Carolee Schneeman’s Vulva Morphia, the use of Humor, and Feminist Discource


Book Set Ten: Feminist Books

I thoroughly enjoyed our feminist book set. Exploring the ways in which the book has been used as a political object, or rather, a means for dispersing political ideas was really interesting.
Carolee Schneeman’s Vulva’s Morphia, aside from just being visually stunning, is incredibly skillful in its pairing of text an image. I was drawn to the book immediately, not a surprising fact, as the work of Granary Press has consistently stood out to me in our many book sets.
What initially struck me about the book was its humourous text. Schneeman tells the story of a vulva and its experiences encountering important works on theory, sexuality, and feminism. The humour initially stems from the personification of the vulva but, there is a lot at hand in Schneemann’s choice to do this. Using personification, Schneeman shows the ways in which ideas attach themselves to women’s bodies and how feminists seek to alter this discourse.
In many ways self-referential, the humour of the piece likewise comes from investigating the ways in which feminists construct themselves. The text isn’t afraid to poke fun at feminists and the ways in which feminist texts often obscure more than they reveal. In many ways the simplification of these ideas makes them accessible and becomes a point of entry for those interested in feminism.
The text is then juxtaposed with expressionistic portraits of various vulvas. The portraits are mounted onto the book with the text connecting each page as it moves over the inner-hinge of the book. Schneeman positions the text in the book beckons the reader to continue on exploring not only the vulva but, the ideas behind it. The impressionistic portraits work to sustain the reader’s aesthetic interests. The variety among the images allows for a representation of diversity both inside of feminist discourses, and the diversity of female bodies.
I also, think it is worth considering the ways in which feminism, to many an unattractive concept, is placed at the center of an aesthetically pleasing book. That the esoteric nature of the theoretical concepts alluded to by Schneeman are democratized by the books form.
Ultimately, the meaningful and complex nature of Schneeman’s Vulva’s Morphia could be easily lost. But, the combination of text and image within the book forces the audience to confront new ideas and old prejudices.

Book sets 5&6 show many different examples of books which exist in the livre d’artiste genre. Having moved onward from the older European livre d’artiste books from book set 4, we were able to explore a wide range of what currently is being done with the genre. In our readings we encountered two important criticisms of artists books one of which was by Janet Zweig. The consideration of her critique of artists books in “All Dressed Up With No Place to Go: The Failure of Artists’ Books” factored largely in my viewing of these two book sets.

One book that stood out to me was  Walasse Ting’s 1 Cent Life, which proves itself to be an excellent book when viewed through both of these critical lenses. For it to appease Zweig’s criticism we must ask “does it [the book] contribute anything to the knowledge of the reader, does it present a new way of thinking?”  I would argue yes, it does. First we can considered it as a book of Pop Art, pop art was largely a form of social commentary, a reflective exercise in considering consumer culture during the 1940s and 50s. A number of pop artists contributed prints to Ting’s poetry which, in and of itself did great work as form of social critique. A specific example of a page that stood out to me was p12 which showed a depiction of lynching alongside Ting’s poetry. For me, this experience was striking. So rarely up until this point had I seen any works attempt to address the issue of race. It was a powerful experience having both a visually striking book and a book which confronted people with important political issues. By all means, it certainly passes Zweig’s test.



Another book Wordswordswords by Edwin Schlossberg, was also in the set. And while, it did not move me in the same way as Ting’s 1 Cent Life, I do believe it to still be of value. Zweig hints at the existence of such a book in her article lamenting, “Purchased for 4,500, it consists of a single word, the word “words” printed over and over on many pages (…) If you‘ve got a thing idea, it may be best to let form and content unite by producing a humble thin thing” But, how does she know it was a thin idea in the first place?


Zweig’s frustrations with the genre are not entirely unfounded. It is not wrong to ask art to elicit some sort of reaction from the viewer. However, we have to question our system of valuing those reactions. So that books with socio-political impact are included and valued but also, that books which exist in the tradition of art for art’s sake may also have a place. Both Scholssberg’s and Ting’s books resonated with me but, for completely separate reasons. If we forced all books to exist as socio-political commentary then we might run the risk of limiting ourselves. Zweig begins her article with the question of whether she would bring a novel or an artists’ book with her on a deserted island. But, I would challenge this question with another question: “What novel?” Just as some novels are crafted to address matters and some are merely exercises in writing. Does not the same standard hold true for artists books? Some may be just for viewing and move us by the simple fact that they are beautiful while others, can use beauty to confront us with other important ideas.


Livre D’artiste, Matisse, and the Freedom to Realize an Artform

Henri Matisse famously stated: “I do not distinguish between the construction of a book and that of a painting and I always proceed from the simple to the complex.”

One must then ask how many artists are allowed to freely merge both forms, and what makes such innovation possible?

Jazz (1947)

Jazz (1947)

First, let us start with Matisse’s own work. A classic example of the livre d’artiste genre, Jazz immediately draws the viewer in with its use of color and pages upon pages of large, boldened cursive text. In Jazz, image and text actively interact with one another. Text and image are paired off side-by-side and serve complementary functions; the boldness of the writing echos the intensity and brightness presented by Matisse’s images. These effects are both achieved consciously by Matisse, Jazz employs the pochoir stencil technique, the results of which create bright and colorful images with almost three-dimensional qualities. Similarly, the boldness of the text is created by the choice of paper and ink. The playful and lively sentiment behind Jazz is fully realized by the Matisse’s artistic decisions but, one must question how in control was Matisse in the production of the book and to what end?

Within the livre d’artiste genre a variety of different people may be involved in any one production. While publishers such as Iliazd demanded complete control over their works others such as Teriade (who worked with Matisse) offered artists great creative freedom and mostly focused on ensuring the high quality of materials. As the reading Iliazd and The Illustrated Book tells us:

“Artists were likewise free to propose texts to illustrate and the roster of authors published by Teriade affirms the diversity of their choices, which ranged from contemporary artist’ writings to the literature of classical Greece. The freedom Teriade accorded his artists is also reflected in their varying interpretations of the role of illustrator. Matisse, for example, executed the compositions for Jazz (published 1947) before the existence of his accompanying text” (Isselbacher 15)

One might argue that Jazz would not be the book it is today (or as integral to the livre d’artiste genre) were in not for the freedom Matisse was given by Teriade. I would certainly agree with this statement, citing the crucial artistic and aesthetic decisions of Matisse not only with regard to image but with regard to text to be essential in producing the overall experimental nature of the book. It was Matisse’s mindset coupled with Teriade’s laissez-faire philosophy which allowed Jazz to be fully realized.

Morris, Russem, and the Ideal Book

As William Morris tells us the ideal book is “a book not limited by commercial exigencies of price: we can do what we like with it, according to what its nature, as a book, demands of Art.” We are left to conclude that the ideal book then, does not exist. Most especially, as Morris points out, in a capitalist state. The most important aspect of such a claim is the ultimate goal of artistically realizing a book’s intentions. And to some extent we find a similar viewpoint echoed in Michael Russem’s critique of fine printing. Russem tells us: “the most basic function of a book is to convey the coherent and specific ideas of a writer. A book does not need to be handsome, and it does not need to be well-made.” To me, Barry Moser’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn from Book Set 3 embodies this crisis between utilitarianism and aesthetic idealism. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is obviously a classical piece of american literature, often studied and widely read. Having mostly experienced it in the form of a mass-market paper back, seeing the Pennyroyal Press edition is at first jarring. You’re instinct is not to interact with the text as much as admire its beauty. You are acutely aware of it’s expense, and aesthetic beauty. Much like Russem’s chair, you are made emotionally aware of the book and taken aback by it. However, I would argue that Moser’s woodcuttings highlight aspects of the text and almost aggrandize its literary value. Would Twain have approved of this edition of his work? There is no way to be absolutely certain. However, the presence of the wood-engravings does draw one to the text which, is inarguably apart of the author’s vision for his work. I would argue that the aesthetic value of the text does not make it entirely inaccessible but, makes it appealing which adds accessibility and rejuvenates a classical work.

Morris’ compromise between his socialist ideals and aesthetic values maintains: “since we shall have to go through a long series of social and political events before we shall be free to choose how we shall live, we should welcome even the feeble protest which is now being made against the vulgarization of all life: first because it is one token amongst others of the sickness of modern civilization; and next, because it may help to keep alive memories of the past which are necessary elements of the life of the future” An idea which drew me to Bruce Rogers’ Song of Roland (1906) from Book Set Two. Song of Roland actively references aesthetic aspects of older books. The illumination, coloring, leading, gold leafing, and composition, all of which position it within the fine print movement, evoke the history of printing and in doing so the history of the book itself.

In both instances I am inclined to side with Morris. While, there is merit to Russem’s argument that texts must be accessible, Morris does not push against this idea. In fact, Morris uses his aesthetic idealism to make books even more accessible and remind us of their inherent value.

bookset2 Song of Rolan (1906) – Bruce Rogers

bookset3 The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1985) – Barry Moser

Book Set #1 – Liber Chronicum/The Nuremberg Chronicle

The book which peaked my interest the most was Liber Chronicum. While I had viewed it previously, my viewing of it in class really gave me some valuable one-on-one time to closely examine both text and image in the book.

One thing I noted was the repeating of various images throughout the Chronicle. Cities that were supposed to be represented by the images, often were produced using the same woodcutting; an image of Florence might match Geneva. For me this realization drove home how time consuming the crafting of the woodcuttings must have been. And how much time it would have taken to craft individual cuttings for each city. I also imagine, there was a limit on how much the Chronicle’s author had seen of the world. This reminded me of how printing would bring about so many opportunities to transmit ideas, and share images of various parts of the world.

Another facet of the book which stood out to me was the coloring of the images. The images were originally made from cuttings without any colored ink. So, people who purchased the book would take it upon themselves to have it colored. A specific cutting that demonstrates a fun example of this is the one with knights, and (originally) blank family shields. In the Mortimer copy the shields are colored in, most likely with the owner’s family crest, which presents another interesting way of thinking about how images (not only text) function in the book as representations of history.

Within the Chornicle text and image are supposed to tell the story of all history. However, it is the pages that are left blank and the images that are made uncolored, where the books potential is fully realized. In giving the owner of the book the ability to add themselves in, to color the book themselves, make the Liber Chronicum a living text; completely original in all that it can tell us.