Under Cover

Yesterday I was lucky enough to pay a visit to the Newberry Library. I only hope that for those of you outside of Chicago you are able to see such treasures in your lifetime. I never took advantage of the NYC Public Library the way I should have, considering the depth of their collection. In a few weeks I will traveling to England for a short trip — I am definitely going to make time for the British Library, and I will share my discoveries with all of you. The Newberry really is a bibliophiles’ paradise — if you want to see, for example, one of the earliest accurate works of anatomy, De Humani Corporis Fabrica by Andreas Vesalius, you just have to ask. Or how about the Sangorski and Sutcliffe binding of John Milton’s Paradise Lost, c. 1900?

from the Newberry website

This image does no justice to their ridiculously ornate snakeskin and semi-precious stone binding, nor does it show you the peacock on the back cover, or even the beautifully marbled interior leaves…

If only I could be an eighteenth century scrivener, toiling away with my quill pen on handmade papers at my escritoire, drinking some armagnac for inspiration. Of course, in all likelihood, I may have wound up as a 14th century amanuensis to someone as …um, conflicted as Margery Kempe, forced to spend my time avoiding accusations of Lollardry. (Margery’s visions of Jesus scare me, but in many ways she’s like a 14th century version of Mary Jane Hooper’s Harper Valley P.T.A., if you know what I’m talking about.)

I’ve always had a fascination with amanuenses, actually; the idea of devoting oneself to transcribing another’s account of their life is unusual business. There’s the selfless aspect of it, the continual flexibility it requires in planning for yourself, plus the fly-on-the-wall voyeurism of following another person around for possibly years, so deeply invested you would have to be to accurately represent the whole person. You may not think you’ve read the work of an amanuensis; I would argue that The Autobiography of Malcolm X is a modern version of the form, but I digress.

So my visit to the Newberry was very inspiring; I am working on a longer post that will detail methods of book binding, but I am far away from completing that anytime soon. In the meantime, I thought I would offer a few links, as well as a gallery of some of my favorite art deco book bindings ever.

First off, if you have never heard of Boekie Wokie book store in Amsterdam, then I implore you to check out their shop. They are an artist-run bookstore for books by artists, and this is a 360° panoramic shot of the shop. All kinds of hand-bound, stitched, glued, scrapbooked, letterpressed, spiral bound, appliquéd, and burnished books are there for your perusal. Like this copy of Mrs Dead and Mrs Free by Evren Tekinoktay:


If you’ve never beheld a book drawn from a wild range of found source materials such as ballerinas, toilet paper, sofas and printed fabrics then you just ain’t livin’.

Then there is Max Ernst, whose work continues to put me in a sublime state of awe. I recently came across a wonderful little blog post about him that I wanted to share with my readers. It’s a little older, from 2004, and it does say “Not to be introduced into the British Empire or the U.S.A.” so please, be quiet and respectful when visiting his site. I really don’t know how seriously to take that little caveat. It reminds me of one of my favorite ever warnings, courtesy Loompanics Unlimited, circa 1990: “If you are a prisoner or a Canadian, please check with local authorities before ordering any books.”

(And curses, but I discovered the Ernst post just a little too late! The most recent post on Giornale Nuovo was for a book giveaway, featuring some jaw-droppingly exquisite little volumes. Hopefully I catch number eleven! Thank you Giornale Nuovo for making the Internet that much more delightful and mysterious.)

Finally, here is the mini gallery of Art Deco book covers, which are just too wonderful to hide any longer:

Paul Bonet / Joan of Arc 1925 Paris


Pierre Legrain / Song of Songs 1925 Paris


Pierre Legrain / Quelques fables de la Fontaine 1928 Paris


Pierre Legrain / Lediadé me de Flore 1925 Paris


Rose Adler / The Back of the Music Hall 1925 Paris


Geneviéve de Léotard / Vers et Prose 1928 Paris


And happy 100th to Robert A. Heinlein, who passed on in 1988 but for whom a grassroots campaign is working to name a US Navy DDC Destroyer 1001, Zumwalt class, in honor of him.


5 Responses to Under Cover

  1. PaK says:

    First off, your sign says you are open 24 hours, but I came by at 3:07 in the morning and no one answered the door. The lights were on, but I couldn’t see anyone through the window, and at 3:21 I finally gave up and left. You need to keep better track of your overnight bloggums and make sure they’re not sleeping or sneaking out on the job.

    Second, although Max Ernst’s work is artistically marvelous, the works represented in the Giornale Nuovo post are discomfiting. Why 100 headless women? That’s almost . . . aggressive. And, although the post refers to Schneede as citing Ernst’s “exposure of repressed middle-class notions about sex,” it’s hard not to notice that it’s the women who are naked and/or dismembered, while the men are fully dressed, intact, and the actors in the various scenes. Is that really exposing a particular set of issues with sexuality? Or is it just reproducing them, albeit in a more scandalous and direct way than usual?

    I know, I know, I read the bit about how he’s acting out his “private obsessions” and thinking about Freudian themes. I just can’t help but suspect that a woman who made brilliant art featuring naked men and their detached limbs, or something called “100 Headless Men,” would be perceived as having some pretty heavy gender issues – dare I say problems? – and her art would obviously be “women’s art.” But you don’t (well, I don’t at least) hear Ernst’s work referred to as “men’s art.” It’s just art, right? Kind of like that whole Thelma and Louise thing.

    Am I totally off here?

  2. Vaucanson's Duck says:

    Thanks for coming by again, PaK, and sorry I wasn’t in the other night. My assistants are a batallion of monkeys, they can’t be counted on for anything.

    As for Ernst’s misogyny, or more kindly, his production of “men’s art,” it is definitely a prevalent concern, as it was with almost every male dadaist. In a 1993 article by Johanna Drucker, she cites art critics at large who discuss Ernst’s engagement with personal memory, dreams, trauma and experience, before she states that ” the thematic substance of Ernst’s collages is frequently misogynist (in the usual cut-up, bound, and fragmented female body form so familiar in Surrealist aesthetics), while in other images his work investigates both sexual identity and gender politics.” This is definitely true of his collages (though not so much of his paintings or other work) but I feel like there is something else to them. Male artists historically are given a golden pass to be ugly and hateful, in particular toward women, and it bothers me as much as it does you…and let’s be honest, the surrealists were as much a boys club as were the beats in the fifties. So why do I like Ernst so much?

    Johanna goes on to say later in her article that “Ernst’s aesthetic inventiveness and originality produced a group of collages and collage inspired paintings with a disturbing dream-world credibility. That world asserts the quality of timelessness, the unto-itself life of the psyche but it is, in fact, highly linked to the historical moment in which it was itself produced as a concept.” This is the crux of it for me, what defines his work and that of people like Winston Smith (who designed many Dead Kennedys album covers among many other great works). Ernst very consciously would mirror the temperament of his time and make it grotesque or just more extreme. Yes, he sought to shock, but I don’t think in a cheap way.

    He painted and collaged the way Jorge Luis Borges wrote, using gnostic imagery and with a deeply personal mystical symbolism. His collages were usually set in places heavily invested with status and authority, or high-society. Heavy drapes, four poster beds, chandeliers and so on. Often the collages feature duels, fights, chases, disfigurement, or overwhelming natural disasters. Lions and Easter-Island headed men act out violently. To me they represent both his personal issues writ large, as you suggest in your comment, exposing his own issues (for example, he identified himself with birds, which feature prominently in his work, and they are often agents of death); they also make explicit a disgust with authority in Europe generally, and in his native Germany and adopted home Paris. I like his work in the same way I like Cindy Sherman’s work, who is just as deeply invested in artistically working though her personal and societal issues. Both of them are disturbing, yes, but I feel like what they expose needs to be said, and loudly. (I am thinking also of Magritte’s The Rape, and of the modern artist whose name escapes me right now, the woman who “reveals” the original paintings that are underneath classic works, exposing the underlying misogyny of each work…aargh, what’s her name?)

    I hope this makes sense. I am not trying to make excuses for Ernst, nor do I feel it fair that he was generally able to produce his work as an Artist rather than as a “male artist.” Saying that though is me imposing my perspective today on a period which I did not live through, and for which this perspective did not apply. I feel that no artist can really communicate without context, no matter how much we want to believe in art as a universal language. I also don’t believe in pigeonholing anyone, be it by race, gender or belief; understanding where they each come from, however, is extremely valuable.

  3. PaK says:

    The artist you’re referring to is Kathleen Gilje I don’t know how to attach images to a comment, but look here:

    As usual, your reply is well thought out and researched, but I don’t know what to say. I’m just not sure what you’re getting at. I mean, yes, obviously he was artistically brilliant. But so are a lot of artists who don’t replicate age-old themes of weird woman-focused rage and fear. And comparing him to Sherman doesn’t work for me – she’s a woman responding/ reacting to depictions of women. You refer to both artists as exposing something – but there’s such a fine line between critiquing something and just replicating it (see also: South Park). I don’t know where Ernst meant to fall, but I know where it looks like he landed.

  4. You have in this site an image of a 1925 Legrain binding of a text which you identify as Antique of Antiques. Have a closer look at the image, and you will notice that the correct title is Le Cantique des Cantiques.
    It would appear that you have lifted the image, and the error, from some other site, and have not corrected that error in spite of the evidence of your own eyes.
    Really, young persons these days….

    • Vaucanson's Duck says:

      Thank you for your visit, and especially for your observation. I have corrected the title to say Song of Songs. I appreciate your suggestion that I am young, though I will have to chalk this error up to haste, instead…

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