Wednesday, October 28, 2009
Architecture in Ex Libris
Architecture is a prime subject for pictorial bookplates. They might include buildings of great note, such as Cathedrals, castles, and city halls, and it is a great pleasure to observe how a clever artist can suggest the scale of a large building within the restricted area of an ordinary ex libris. A delightful example which immediately comes to mind is the private and now tremendously rare bookplate of Antonio Gaudi, the brilliant Spanish or Catalan architect, whose world-famous Sagrada Familia Cathedral and many other superb domestic buildings, draw so many modern pilgrims each year to his beautiful city of Barcelona. His bookplate shows an image of some of his futuristic spires, and is redolent of the period.
However, the topic of architecture and ex libris is so vast, that on this occasion I plan to deal only with private homes of various sizes chosen by their proud owners to be the subject of private ex libris plates. On the whole, the houses we see pictured in ex libris are far larger than most private homes being built today. Now, we value comfort, convenience and ease of up-keep in our homes, while ‘building for show’ takes a definite second place, so that in Britain and in most places on the Continent of Europe, most very large private homes have found a new lease of life as corporate offices, schools, and so on. Moderately large houses have found millionaire occupants, and the large majority of city dwellers choose the convenience and comparative safety of sky living in convenient modern flats – not larger than can be easily maintained without or with minimal help. True, there has recently been a reverse trend in Britain toward the purchase of country homes; and some town dwellers, fed up with the noise and bad air of modern towns are finding refurbishing and enjoying life in ancient reconditioned barns, and other country buildings as well as the more usual but far more expensive picturesque cottages.
Ex libris by Bernhard Wedepohl show thatched rustic buildings which were obviously very comfortable country homes in rural Germany during the first three decades of the last century. And, most delightful of all to my mind, were those which pictured cottages at night with the lamp light showing through the windows, and the impression in my mind that inside sturdy men in lederhosen are sitting in front of blazing stoves with their comfortable fraus, drinking schnapps, and listening to Wagner on the gramophone.
The fashion for ‘house’ ex libris dates as far back as the 1880s, when the houses which figure in exlibris are stolid and spacious rather than picturesque. Some of these homes seem to be set in small parks or swathes of woodlands sufficiently detached in their setting as to show no other building apart from the house chosen for the plate – this might, of course, be artistic licence as in the sketches in many house agents. One plate, here shown, shows not only part of the interior of a large house including a massive staircase, but also the impressive but not particularly artistic exterior of the house. Large homes at this period were a great asset to families which might have half dozen or more children and a number of servants, but the more general use of electric lighting, gas cookers, refrigerators, vacuum cleaners, telephones, etc. gradually gave the coup de grace to the large house and garden, while at the same time better paid jobs in commerce and industry took away the available house servants of both sexes.
The turn of the century and a few decades following was a time of great popularity for bookplates. Anyone who had a bookcase full of books felt he or she needed a bookplate as did many who had hardly any books at all, as a nice bookplate became a harmless method of showing off a little. Amongst the wealthier classes in Britain (with even a few wealthy Americans and Canadians), a popular type of bookplate was meticulously engraved with almost photographic accuracy to show not only the houses, but the grounds, pets, and other possessions of the well-heeled customers who flocked to Mr. W. P. Barrett of Bumpus – London’s finest book shop at the period. The bookplates were engraved by contract engravers working in their own premises, but it was Barrett to whom they looked for their work, and it was he who visited the clients and planned the work in great detail. These bookplates were expensive and had limited appeal, but Barrett was patronized by the Royal Family, and so by most of the wealthier people of the time, and these bookplates encapsulate a style of house and garden, then at its zenith, but soon to be outmoded by problems left by the First World War. One rather elegant manner of boasting in a Barrett style plate was what might be termed the ‘talkative footman’ style, in which the owner tried to cram into a ‘house plate’ some reference to his (it was generally a man) expensive school and college and/or his expensive hobbies, such as shooting, hunting, and so on. Ladies would be more likely to include a picture of an adored dog or cat. Other harmless bits of ‘show off’ in the house plates of successful entrepreneurs might be the casual inclusion of a piece of classical sculpture or a mostly unread library. As we look at them today, bookplates such as these, can tell much about the lifestyle and the foibles of the owners as well as about their houses.
In Britain many of the ‘stately homes’ have survived as museums of some kind, but on the continent of Europe, many were destroyed in the two world wars or, as in Britain, converted into hotels, etc. However, smaller homes have mostly survived still, fortunately, as family homes. Thatched roofs now attract large insurance premiums, but the proud owners pay willingly in the comfortable knowledge that their beautiful, warm, thatched homes are increasingly greatly in value year by year. Similarly, stone houses, once unpopular as being thought cold and draughty, are now comfortable at all seasons with air conditioning, under-floor heating, etc. so that small terrace houses and country cottages are being upgraded or ‘gentrified’ as we say in colloquial English with elegant ensuite bathrooms and neat kitchens, winkled into small areas of waste space, while the house exteriors retain all their period charm. The fashion for illustrating one’s home, library, study, or garden in a bookplate has, for the time at least, rather died out. It seems that most collectors find more pleasure in plates showing lovely women. But women, I feel sure, if they choose new bookplates, will not opt for pictures of handsome men, but will choose rather images of smart kitchens, cosy living rooms and elegant homes.
Sunday, October 18, 2009
(Reprinted with permission from “Bark”, Summer ’04)
In the 16th century, hounds, whippets and books were the SUVs and diamonds of European nobility – these most visible badges of affluence, prized by owners, are now esteemed by collectors the world over for their identifying tags and labels.
Safeguarding and identifying such cherished possessions as a hound or a Bible in the Middle Ages crated a new métier for artists and artisan. The need for a metal collar or a customized bookplate became occasion to decorate and adorn. Thus, a miniature art from emerged. A coat of arms might embellish a metal collar or become the ornamentation on a newly acquired manuscript.
While countless tapestries show the ornate wide collars of the hounds, the 550-year-old history of the emblem of identification known as the ex libris, or bookplate, is less well-known.
Primarily a European phenomenon, bookplates evolved from coats of arms to become far more illustrative labels. Usually placed on the inside front cover of a book, the words ex libris (meaning “from the books of …”) would be printed or scripted, followed by the owner’s name or signature along with a design or image – together forming a kind of monogram, or a literary tattoo. Within a framework of several inches, these delightful, expressive paper rectangles often told a story or held a secret. And in every period of plate making, one can find canine images. Pedigreed patricians, humorous mongrels and specific pets are all represented.
No wonder the canine image has been chosen by so many booklovers for their plates – the dog is almost universally symbolic of protection, fidelity and duty, as well as companionship. Well-know bookplate designer and collector Edward Gordon Craig observed, “A bookplate is to a book what a collar is to a dog.” People who cherish both books and dogs are reluctant to part with either without promise of safe return.
While artistic value of bookplates had long been appreciated, it was not until just over a hundred years ago that plates moved from functional private ownership into the hands of collectors.
Today, societies of collectors exist in more than 50 countries, and Internet correspondence makes collecting easy. Most plates, including historic ones, can be purchased for under $10, making them a very affordable collectible. Distant friendships grow as one expands a collection, or focuses on a type, a theme or a breed.
Artists are still creating these miniature works of art. Methods of etching, woodblock and silkscreen are popular, along with traditional printing techniques and even computer-assisted creation.
A commissioned plate in a limited edition signed by the artist may fetch several hundred dollars. Plates not used in a personal library can be traded to launch a collection.
Designing one’s own ex libris – or “Ex Webis” for Internet junkies – is also possible. The designing of a plate can involve a wonderful collaboration with an artist. (this booklover’s bonus has not been lost on the past few centuries’ weather folk, who’ve commissioned designs from artists and engravers such as Albrecht Dürer, Marc Chagall and Kate Greenaway). The unique result is often a memorial to a special pet or a celebration of the dog in one’s life – Call of the Wild author Jack London used a picture of a wolf on his bookplate. But whatever one’s interest, the bookplate aficionado will be warmly welcomed into this growing collecting specialty.
Wednesday, October 7, 2009
The Metaphysical World of Alexander Aksinin in Ex Libris
When I started collecting bookplates a couple of years ago, I was fortunate to make the acquaintance of Nadia Kovalenko, the director of Kharkiv’s bookplate society in Ukraine. After several months of correspondence, she sent me a letter along with the copy of one ex libris of a gifted artist. She said: “… three years ago I discovered the bookplates of Alexander Aksinin. I am sending you one of these bookplates. At the time I thought that this artist is a genius but, unfortunately, I couldn’t find anybody who knew anything more about the artist, except for Nikolai Molochinskiy, Kharkiv’s graphic artist from our ex libris society. He told me that Aksinin is from Lviv, Ukraine, and that he died in a car or plane accident in 1985. And that was all the information I could unearth. Later, I realized that Aksinin had occupied a very special place in my mind.” Nadia asked for my opinion of the ex libris she sent. Here is my attempt to decipher the content of his work.
It is an interesting ex libris, inviting us to interpret its meaning. The technique is superb and the content is even more fascinating. It seems that even from the words “Memorial Ex Libris… one could assume that the work was done for a special occasion such as an anniversary, most like a marriage. This assumption appears to be reinforced by the fortress or house in the form of a cone, symbolizing the family and the red stripes can represent the bond of the couple. As for the apple and pear, I don’t have any particular idea; however, in the aforementioned context the half-eaten apple might symbolize 50 years of married life (associating the apple with Adam and Eve). As for the other fruit, a pear without an apple was always associated with the male’s genitals, although I am not sure how to link it to this particular image. From the look of these two creatures, one could guess that the owners of the bookplate prefer the science fiction titles in their library. The most ambiguous element of this work is the cone. Usually this is associated with the tower of Babel, but in this case the cone appears upside down.
Soon thereafter, Nadia Kovalenko referred me to the excellent article written by Viktor Rivaling, published in the Toronto Slavic Quarterly web journal. There I learned that “Alexander Aksinin (1949-1985) was a graphic artist specializing in engravings. He was killed in an airplane crash while en route to the opening of an exhibition of his works in Tallinn. V. Rivulet’s article was first published in the journal Chasy, no. 36 (1982); portions of it also appeared in K. Kaminski’s Antologgia Globoid lagoon.”
In his article, Victor introduces the reader to one of his won bookplates made by A. Aksinin. I have this bookplate in my collection as well. Here is what the author of the article writes in regards to the work:
“On one of the walls of my apartment hangs a bookplate by Aksinin. There is a strange creature, a semi animal or semi human formed by triangles in the center of an ellipse surrounded by a geometrical ornament on the perimeter at the edge of the figure. It renders a
beautiful and irregular pattern. A friend, who is a specialist on Eastern poetry, visited me one day and pointed out on the bookplate. “Oh, you have ‘Leila and Medgun’ here in the picture”. This is a well known story in the Far East about love, death, dignity and the victory of human passion. This work is unique because it recreates the old traditions in art where the story is told by means of graphics. And most of the Aksinin’s works contain a complete story.”
Further investigation led to the discovery of the 2001 issue of the art magazine “Galitskaya Brama” printed by the Center of Europe Press, dedicated entirely to the artist. From there I learned that during his short life Aksinin created around 300 graphic works, mostly executed on etchings and copper engravings. His portfolio contains illustrations of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland (1976-77) and Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1977-78). He also worked on The Book of Changes or I Ching, based on Chinese ancient philosophy (1984-85); a series of etchings dedicated to the Netherlands’s artist Hieronymus Bosch (1977-78); Signs of the Zodiac (1979); Sounds (1980); Months (1980); Words (1980-81); Mail of Alexander Aksinin (1983-85) and bookplates for relatives, friends and numerous acquaintances.
One of the themes that interested me the most was I Ching or the Book of Changes. The oracles in ancient times used this book to predict the future and this text became a source of wisdom and provided a foundation for Confucian philosophy.
I think that Alexander Aksinin and his graphic work contributed to the interpretation of such complex works. Here we have an example of one of the artist’s prints dedicated to the Book of Changes , translated from Chinese by Richard Wilhelm.
“This hexagram is number 52. The image of this hexagram is the mountain, the youngest son of heaven and earth. It calls for peace and tranquility. When a man has become calm, he may turn to the outside world. He no longer sees in it struggle of individual beings, and therefore he has the true peace of mind which is needed for understanding the great laws of the universe and for acting in harmony with them. Possibly the words of the text embody directions for the practice of yoga.”
It would be unfair not to mention the influence of such artists as Bosch and Bruegel to Aksinin’s work given that there is an entire series called “Boschiniana”. Moreover, his work “Tower of Babel Will be Built” was executed reminiscing Bruegel’s “Tower of Babel”. There are some symbols used in his illustrations frequently found in these two great masters as well.
One of these metaphorical symbols is a fruit, associated with carnal, physical pleasure. Borrowing some of this secret language, Aksinin created his own metaphysical world. Here is presented a bookplate of my collection illustrating an example of his utilization of these symbols.
The combination of fruits and fish, the depiction of a phantasmagoric creature sitting on the magnifying glass, and the extraterrestrial landscape are all reminiscent of the Netherlands’s masters. It is as if Aksinin is telling us with some irony, “I have done my part, now it is your turn to solve this puzzle.” The fine detail of his prints impresses me as much as the figurative content of the work.
Recently I acquired the artist’s personal bookplate from an estate sale on EBay. As always with Aksinin’s prints, I could not grasp the meaning of the work at first glance, but it had a hypnotic effect on me. Looking at the etching, it seemed to me that I was witnessing the end of the human race. Then I asked my wife for her opinion and her impression was the creation of the world. It was surprising to me to note such different perceptions of the same piece.
I looked closely at this print and recognized the seashells in the suspended objects. The seashell is a symbol of the beginning and end; its duality is masterfully realized in this work. The creation of the world, the birth of souls and at the same time the ascending of souls, describing the end of existence on earth.
The process of perception in the work can be broken into the following elements: a) first impression, I had an impression of cosmic transformation; b) associations, creation of the universe or the world and the illusion of souls leaving the earth; c) information sent by the image, symbols, codes, such as the seashell symbolizing duality; d) self reflection or analysis, reasons behind my perception of the destruction of the world, while my wife thought of its creation; e) how this particular piece relates to the artist, his philosophical preferences, biography, etc., f) and finally, but the most important element for a bookplate collector, is how the ex libris is a reflection of its owner and library.
Many of the owners of Alexander Aksinin’s bookplates have never commissioned ex libris the way most collectors do. Alexander’s friends were simply given the prints as gifts without any real input into the design. That is why is so difficult to determine the link between the bookplate’s owner and the artist. I am confident that in the future there will be plenty of research on the graphic art of Alexander Aksinin, the artist who raised bookplate art to the level of Bruegel and Bosch.