Catalogue title: Fragile Objects: Graphic Investigation Workshop, Catalogue Raisonne, volume 2.
Catalogue Essay Title: Consonance (a postface)
Author: Thierry Bouchard; translated from the French by James Grieve
Publication details: Canberra, ACT: Canberra School of Art Graphic Investigations Workshop
© all rights reserved by the author’s estate
With books of a certain type, a particular view of publishing them, the spiritual conception and material fabrication of them, going back to the late nineteenth century and prevailing with remarkable continuity to this day, there is bound to be a problem of terminology, reminiscent of the battles fought over taxonomy in the natural sciences (zoology and botany) at the same period.
These are the books known to some as ‘illustrated volumes’, to others as ‘painters’ books’ or ‘artists’ books’, even ‘bibiliophiles’ books’ or ‘bibliophilia’. This slight semantic agitation reveals, as is often the case, a relatively deep disquiet.
We have all encountered these books, with their easily identifiable formal appearance., in which a grouping of text(s), in other words a concatenation of signs the totality of which is part of the phenomenon of literature and translated into typography, is mixed with (joined to, juxtaposed with, blended into, drowned by or submerged) images, that is not a grouping of coded and decodable signs, but immediately visible forms and/or colours. The ‘encounter’ (or if you like association or dissassociation in proximity) is one between two words which are fairly radically foreign to each other, even if discourse in one and silence in the other endeavour to merge or at least to meet. This link, or however one may call it, on the definition of which it seems to me to be important to pause for a moment, comes to pass in the space known as Book (leaving aside for the moment whatever epithet or qualifier may be applied to it) or rather is felt in its endless effort to bring itself about.
The concept of ‘illustration’, nowadays so out of favour, is the result of a way of seeing the status of this link as relatively unproblematical, allowing the cross-references from one of the terms to the other (from the painter to the writer, the words to the images) to happen in a state of transparent certainty. On this single-minded relationship there is no ambiguity: the image serves the text, the written word dominates the plastic factor. The stained glass window illustrates the sacred text, like the illuminated letter which decorates it. Doré, Johannot or Férant were responsible for books which are familiar and transparent to our eyes and which also give us the texts of Dante, Balzac or Jules Verne. So it has been since Dürer and Holbein.
The ‘Painter’s book’, which Ambroise Vollard is rightly credited with having originated, did not at once or at one go differentiate itself much from that uncomplicated relationship. But what is in fact the origin of what complicated it? Part of it lies in Mallarmé, part in what has been called the ‘crisis of representation’ of the earliest years of the twentieth century.
Ever since then, artists have not, or not only, been ‘illustrating’. A greater ambition has emerged, expressed in terms like communion, interpenetration, osmosis, the Total Book, the absolute. The image no longer accompanies; it neither serves nor is dominated. Losing its dependence or its subservient status, it claims equality within the book or even a paradoxical autonomy, while still seeing itself as having an intimate role within the text. This makes for an ambiguous relation, one in which the two factors stand to each other in terms of circulation or ‘reciprocity’.
For myself, I can see no point in the ‘illustrated’ book nor any possibility of a ‘total’ book in which a sort of pretentious naïveté fancies it can bring about a reciprocal interpenetration of text and images, leading ultimately up the blind alley of that tautology known as the ‘book object’.
I would like to borrow a slightly disabused and definitely revealing term coined by André Frénaud in a volume of interviews with Bernard Pingaud, Notre inhabileté fatale (1979), in which this poet, one of those who in our time has been at the origin of the greatest number of books created with painters, defines the status of that relations not as illustration or fusion, but rather one of consonance. I borrow it with pleasure, for it refers to music, to the art of mingling sound with silence, and that is an art which seems to me much more analogous than architecture to the art of making books. For me, these are the possible relationship that can exist between painting and poetry in the space known as the Book: a state of unquiet and chancy coexistence which may tend, at the very most and in all humility (‘The inaccessible is our sole common good’), towards consonance, towards rightness, towards balance between these forces which at times repel, at times attract each other, towards a dialogue punctuated as is all dialogue by moments of dissonance and understanding…
About the author
Thierry Bouchard (d. 2008) was a French typographer who taught at l’École Nationale des Beaux-Arts de Dijon, where he met artist Petr Herel. They collaborated on a number of projects under the imprint Labyrinth Press.