatory for the more lavish, impressive and ultimately prize-winning linocuts for the later Divine Comedy edition. Unfortunately, we don’t yet have a copy of this but we’ll be keeping our eyes peeled for a fine edition!

Sophie Defrance, Curator Romance Collections, and Pardaad Chamsaz, Curator Germanic Collections

References

Johannes Jørgensen, Dantestemninger (Copenhagen, 1928) LF.31.b.13902

Otto Wang, Ebba Holms Exlibris (Kolding, 1927), 2708.g.23

17 December 2019

Beautifully meaningless: Codex Seraphinianus

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Despite what title of this book might suggest, there is no need for Latinists or philologists: the Codex Seraphinianus is not a medieval manuscript, nor a translation from Latin, it is not written in an undiscovered or secret language either. All the scholarly efforts to decipher the text were dismissed by the author himself who revealed that the writing is asemic, therefore no hidden message to discover. And I guess this is the beauty of his work (the beauty of art in general): the trick can be exposed but the mystery remains, the mystery of creativity.

Codex Seraphinianus text
Pages of text from Codex Seraphinianus (New York, 1983) f84/0685

We look at “…those minute, agile and (we have to admit) very clear italics of his”, as Italo Calvino finely put it, and “we always feel we are just an inch away from being able to read”.

The art book by the Italian artist, designer and architect Luigi Serafini – an imaginary encyclopedia of an imaginary world – was first published in a two-volume edition in Italy in 1981, followed by a single-volume edition in 1983 published in New York, which is the edition held by the British Library. The limited editions and the value attributed to them make the Codex a rare item, sought-after by collectors. Paul Fisher Davies in his article gives an overview of the studies on the text: as he rightly points out, there is a narrative in the sequence of the images and in the way the text connects to them. Even though, the readability of narrative Davies refers to is still imaginary in that the text itself remains undeciphered, the connection between text and images has a powerful impact. Serafini says it himself in an interview: “There is no a written message or something to decode. There are other aspects. There are beauty, the relationship between the images and writing.” (You can see video of Serafini being interviewed here: https://www.the-mag.org/codex-seraphinianus-il-favoloso-mondo-immaginario-di-luigi-serafini/).

Certainly the book does not lack of the systematic division we expect from a science book, and this is marked by what can be assumed is the title, followed by an introduction and table of contents, before the beginning of each of the 11 “chapters” of the 1983 edition, as the photo above shows. However, even the illusory systematicity of the first chapter, which can be safely interpreted as dedicated to “botany” from beginning to end, does not seem to be applied in the second chapter. This begins with an illustrative catalogue of individual light particles, each with different shapes and names, and in the image below it the same light particles are shown as a swarm flying out from the head of a street lamp. This and the bigger catalogue of individual rainbow particles which comes after, tell us that the second chapter is dedicated to “light”.

Image of a rainbow and rainbow-coloured particles from Codex Seraphinianus
Rainbow particles from Chapter 2 of Codex Seraphinianus

But the chapter changes pattern and shows images impossible to interpret, even though, the text below them gives us a sense of reconciliation, an explanation which cannot, does not need to be put in words. And it makes me wonder: can attempting to read asemic writing echo back as a liberating asemic thinking? As Calvino observes “Serafini’s writing has the power to evoke a world where the syntax of things has been distorted, it must contain, hidden beneath, the mystery of its indecipherable surface, a deeper mystery still regarding the internal logic of language and thought.”.

The second chapter continues with images of fishes, snakes, birds, dogs, deer, horses, and ends with this:

Images of rhinoceros-like beasts from Codex Seraphinianus

The third chapter does not even try to make us believe it’s focusing on anything in particular, yet it does not stop overwhelming us with surreal shapes and wonderful colours. And again in the following chapters, until chapter 7: this opens with a catalogue showing the profile view of human heads, which, after so many surreal images, we find ourselves absorbing with the same puzzlement.

The beautifully meaningless journey continues and ends with a page tightly and tiredly written (with a couple of words crossed out, and a couple of others inserted in between, in different parts of the text) and partly lifted as if it accidentally detached itself and, pulling up like a curtain, shows what was not meant to be shown: the broken bones of a hand laying on the floor of a tiny grim room.

In the end what Serafini asks us to do is nothing but immerse ourselves in his magical, often disconcerting world. I find interesting that Serafini decided to give his art book – a book which celebrates freedom from the rules of interpretation and meaning – a title in Latin, which seems to impose a certain historicity based on those rules. I like to think that he does this to make us feel a contraction of time which propels us to a world where, dare I say, Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Pliny’s Historia Naturalis meet. As Serafini says in the same interview mentioned earlier, his work could be open to artists of the future, “ … every 5/6 years I could add a chapter and even in the future, I would imagine it as an open work which can be continued by other artist maybe for two or three centuries…”.

Images of fantastical machines with human hands from Codex Seraphinianus
Fantastical machines from Codex Seraphinianus

Giuseppe Alizzi, Acquisitions Support Manager

References/Further reading

Paul Fisher Davies, ‘On the comics-nature of the Codex Seraphinianus’, Studies in comics, Vol. 6:Issue 1 (2015) ZK.9.a.12040

Italo Calvino, ‘The encyclopedia of a visionary’, in Collection of Sand. Translated by Martin L. McLaughlin (London, 2013). ELD.DS.180656