Features | February 01, 2018
Ex Libris: From Books to Art
In the summer of 1924, while completing The Great Gatsby on the French Riviera, F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote to his Scribner’s editor Maxwell Perkins, “For Christ’s sake don’t give anyone that [book] jacket you’re saving for me.” Fitzgerald went on to tell him that he had already “written it” into his novel. Perkins dashed off a mollifying reply: “There isn’t the slightest risk of giving it to anyone in the world but you.” The dust-jacket art featured Spanish painter Francis Cugat’s iconic image of a woman’s face with cherry lips and kohl-rimmed eyes set against a deep blue night sky.
Some critics believe that Cugat’s dust-jacket art inspired Fitzgerald’s depiction of the billboard of Dr. Eckleburg’s bespectacled eyes peering over the valley of ashes, while others argue that Cugat’s reading of an early draft of Gatsby served as a source of inspiration for the flapper-like visage that looms over an amusement park aglow with warm yellow light. Whether accidental or intended, the collaboration yielded one of the most prominent literary symbols in American literature—an ominous figure keeping vigil over the folly of humanity.
Cugat’s haunting artwork, which fetched him a hundred-dollar fee, has become the most valuable dust jacket on any modern American novel. A first printing with the cover in mint condition sold in 2009 for $180,000. More importantly, Gatsby’s illustrious book cover provides an example of the magic that happens when art and literature are perfectly united.
There are plenty of unforgettable book covers that employ images inextricably linked to the novels—Salinger’s stylized carousel horse, Plath’s ill-omened black rose, and Woolf’s diffuse lighthouse—making it difficult to imagine a time before their existence in publishing.
The early nineteenth century was the golden era of book bindings. Buyers purchased unbound pages of a text and then selected an ornate binding of their choice. Additional outer coverings consisted of either brown paper wrapping meant to be discarded or paper boxes constructed of pasteboard kept on the book for protection. Eventually publishers began to print text on the coverings to identify the content. This typically took the form of pasting printed paper sheets onto the front and back pasteboards. The notion was to keep the books clean and unadorned until the owners chose to remove the outer coverings and display the elaborately crafted bindings on their library shelves.
By the 1870s, dust jackets meant to stay on books were in use, though they typically repeated the front cloth cover’s minimal text—title and author. The back of the book might feature a brief summary of the book’s content or a few promotional blurbs. Cover pictures were reserved for specialty gift books and children’s stories.
Early in the twentieth century, as the golden age of bookbinding ended, book coverings became more decorative and informative, while bindings were unadorned and a single color. As the book trade before World War I became increasingly competitive, American and British publishers learned that a fetching cover design hinting at the content inside helped sell the book. They also used book synopses and author biographies to target specific readerships. This once-disposable item was now becoming an essential element of advertising and marketing publishers’ products.
By the 1920s, though still in limited use, dust jackets employed a modernist look in art and typography. The cover images ranged from stark minimalism, bold patterns, and color blocks to intricate details in geometric and cubist designs, as artists sought to extend the ideas of modernity, speed, progress, and change.
As the study of salesmanship developed, branding became a mainstay of commerce; generic labels for food, clothing, medicine, and household products were replaced with text and imagery that denoted a specific company. Publishers learned from this practice. Not only could they establish a brand, but they could also make different genres of books and make their publishing houses more recognizable to the consumer.
German publishing house Albatross Books, makers of the first modern mass-market paperback, branded their imprint through standardized book size, a recognizable logo, a unique font, and color-coding books according to genre. Albatross’s innovations inspired Allen Lane of Penguin Books. Since 1935, the books in Penguin’s series of cheap paperback reprints have been immediately recognizable by the standardized typeface and charming logo, a simple black-and-white illustration of a king penguin.
With the proliferation of art schools in the ’30s and ’40s, visual artists needed to make a living. Book-cover art offered a commercial outlet for struggling and established artists trying to survive in sluggish economies, ultimately blurring the line between fine and applied art and establishing a solid link between art and book.
The artists presented here celebrate the relationship between books and art in different ways. They highlight the important role artists can play in the evolution and future of the book as they encourage us to think about the value of the physical object by dismantling, reshaping, and reassembling pages, bindings, and covers to create distinctive forms.
Bothered by the ways digital media had begun to undermine the history and future of books, Chicagoan Brian Dettmer turned to books as materials for his art. In 2001, intrigued by the visual texture, content, and meaning of books, he began carving out pages and reshaping them to make intricate sculptural forms, as well as reassembling images found in the text to create mesmerizing scenes. Set within the shelled-out frames of the books’ bindings, in Charlotte Life or Theater? and Four Fabulous Faces, he creates montages of faces and eyes. Like Joseph Cornell, he evokes the fragmentary, imagistic quality of dreams. He celebrates the book by using it as a structural framework for visions of history, cartography, and cultural artifacts. In Knowledge in Depth the fanned-out cover and pages serve as the work’s base, while in You Know What You Should Do he cuts away segments of the tooled leather binding to reveal a glimpse of what is inside. Instead of fearing the death of the book, Dettmer believes that the proliferation of media technologies frees the form “to become something completely different, whether it’s through literature or through the way I’m handling it as sculpture.”
Like Dettmer’s, Nick Georgiou’s book art is inspired by his concern that books and newspapers are becoming relics. He addresses his fear that the printed word is being left behind by challenging us to rethink this practice of over-relying on technology. At first glance, viewers are not sure what his art is made of. But close inspection reveals the inventive, skillful reshaping of books. By rolling, bending, and curling newsprint and books with varying widths and lengths, he achieves a primitive painterly quality in works. The repurposed books take on a new life as tribal masks, portraits of women and couples, animals and still lives and ask us to reconsider their previous form. In Georgiou’s world, books are everywhere, decorating and redesigning the landscape. “It is an artist’s job to break through to another reality,” he asserts. Or to remind us of an older, more useful one.
Canadian artist Cara Barer’s particular fondness for reference books led her to worry about their obsolescence. While she embraces technology, she fears we are relying less and less on physical texts. She deals with her concerns about the fragile, ephemeral nature of books by transforming them into objects of beauty. One of her techniques is to soak a book in the bathtub, dye it, and then mold, reshape and sculpt the material into an organic-looking form. Wildflowers 2 unfurls its faded, pastel-colored pages in a pinwheel of motion; the waxed pages of Hurly Burly stand straight up, while others are stacked in layers of heavy, coarse curls.
British artist Su Blackwell is known for her delicate three-dimensional dioramas of scenes from folklore and fairy tales. She scans a book’s title, sentences, and paragraphs for inspiration for her intricate book sculptures that seem to spring up naturally from their open pages. She creates enchanting paper tableaux of storybook worlds filled with stately manor houses, wildflower gardens, bird aviaries, steam trains, and snow-frosted forests.
As a child in Michigan, artist Thomas Allen loved pop-up books. In college he started cutting up paperbacks and reassembling them. His work slowly evolved into dramatic 3-D scenes that spring from the pages of old pulp novels. In his dioramas, Allen plays stage director to a cast of characters—cowboys, gangsters, detectives, and femme fatales—who act out their lurid dramas. His new narratives, portrayed with wit and high drama, are set against the backdrop of the world of crime, betrayal and other noir themes. They pay tribute to the realistic paintings of pulp-novel covers that were phased out by publishers in the 1970s in favor of more stylized, less playful images.
Danish artist Peter Callesen creates white paper-cut sculptures of delicate birds’ wings, wilted flowers, caged angels and other images of frailty that either leap from the open pages of a text, fall from the edges of a shadowbox frame, or cascade over the sides of a pedestal. In No Title, Too Many Words, handwritten sentences explode from the fanned pages of an open text. Public Library Bus, commissioned by the Danish Art Council in 2012, is Callesen’s homage to books and reading. The vehicle, decorated with the images of over 500 brightly colored, shelved books, functions as a mobile library, visiting townships too small to have one of their own. The whimsical nature of Public Library Bus and the titles visible on the books spines attract the next generation of book readers.
After a thousand years as the world’s most important form of written record, books are part of the texture of our lives, making it easy to take their existence for granted. While some bibliophiles speak of the uncertain future of physical books, others argue that nothing will replace the clean smell of paper, the cracking sound of opening a new binding, the smooth feel of fine paper, and the sight of a beautiful font—an overall sensory experience that cannot be replicated digitally. These artists ask us to pause and consider the way books and art, and, books as art, enliven our existence.
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