Saturday, January 30, 2016

Bookplates As Art Parts Two and Three

Bookplates as Art   Parts Two and Three

By Mark Witteveen

Walter Helfenbein (German) for Erich Dorschfeldt (1922).

A prolific bookplate artist, Helfenbein did a series of mementos mori for Erich Dorschfeldt; several, like these two (above and below) seem to be possibly inspired by the desert exploits of T.E. Lawrence. aka Lawrence of Arabia. WWI again. Attacking trains, and Death as companion, riding by your side. “Some of the evil of my tale may have been inherent in our circumstances,” Lawrence writes in his bio-tale of the war, Seven Pillars of Wisdom.

Arthur Henne for R. Osswald (ca 1930)

Great books threatening destruction, annihilation. This Henne scene, like Melville’s White Whale, is ripe for an analysis of its symbols. The imagery is specific, yet generalized too, so the scene is able to withstand numerous interpretations. Take your pick: the rule of law, the oppressive rule of law, or enlightenment (like the Gilsi bookplate earlier), to name a few. I don’t know if Henne had specific books in mind, but I appreciate that he used two. It keeps the scene secular, and avoids the apocalyptic. (Okay sure, it’s apocalyptic for them.)

Bruno Heroux (German) for Hans Harrassowitz (ca 1929).

Amazingly, the Harrassowitz firm, booksellers, is still in existence today. They specialize in supplying American universities (Harvard, U. of Chicago) with scholarly and antiquarian books from Europe. Heroux illustrates this trade nicely in the plate: the naked messenger, with Wisdom (the Owl) at his feet, and arm outstretched, book in hand reaching across the sea to deliver it to America (the Statue of Liberty).

Georg Oskar Erler (German) for Dr. Willy Tropp, (1920).

Like other graphic artists of the time, Georg Erler was a worker, executing thousands of pay-for-hire graphic jobs: birthday cards, New Year greetings, etc. He also did a series of bookplates with a nude woman in scenes with satyrs/devils, Death, and men. This is one from the series: startling, immediate, alive with tension. What is on the satyr’s face? Frustration? Defeat? Resignation? Lust? What’s the woman’s attitude? Impossible to know - it’s hidden behind the hat, and in the mind of the viewer. Erler gets high marks for setting his scene in media res.

Sepp Frank
Sepp Frank (German) for Dr. S.B. Guggenheim (ca 1920). The early 1900s were a fertile garden for the occult and various esoteric philosophies and practices. Ideas and symbols from these found their way into bookplates; the designs can be appealing, even when the meaning is lost, or frustratingly obscure.

Sepp Frank was a successful representative of this trend, I think. His highly dramatic bookplates are always worth a look. There is much to admire in them, even when the meaning is not easily decipherable. Here, a sun-blazing Omega projects the long shadow of Death for an elegant human standing center stage in Life’s arena. (another memento mori)

Georg Gelbke (German) for Walter and Margarite Vogel (1923).

A Vogel, in German, ein Vogel, is a bird. Die Nacht Vogel weckt herzlich zu Kaffee und Skandal. The night bird wakes cordially to coffee and scandal. Gelbke plays with the couple’s surname, and off they go flying in the air. The size of the script ‘Vogel’ reinforces the playful design.

Walter Rehn (German) for Hanns Heeren (1923). This Rehn bookplate has the lessons of Van Gogh. Recall Night Cafe. In one of his letters to his brother Theo, Vincent writes, “I am trying to exaggerate the essential but leave the obvious things vague.”

In Rehn’s bookplate, a mere candle sets the room ablaze with light, contrasted with the lack of detail elsewhere. The man holding the candle, for instance -- any child of five could draw his legs with a stubby pencil. Rehn sets the scene: the man has been startled awake in his bed by strange noises. Hesitant with fear, he dons a robe, lights a candle and dread in his heart, sets out to investigate. What could be more comforting to a homeowner, or more delightful to a lover of books, than to discover three giant ghosts enjoying the treasures of your own library?

Mark Witteveen, 2015
Interested in early 20th century bookplates/ex libris
For purchase or exchange of duplicates

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