Blog Post 5 – Futurists and Fluxus

Looking back in our class, I think Les mots en liberté futuristes (1919) and Fluxus 1 (1964/65) represent many of the changes that occur through the 1900s in the book world. Les mots focuses more on typographical changes, and has some innovations in page design and reader interaction, while Fluxus takes full advantage of page design and the outside world.

Les mots, featuring text and graphics by F.T. Marinetti, takes advantage of cheap material and binding in order to reach a larger audience. It begins innocently enough, like any other mass-market book. Gradually, however, its design changes – font types shift throughout the text, and it grows larger and smaller. Eventually, words jut and slide around the page, until the text launches into Futurist poetry that stretches beyond the normal boundaries of a page. The typographic arrangement and the use of onomatopoeia create a cacophony made to awaken the common people and break the status quo in order to begin anew.

Ultimately, however, what has endured and influenced future works is the innovative typography. It has influenced much of popular culture after World War I, such as in advertising, and many artists and art movements, such as Pop Art and Bauhaus, seem to have taken inspiration from the unique design of text. George Macinaus, the ringleader of the Fluxus movement, is one of these artists (though he may not have been directly inspired by Futurism). His typography unites the diverse works that Macinaus compiled and published in Fluxus 1 (1964/65), which is a cacophony of a different sort, and further innovates the structural ideas found in Les mots.

Where Les mots expanded the page by having the reader unfold them, Fluxus works to make the outside world a part of its story. The reader is invited to pack and unpack the numerous envelops in the book, pulling out different objects that represent exhibits and performances by Fluxus artists (who all worked in different ideological schools and movements). One envelope has a paper airplane, while another has some messy napkins.

But what really draws in the outside world comes near the end, with a musical opus of silence. The pianist is asked to sit at the piano, “play” each piece with the page and not from memory, and to turn the pages. The trick here is that the musical piece isn’t about the melodies – it’s about the sounds outside of the music. It’s about the ambient noise that we don’t always pay attention to. In this playful way, Fluxus 1 incorporates the reader and the space outside of the book beyond just turning the page.

Futurism and Fluxus are similar in some regards – they both share a mistrust of the concept of “high art,” and focus on changing everyday reality into something else. Futurism wanted a complete societal change by destroying the institutions around them and embracing the future, and distorted ordinary words into something unrecognizable at the time. Fluxus, on the other hand, didn’t have such grand aspirations; it’s more comparable to Dada, but with a much more tongue-in-cheek, almost innocent nihilism. Rather than destroying reality, Fluxus just brings it on the level of art.

So yeah, I think they’re pretty cool books!

1c Life and Ein Gedicht fur ein Buch

I can’t speak for all the books in these sets, but I’d like to focus on 1c Life and Ein Gedicht fur ein Buch as examples of Livres d’Artiste that are both artistic and intellectual. The design and structure of the livres work with their contents to enhance the purpose of the book, and make for a more meaningful experience than just having the illustrations or poetry stand alone.

For 1c Life, a collaboration of poetry by Walasse Ting and with lithographs by many Pop artists, the book captures the zeitgeist of the 1940-50s. The specific choice of Pop Art over other art styles (like say, realism) indicate that the purpose of the book might have been – like the rest of the Pop Art movement, as Mamiya observes – to criticize the broader culture of America at the time.

This is especially apparent in one of the earlier poems (the title of which I can’t remember) which is about the devastation of the atomic bomb, engulfed by an image of lynchings. Another poem, “Around the U.S.A.” depicts an image of an idealized comic book blonde and a finger on the button of a spray can hovering over a poem that at one point says regarding women, “You will never be angry crying mad/It is great to live/with artificial flowers.”



Certainly, the images don’t literally match the poems, but they offer an interpretation of the text that makes the reader consider the poem in context of culture. Perhaps the reader may think about the media’s idealized images versus the darker reality, or the way the dominant culture prefers to overlook the horrors it has caused through lynchings and bombings. Thus, the images help to enhance the poem’s message.

A similar effect applies to Ein Gedicht, where it further uses the structure and material of the book itself to strengthen the message. The poem by Yoko Tawada is scattered across pages with black and white photography by Stephan Kohler, all printed on very thin pages. This leads to the shadows of images blending with each other, and the words themselves become thin and transient. I get the impression that the poem is discussing loss and the brief nature of life, and while I can’t find a full translation of the poem, there’s one passage from it that supports this interpretation: “one hears without ears/a word/freed from its duty … the drum falls/noiselessly.” The book has a very simple message, and is not overproduced, as Zweig fears. The effects of the images changing and melding together as the pages are turned help the poem deliver its theme.


Book Set 4: Illustrations and Text in the Livres d’Artiste

(for whatever reason, I’m having problems putting up images; I’ll figure this out soon)

Jean de La Fontaine and Marc Chagall’s Fables and Paul Eluard and Joan Miro’s A Toute Epreuve are both interesting examples of the Livre d’Artiste movement, considering the way they incorporate text and visuals.

First, as a quick overview of each of the books – since Fables was filled with well-known stories (which were adapted into French by Fontaine), those buying it weren’t getting it for the text. It was published for art collectors, and featured Marc Chagall’s Primitivist etchings, which appear as full pages of monochrome illustrations that almost look like they were drawn with a thick paintbrush. He certainly didn’t skimp out on illustrations; it looks like there’s one for every fable in each volume. The images appear side-by-side with dark italicized text aligned in the center of the page; the words don’t stand out compared to the images, even though the stories are apparently beautifully written.

(image source)

A Toute Epreuve, with poetry and publication by Eluard and illustrations by Miro, unites the text and images. The woodcuts and prints use bright streaks of color that swirl around the page, guiding the eye around the text, sometimes even drawing the eye away from the poetry. While the images aren’t Primitivist, they have a childlike quality to them, somewhat similar to Chagall’s illustrations.

Both of these books follow a quote written in Henry Matisse’s Jazz  – the text accompanies the visuals, unlike most books. I think, however, that these books vary in their degrees of success in collaboration. Although I’d say the illustrations are the focus of A Toute Epreuve, they can’t stand alone without the text to dance and play around. In other words, the poetry contextualizes the illustrations, not necessarily through narrative, but through visuals. Considering that Eluard was both poet and publisher, he could display the collaboration as he pleased, probably to the satisfaction of both parties, and the result is a book with a deep unity between its different aspects.

Fables, on the other hand, is less successful in its unity with text and image. The images don’t flow into the words as they do in A Toute Epreuve, but coexist at each other’s side. Each can stand without the other, and do. Fontaine’s fables were universal in France long before these books were published. Meanwhile, when I tried looking for images from the 1952 book, it was easy for me to find the etchings but just about impossible for me to find a full page with both the illustration and text. Still, when they’re both placed into the same book, Chagall’s etchings are given a narrative contextualization through Fontaine’s stories.

Response to Book Sets 2 and 3

The idea of “Fine Printing,” as Morris defines it, is to use books as a reaction to the Industrial Revolution. Surrounding Morris were mass-produced books made with little care, leading to poor quality books with yellowing pages, type with no visual impact, and lack of proper proportioning, which he believes ultimately leads to a hideous, overly utilitarianist style of printing that undermines creators. Thus, the core principles of the aesthetics in Morris’s ideal book include page margins determined by the golden mean, high-quality and handmade paper, strong black Gothic type, with decorative elements that synthesize with the text. One important tenet that Morris defines is to avoid “beauty for beauty’s sake.”

The best way to demonstrate Morris’s ideals is with the Kelmscott Canterbury Tales, published by Morris himself. From the opening page, with the stark white Gothic letters standing against a dark, richly decorated background and border, it is apparent that the book is exceedingly well made. The ink is rich and the paper fine and handmade, and is still legible and pure to this day, and the binding remains strong. The page margins fit Morris’s ideals, and are filled with decorative engravings. Some of the passages begin with a detailed leading letter, and Morris has a liberal (but probably consistent) use of rubricated initials that stand out on the black-and-white pages. It seems like the only spaces left blank are the spaces between the letters, which allow the text to be distinctive from the illustrations even from far away.

I think it could be argued that the book is pursuing “beauty for the sake of beauty,” but I think Morris would argue that the illustrations and engravings are simply a factor in his aim for a book deserving of glory, triumph, and exaltation. To me, the illustrations, while somewhat excessive, are gorgeous and mind-numbingly well-crafted, with their design blending around the text instead of dominating it. It reminds me of the ornamentation on a cathedral, which, again, some people in some cathedrals would say they are ugly and unnecessary, and others would say they’re gorgeous.

For Book Set 3, the Pennyroyal Press’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn provides an interesting comparison to the Canterbury Tales. They’re both pretty hefty books, and the texts are dark and legible. Huckleberry’s letterpress origins are apparent in the indented text, and it is beautifully bound. However, while Huckleberry’s paper itself is archival, it is also commercial. Its woodcut illustrations are gorgeous, but separate from the text. It’s not the pure example of Fine Press that Morris would have wanted, but it’s still a high quality piece of work.

I guess the biggest folly of the Fine Press movement is that it looped around from Morris’s socialist ideals and became an embodiment of capitalism. My views on this are pretty complicated, probably contradictory, and I’m still figuring them out. First, while Morris’s Canterbury Tales isn’t the small and accessible book that Russem likes, it falls in with Morris’s socialism – it’s beautiful, but it’s also long-lasting and legible; it’s not a book that people will be forced to throw out several years later because of crumbling pages. And every part of its production supported individual workers, not the factory presses, just as Morris wants. It’s certainly a work from the Arts and Crafts movement.

But I think an important thing to note is that the Arts and Crafts/Handicraft movement was pretty quickly co-opted by the upper class – the ones who got rich through factories – especially in the United States. Man, there are more than a few texts where the rich guys talk about how handmade work is objectively better than those that are factory-produced, and proceed to jack up the prices of the handmade works to the point where they’re inaccessible for a lot of people. To varying extents, this attitude bleeds over to some fine printers – they say, “This book will give you a much stronger connection with the author’s work, so we’ll blast the prices up and print a limited number of copies.” (I can’t really blame them, though!) It’s just funny that a book style that has its roots in socialism ends up being ridiculously expensive. On one hand, the books can be seen as artistic; on the other hand, buying them can come across as “Hey, look at how much money I have!”

Like Russem says, if someone buys the Pennyroyal Huckleberry Finn (which goes for a whopping $12,000), it’s not going to be because they want to read it and understand or spread its ideas around. If they wanted that, they could just buy a regular copy for five bucks and enjoy that. Instead, a humongous, rich book like the Pennyroyal edition isn’t going on the coffee table or on the bedside; it’s going on a special place on the shelf.

And that’s perfectly fine, to be honest – it’s nice to have pretty things. Plus, I think I’ve gone on long enough…!

So, considering my associations with the Fine Press movement, Russem’s ideas appeal more to me. He doesn’t condemn paperbacks, and, honestly, I enjoy reading books more than just looking at them, so I like his model of accessibility above all. We definitely don’t have to strip away all beautiful things and decorative elements from books, though. Sometimes, like with French Fries, I think the added aesthetic helps the reader to interpret the books in a new way.

For now, I’m happy with the simple solution to have multiple editions of a book, like a regular DVD versus a Criterion Collection DVD (for example, running onto Amazon and randomly picking The Devil’s Backbone gets us a regular copy for $9.99 and a stylized Criterion copy for $29.95). This way, you satisfy different tastes – there is a visually simple copy that focuses on the text, and if you want to pay more money, you can an ornamental edition that you can show off on your bookshelf.

Book Set 1 Response

For this first book set, the book that I like the most is Encyclopedie, ou Dictionaire Raisonne des Sciences, des Arts et des Metiers, by Denis Diderot. While we only got to view one of the many volumes, it’s quickly apparent that this book reflects the era’s desire to fully record human history: here, there is a rich collection of definitions of each of the contemporary disciplines, from chemistry to civil engineering to music. The book alternates between many, many pages of words and definitions, followed by many, many pages of diagrams and images. The book is stuffed to the brim; it’s unbelievable.

The book’s relationship between the text and images is fascinating, and very different from what I’m used to. Normally, I’d expect a textbook or encyclopedia to keep its figures close to their respective text, or at least keep its images in the middle of the book, to make reference easier. Instead, this dictionary works by separating the words and images, so that all of the pictures come in this long stream. For me, at least, the text became almost irrelevant because I was overwhelmed by the vastness of the images in number and content. Sometimes there would be pages of day-to-day life, with figures elaborating on the mechanics or technology present in those ordinary images. In this sense, it’s more powerful than an ordinary dictionary, which relies on text with few images. Here, the images really provide depth and understanding to the basic definitions by demonstrating different principles and concepts.

And I think the book becomes stronger when put in context with its history. According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, it faced a lot of criticism, and censorship by the printers, but managed to be successful and helped to pave the way for the French Revolution. So, I guess the volumes and the flourishing amounts of text and images sparked other people’s imagination and intellect.