Tuesday, 21 September 2010

Reflections on Words Festival: Illustrated Books

Rose Tremain: Wildtrack and Other Stories, illustrated by Jeff Fisher

The very first event, in fact a prestigious one, complete with the publishers Liz C and John C and Genevieve and Louis and including artists Maggi Hambling, David Gentleman, Derrick Greaves and Ron King. This isn't about the occasion but about the nature of what was being exhibited.

The idea of the illustrated book is ancient. Pictures, icons, simple signs, can be read before words, as the ages before general literacy well knew. The pictures had a verbal equivalent, in that there was an important text to which they referred, but the text itself was missing, supplied instead, orally, by the priest. Religious texts in the European Christian tradition had, in this way, to be embodied in images, but the unseen text was vital, in fact determining. Christ was to be shown with particular attributes in particular events in a particular way, for instance - as did the apostles. The first thing was simply to show the image, not even an event, because the potency of the image depended on the conjuration of the figure watching the 'viewer' rather than the other way around. Icons work like that. The events in the lives of icons were secondary and rather difficult to produce from a theological point of view since the the position of the viewer as witness suggested a degree of independence, even control for the viewer. The viewer as detached spectator is rather different from the viewer as the viewed.

The idea of illustrating books as an enrichment, or indeed an entertainment, is not entirely religious and depends on a reasonable committed readership. The illustrations and marginalia of early Christian books are extra layers of interpretation whose canonic significance was variable. For the very rich who could afford hand illuminated books, such as the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, the most famous Book of Hours (meaning prayers and festivals) the gorgeous illustrations were a pious indulgence.

The illuminations took on their own life, as was the case with Christian imagery generally. The rich could afford both the indulgence of art and the indulgences granted by the Church for sins committed. The question of beauty as a value independent of faith becomes ever more important. There was, in the Counter Reformation, the case of Paolo Veronese who was accused of filling his vast painting of The Feast in The House of Levi with blasphemies and frivolities.


Meanwhile the poor and the illiterate had their chapbooks and broadsides, their popular prints, and later their illustrated magazines. The history of the illustrated book moves from the vigorous and crude to the highly sophisticated and aesthetic. In the early Twentieth Century many major artists - Picasso, Manet, Degas, Bonnard - have produced illustrations for books of poems by the leading poets of the time. Before them Gustave Doré illustrated Dante and Coleridge, and so forth.

It is the balance between text and image that has been the chief theoretical concern in the Twentieth Century. Is the artist's job to visualise passages of text as written, so the reader can see the precise relation of one to the other, or is it to produce a more independent response, in which the text serves as starting point, not terminus?

The Burning of the Books, George Szirtes and Ronald King

Artists' books have occupied this territory and Full Circle's list of published books take up various positions in it. Full Circle - Genevieve Christie, John Christie, Liz Calder and Luis Baum as in the picture - so there were the pastoral water colours of David Gentleman, to George Ewart Evans...

the near abstractions of Derrick Greaves to Richard Mabey's The Barley Bird...

and the photographic record of Maggi Hambling's struggles to construct, then establish, The Aldeburgh Scallop...


Do beautiful books need justification? Is the pleasure of such books a form of decadent hedonism? Surely not. Artists and writers must work and the making of fine illustrated books at a cheap price is the continuing of an important tradition. Everyone likes books with pictures. The question might be whether the provision of art with text that may be complete in itself is superfluous - or indeed the converse. Do visual images need words at all?

Not in the sense that they fully illustrate each other, that is if perfect illustration exists at all. But then do texts require books as such? If they do - and we (meaning I) like them that way - then the page is a good place for art and text to meet in various forms of dance, in various forms of mirroring and understanding.

Are they perhaps too comfortable with each other? Too mutually reassuring? Depends on the artist and the writer, one might reply. But there is in the best words-and-picture books a kind of low electric hum that generates ideas and sensations. Do words and images need each other then? O reason not the need! Our basest beggars / Are in the poorest things superfluous. Neither art nor words are superfluous except in the most basic basest beggar sense. Superfluity, in that sense, is life itself.


Next year perhaps more of art and text, as someone else sees it, from the high modern to the most familiar.

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