Monday, August 15, 2011

In Praise of Books

I love books. I came from a “bookish” family: people who hoarded and treasured books and spent more time reading than speaking. In college, I adopted a second major in English simply to provide an excuse to read more literature. Like many English majors, I sought a job in publishing after graduation, and luckily ended up in the Department of Publication and Sales at the Whitney Museum of American Art. There I learned that I loathed publishing but loved art. It was also there that my love of books as literature morphed into a fascination with books as visual art. At first I channeled this into a mania for book arts, taking as many classes as I could afford in letterpress, book conservation, and hand-book binding at the Center for Book Arts in New York. To my dismay, I was terrible at it: it is hard to imagine a future as a bookbinder when you can’t cut a straight line, even using a board cutter.

I still firmly believe that all books, to some degree, are works of visual art; even the most mundane book communicates through visual means: typeface, leading (the space between lines), page size, margins, paper, binding; not to mention any cover art—all these elements are deliberately selected to create specific visual meaning that adds to the personal experience that is reading a book.

SCMA has a wonderful small collection of livres d’artiste: French artist’s books created between the 19th and 20th centuries where image and text are integrated. My very favorite among these books is Toulouse-Lautrec’s Yvette Guilbert. Even if one cannot read French, it is easy to get a sense of the life of the eponymous cafe singer as she shops, dresses, and performs, as well as that of turn-of-the-century Paris. The images, printed in a soft olive green seep into the text (which is printed in the same color) creating a unified visual whole that pulls the viewer both into and through the book.


Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. French, 1864-1901. Yvette Guilbert, 1894. Lithographs printed in olive green on ivory laid Arches paper. Printed by Edward Ancourt (lithographs) and Frémont (typography). Published by L'Estampe Original [Andre Marty]. Copy 34 from a numbered edition of 100. Gift of Selma Erving, class of 1927


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