Posts Tagged ‘Albrecht Dürer’

Visiting old friends in London – very old friends

Thursday, December 6th, 2012
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At the National Cafe, my Yorkshireman lunch companion gently suggested I pay a visit to the National Gallery next door.  I shouldn’t have needed the prompting.  We should respect the stable points of our past, the fixed compass points of our psyche.

I didn’t realize how much I had missed it.  My time was short, so I only spent an hour or so with the early paintings, the ones before about 1500.

England has always been the country that has most felt like home to me, even more than the U.S.  Leonardo da Vinci is small part of the reason why.  When I moved to London as a recent university graduate decades ago, the National Gallery was one of the first places I headed for, and Leonardo’s mysterious cartoon became one of the first of my friends.  Giorgio Vasari claimed that the work was created while Leonardo was in Florence, as a guest of the Servite Monastery – which would date it to about 1500. Vasari says that for two days people of all ages flocked to to it as if they were attending a festival.  Festival?  I think not.

As I made my way through the confusing rituals of finding a place to live and a job in a foreign city, I would return to Leonardo again and again, revisiting the dark, quiet alcove where we shared time together.  It calmed and centered me, and I drew strength from its gravitas.

We both have been through a lot since the last time I saw it – a vandal attempted to destroy it with a sawn-off shotgun in 1987, and very nearly succeeded, and I’ve survived my own rendezvous with extinction.

Not everyone is a fan.  John Berger wrote in the 1970s: “It has acquired a new kind of impressiveness. Not because of what it shows – not because of the meaning of its image. It has become impressive, mysterious because of its market value.” But I knew nothing of its market value when I saw it for the first time, nor did I know the efforts the National Gallery made to acquire it in the 1960s.

The nearby Wilton Diptych with its brilliant blues and golds was another psychic landmark for me – I hadn’t been acquainted with it at all before our face-to-face – but it was more like a fascinating and exquisite jeweled child’s toy than a steadying companion.  I don’t tire of it – Richard II reverently kneeling (as yet untouched by Shakespeare’s subsequent portrayal of him) – the pious stillness of the leftside panel, the drive and energy on the right.

There’s an even older friend in the gallery, a stable point that hearkens to my even more distant past.  Looking through my father’s many art books as a child, I was always picking “favorites.” I was surprised, years later, to stumble upon my clear front-runner from early childhood years, which has its home in the National Gallery. Little is known about Haarlem painter Geertgen tot Sint Jans, who died in his twenties, and only a handful of his paintings have come down to us.  But none of them are a patch on this miracle.  “Truly he was a painter in his mother’s womb,” said the more famous Albrecht Dürer.

I was struck, even as a child, by the wonder and awe, the tiny infant who is pure light.  It’s important never to lose childhood’s sense of the miraculous, and I hope I never have.  I still think this may be the painting I would like to have engraved on my heart.

 

More bookplate porn!

Sunday, March 25th, 2012
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A Toni Hofer woodcut bookplate

What a difference a couple days makes! A whole new world has opened up to me, and my wallet has opened up as well. Here’s why.

On Friday, I posted “Bookplate Porn: “A Thing of Beauty is a Joy Forever,” and I challenged readers to submit their favorite bookplates.  (In the post, I had admired some of the excellent Stanford Library bookplates of Lisa Haderlie Baker.)

No sooner did I post my short piece on Facebook page than I got an almost instant reply from colleague Mike Ross: “Ooohhh. When I get back home next week,” he promised, “I’ll have to find the bookplates a Linz, Austria, woodcutter made for our grandfather, who’d helped there in the late stages of World War II. They’re gorgeous!” However, he didn’t wait till he got home to post again.  He added this 12 minutes later: “I just remembered his name: Toni Hofer. He’s mentioned in a number of articles, including this one.

Bookplate engraving by Niu Ming-Ming

The article is from – get this – a bookplate collecting society in Austria, called Österreichische Exlibris Gesellschaft, or the Austrian Exlibris Society, emphasizing the bookplate as “a bearer of culture … that was identifiable as an art form in itself.” It was an important enough organization that the Nazis messed with it. Who knew bookplates had that kind of clout?

It was all, however, just the tip of an iceberg. A search for Toni Hofer (we couldn’t wait for Mike Ross to come home, wherever he is) led me to Ebay.  Type in “exlibris” into the search function to discover a world of wonders.  Apparently, there is a whole subterranean movement to collect bookplates. Over a thousand are featured on ebay even as I write, some from the Czech Republic, others from Romania, Russia, Finland, Denmark.  Check them out.

Naturally, I couldn’t resist. I’ve bought three already, and bid on two others.  You can look at hundreds right now. One of the wiggiest is from a Chinese artist at right.

We accept submissions by iphone

Back to the contest.  More contestants. In case you haven’t figured it out, there will be no winners and no losers in this contest.  It’s like Lewis Carroll‘s Caucus Race; as the Dodo said, “Everybody has won, and all must have prizes.” Except there aren’t any prizes, either. Consider everyone getting honorable mentions.  And it won’t end. Keep sending me pictures of pretty bookplates till the end of time.

Elena Danielson replied by email yesterday with her own nomination.  She sent a photo from her iphone with the note: “Hand Printed at Paper Crane HMB … This one pasted in 1st Ed of Moment in Peking autographed by author Lin Yutang.”

I did a little google search of my own for bookplate porn (I figured I couldn’t have invented the term) and uncovered this: “If there’s such a thing as bookplate porn, this gorgeous book is the ultimate,” wrote Sadie Stein in The Paris Review.  She’s referring to Martin Hopkinson‘s new book on bookplates, The Art of Bookplates.

A bookplate book

From him, I learned that “bookplates originat[ed] in their modern printed form in 16th-century Germany, where books were highly valuable.”  He writes:

In the early 1500s, Albrecht Dürer and other German engravers and printmakers began to create highly decorative bookplates, often featuring armorial devices and coats of arms for wealthy individuals and institutions. As the fashion for ornamental bookplates spread, distinctive national styles evolved. Nearly every conceivable design element—from cupids to scientific instruments, portraits, and landscapes—served to decorate personal bookplates. This volume explores the various sources of ex libris inspiration, including designs by C. R. Ashbee, Walter Crane, Aubrey Beardsley, Eric Gill, and Rudyard Kipling, as seen in the books of Frederic Leighton, Calvin Coolidge, and many others.

Finally in a postscript to my original post, one reader submitted this suggestion with the words:  “Here is one of my favorites. How could it not be?”

The comment is from Richard Katzev.