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Rise Of The Art Form English Literature Essay

Where do you begin when looking into the emergence of the Artist’s Book? With the medieval Irish scribes painstakingly illuminating the Book of Kells? With William Blake and his innovative ideas of merging text and image? Or even with Ed Ruscha’s, groundbreaking work, Twentysix Gasoline Stations?

While printing and type design was becoming more industrialised in Britain, there is one artist who stood apart from the established traditions, and which many people who write about the history of the Artist’s Book begin… William Blake. His innovative printing techniques and merging of type and image, both in proximity and concept, were the first examples of Artist’s Books. His work was unique during this time for these reasons: it created a painterly union with image and text, [1] and he was self-published with full control over the entire process. The union of image and text and the idea of self-publishing are both key elements that are still important to many in the Artist’s Book field.

The content of Blake’s work is based on his strong belief in the spiritual world, mirrored in his illustrations, and the belief that his writing and illustration could serve to transform and educate others in their spiritual life. In his first work of illuminated printing No Natural Religion, Blake expresses his beliefs that,

“each individual has their own vision of the world, sense of values, and structure of belief. Any assertion of a unified view of the world, the cosmos, or spiritual life misrepresented the originality and variety of human experience.” [2] 

This idea of independence and imagination is joined with themes of innocence – a condition of enlightenment, and experience – in the work of The Songs of Innocence. Images, a fluid, graceful line, and in later works “forms and forces of profound and terrifying energy” accompany his rhythmic handwriting to create a “visionary theatre” within the confines of book. [3] 

For ten years Blake attempted to find a publisher that would allow him to create his own images and engrave his own plates (two processes, previously not done by the same person). Because publishers were not willing to take his work under these terms and because of Blake’s poverty, he was forced to create an economical way to print and to self-publish.

The process he developed for creating his art came to him in a dream in which his deceased and beloved brother describes the process. [4] 

“His method was a form of relief etching in which both words and images were formed in some sort of fluid resist on a single copper plate. The lines were probably brushed on the plate with a small camel’s hair brush, one of Blake’s favourite tools, so that the plate making process was essentially painterly, calligraphic, and much more direct than engraving. … The resulting plate would be etched in extremely shallow relief, making both sides of the plate usable, for economy.” [5] 

The plate was then inked and printed on a rolling press. After printing the images were sensitively hand-coloured with watercolours by Blake and his wife, Catherine Sophia Boucher. In this way Blake’s work resembles the illuminated manuscripts of the 7th and 8th centuries, with each page being coloured individually to make a one-of-a-kind work of art.

THE 20TH CENTURY

During the first half of the 20th century many other artists from various mediums were drawn to the book format. Their purpose was not to explore the structural, typographical or conceptual possibilities of the book, but rather the book became another venue for the presentation of their work, usually painting, drawing or sculpture. These books are now referred to in several different ways: Livres de peintre, Livres d’Artiste or illustrated books. The most coming usage is Livres d’Artiste, which has caused a great deal of confusion as it translates to Artist’s Books. They are a very different genre than Artist’s Books. Many would agree with Johanna Drucker, author of The Century of Artists’ Books, that they fall short of the criteria of Artist’s Books, because these books were usually conceived by editors or entrepreneurs and existed for the reason of publishing deluxe editions of popular artists (Picasso, Matisse, etc) to expand the market for painting, drawing and sculpture. Many are also very standard in their format, with mechanical alteration of text on the left and image on the right. While many “livres d’artiste are interesting on their own terms, they are productions rather than creations, products, rather than visions, examples of a form, not interrogations of its conceptual or formal or metaphysical potential.” [6] There are of course exceptions, but these statements represent the majority of the Livres d’Artiste.

Book arts, like most mediums, had many influences that came under the heading of modern art, during these early years of 1910-1950: Dada, Futurists, Bauhaus, Fluxus, etc. Each movement had some component of the Artist’s Book attached to it. [7] 

Filippo Marinetti is one of the Italian Futurists that had an impact on the future of book arts. Like the Futurists painters, his poetry and bookwork expressed modern life. His typography shows the use of expressiveness, but he took this idea further and abandons traditional grammar, syntax, punctuation and format, creating a vivid, “pictorial typographic page.” Some of Marinetti’s work was also in reaction to the work that came out of the Arts and Crafts era. He preferred fluidity, movement, variety, and freedom to use many typefaces and colours of ink to create the dynamic effect of “words in liberty” rather than be bound to huge initials and mythological vegetation. [8] 

An influential French work from this period was La Prose du Transsibérian et de la petite Jehanne de France. This work, created by Sonia Deluanay-Terk was advanced for its time because of its interest in finding a relationship between structure and content. The piece, which refers to the newly constructed Trans-Siberian railroad, was not designed in a codex fashion. Rather, it was constructed in a way that visually relates to the railroad and also to the Eiffel Tower that is mentioned in the poem and appears in the colourful painting. It is made up of four long sheets glued together and then folded (once vertically and 21 times horizontally) and fits into a hand painted wrapper. When unfolded it reaches a height of six feet. Three hundred of these were to be produced, which if joined together would have reached the exact height of the Eiffel Tower. [9] On the left side of the work bright, dramatic watercolour decorations are painted using a stencil, which provides unity to the edition. In contrast, on the right side, the colour is painted more lightly, outlining and supporting the passages of poetry that are also printed in colourful inks. [10] 

This work is important, not only because of the unique way it combines text and image, but also in that its folded construction and size is very unusual for this early cubist period in which paintings for the most part had shrunk to a more domestic scale. Since the time of the scroll, few if any, “private reading experiences” [11] had been created in such proportions and creating a “book” in this format was a remarkable concept and a structural achievement.

Three Dada artists that also influenced the future of book arts are Ilia Zdanevish, El Lissitzky and Marcel Duchamp. Marcel Duchamp was another French artist whose work blurs the lines between many movements. Duchamp’s Green Box in particular is filled with torn scraps with jotted notes that have been precisely reproduced and placed in a green suede box. These notes are from his creative process when developing a large sculpture of the same name that he created between 1913 and 1923.

Since Duchamp’s Dada beginnings, he was always willing to push the borders of accepted forms of art. The Green Box is both a model for so-called book objects and a valuable prototype for the Artist’s Book, as it became an accepted art form in the 1960s and 1970s. [12] 

Hungarian constructivist Laslo Moholy-Nagy, teacher of photography and graphic design at the Bauhaus, had considerable influence on the early Artist’s Book makers because of his use of the photographic book. Moholy-Nagy demonstrates one of the first “modern attitudes” towards photography. [13] In his work the normal viewpoint is replaced with a “worm’s eye, bird’s eye, extreme close-up and angle viewpoint.” [14] In 1922 Moholy-Nagy began to experiment with the photogram, which allowed an artist to capture patterns on a light sensitive paper without a camera. He used this medium to express abstract pattern that he believed could be more creative and functional than imitative photography. His book Painting, Photography, Film “laid the ground rules for making a photographic sequence function beyond the level of mere collection.” [15] This work also uses structure and format as part of the content, rather than merely as instruments of eye-catching organisation. His concentration on the sequence or series of photographs and the declaration that the “knowledge of photography is just as important as that of the alphabet” [16] make his work a predecessor to the photographic Artist’s Books of Ed Ruscha in the 1970s.

CONTEMPORARY ART FORMS

While the above artists and movements influence artists working in the book medium, there are two artists from the 1960s and 1970s that stand out as pioneers to the current activity in Artist’s Books. These are Dieter Roth and Ed Ruscha.

Their works stand as a model to the Artist’s Book as a form because they produced book works in a sustained series of projects. Until this time 20th century artists working in the book medium had only dabbled and not created a sustained, long-term body of artists books. Their work grew out of the non-traditional, conceptual art forms being developed in the late 1950s and early 60s and set a foundation for the medium of artists books and particularly for the artists book as a democratic multiple or inexpensive edition. [17] Artist’s Books became a way to reach a wider audience and the decades of the 1960s and 1970s were fertile times for this new art form to take hold. The fine art hierarchy had been shaken by the public and artistic interest in photography. As the lines between conceptual art, film, theatre, dance, literature and music were blurring, experimenting in the book arts was a natural transition for many artists.

Dieter Roth’s path to Artist’s Books came via experimental work in graphic design and concrete poetry. His book projects began in 1954 as he began to investigate the physical form of the book. In his work “a turning page becomes a physical, sculptural element rather than an incidental activity.” [18] Roth is also interested in exploring process in his books. For example The Daily Mirror represents a process in two respects: first by enlarging the page to unreadable levels and also having it represented in minuscule form in the bottom corner, and the second respect is that this book had three incarnations. In 1961 he first created it as a two centimetre square book made by cutting squares out of plies of The Daily Mirror newspaper and gluing them at the spine, second, in 1965, he created a loose collection of these pages, blown up to twenty five centimetres and printed on newsprint, and third in 1970 he produced the Collected Work edition in standard octavo size (6 x 9.5”), each page showing the source image, roughly 2 x 3 centimetres in the bottom corner of the full-page blow-up of this same image. [19] 

The interpretation of this book offered in The Cutting Edge of Reading, is that “the artist thus implies that he has magnified what The Daily Mirror had already grossly exaggerated. … He deliberately compounds our frustration as readers to increase our awareness of the problems of communication … one would expect that the magnifying smell densely printed news” would make it more legible, but to the contrary the “smooth surfaces often metamorphose into endless rows of dots.” [20] 

An important aspect of Roth’s work is that he took the conventions of format and structure as the subject matter of his books. “There would be no way to translate a Dieter Roth book into another medium – the idea of the work is inseparable from their form as books and they realize themselves as works through their exploration of the conceptual and structural features of a book.” [21] It is also important that he created editions of his books as this helps the format fit into one of the conventions of book publishing, therefore helping to root artists book in the book medium.

For Ed Ruscha, creating in editions was also of primary importance, with ideas from one edition leading to the next. Multiplicity was one of the important features of his art as he championed the idea of the democratic multiple, meaning that his books were easily available, cheap and portable. With his work the customary aura of artwork was dispelled, his books were for use, intended to be handled and enjoyed. [22] 

In his first book, Twentysix Gasoline Stations, Ruscha exhibits 26 photographs of gasoline stations located along Route 40 between Los Angeles (where he lived) and Oklahoma City (where he grew up). “These images are like twenty-six letters of a personal alphabet that are structured by the form of the book.” [23] He numbered the first printing of his book, but soon came to realize how by numbering the books he was making a statement that was the opposite of his intent of “making mass produced” objects. With these books he also destroyed the aura of preciousness by printing them two more times, ending up with 3,900 copies in circulation, making his work available to audiences beyond the gallery and museum goer.

Ruscha’s ideas of propagating art work in simple publications soon became very popular in the climate of the 1960s and early 1970s when art took on a more inclusive character. Yet, in the mid-to-late 1970s the aspect of the artists book as a democratic multiple began to fade, and in effect Ruscha stopped creating books and continued working in other mediums.

There is much evidence of the growth in the area of Artist’s Books and book arts in general in the last 10-20 years. This evidence includes more artists books and fine-binding exhibits, more colleges and universities building book arts programs into their curriculum, more regional book arts centres opening across the country that teach and support practising artists, numerous Web sites devoted to promoting and advocating book arts, and new books being written about the medium. Johanna Drucker summarises this growth in the opening paragraph of The Century of Artists’ Books:

“Artists book have come of age in the 20th century. … The enormous amount of activity in the realm of artists’ books in recent decades builds on the outpouring of creative production which has developed in the 20th century.”

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