Presentation over Content

By Lambirth, Andrew | The Spectator, May 17, 2008 | Go to article overview

Presentation over Content


Lambirth, Andrew, The Spectator


The partnership between the written word and the visual image has a long and distinguished history. Leaving aside the pictographic tradition and the fertile area of calligraphy, the first artists' books must date from the modern period when artists began to grow ever more independent and self-confident. Although it could never be said that Leonardo or Piero della Francesca lacked self-confidence, it should be remembered that they functioned within a culture which recognised the position of artists primarily as craftsmen who were employed to fulfil a need -- mostly in the domain of religious imagery, and increasingly in that of secular portraiture. Artists were not then paid to indulge themselves in orgies of self-expression. There was a Madonna to be painted or a rich patron to be portrayed. If artists wrote books, they tended to be quasi-scientific investigations of optics or mathematics or anatomy. They were not journals of personal achievement or thoughts about Life.

Of course, there was the separate category of the illustrated book, and hand-painted manuscripts had become precious and much-sought-after during the Middle Ages.

The Gothic Books of Hours were perhaps the apogee of this art form, and we know that some painters (such as Mantegna and Botticelli) also dabbled in this form of illumination, though it was largely replaced in the 16th century by the new processes of mechanical printing which could replicate images via woodcut or engraving.

These sorts of illustration were the forefathers of today's illustrated books -- an artist responding to a text by someone else, often poetry or fiction. These days there are few artists who successfully combine illustration and fine art -- Peter Blake is a prime example, with such distinguished talents as Leonard Rosoman and the late John Ward working as devotedly in both disciplines though with less public profile -- while most books that require illustrations are the province of graphic designers or professional illustrators.

The illustrated book has occasionally been a focus for some of Europe's greatest artists, particularly the French, as witnessed by the 'livre d'artiste' tradition. In these collaborations, an enterprising publisher would bring together an artist who liked literature with a piece of writing susceptible to visual interpretation, and hope for the best.

Some remarkable works of art have resulted. But there have always been those artists who didn't want their work tied to anyone else's words, and either made a book solely of images, or else wrote the words themselves. (The unsullied purity of the idea or the ultimate self-indulgence? ) From there it was but a step to the contemporary artist's book, in which the form of the book itself has been brought into question, and books are made from bricks or plastic or fur or matches, or whatever takes your fancy (if you're an artist, or rather a book-artist). In the artistic free-for-all that exists today, the book has become just another object, a form of sculpture, that only occasionally resorts to employing text.

I think that's a pity, since I am a writer who loves both art and books, and who takes delight in the discovery of a new combination of text and image that has the power to move me. I love innovation, but I am enough of a traditionalist to prefer the use of paper and some form of practical container (if not a standard binding) to keep the book together. I have worked with a couple of artists to make such books (my texts, their images), and copies of these publications are now in public collections such as the Tate and the V&A libraries. …

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