Sunday, January 17, 2016

Bookplates As Art

Bookplates as Art   Part One of Three
by Mark Witteveen

I collect bookplates as art. European pieces primarily, from the early 20th century prior to the rise of the National Socialists. Many of these bookplates are cultural artifacts. Charged with emotion, full of meaning, they come to us with complex legacies through the murderous upheavals and triumphs of the last century. By turns, on their own or through the sharpening lens of hindsight, they can entertain, enthrall, and disturb all the while vibrating with a strong pulse, like good theater. Or they can explode like a firecracker.

Representational imagery in bookplates really flourishes after 1900. I’m strolling along a dark corridor with a flashlight scanning the walls, and I discover I’m not in a corridor at all but a vast museum of connecting rooms where thousands of small pictures hang upon the walls.

Also from this time, with great appeal, narrative appears. We see bookplates with commentary on the human condition, personal stories and insights, hobbies, sports, the Arts, humor, playfulness, frivolity, reactions to world events, and more. Made by incredibly talented artists. And I remind myself that most bookplates were commissions. So not only did artist and occasion have to meet, he or she had to wrangle with a client. No doubt that negotiation varied, but what was a typical arrangement? Imagining one scenario, I picture Walter Helfenbein with one of his risqué bookplates wrought fresh for a client, who upon seeing it, retreats a quick step and says, “Ahhh yeah, no thanks pal.”

Fritz Gilsi (Swiss) for Alfred Kaufmann, (ca 1923) shows progress/enlightenment, in the form of a naked woman wielding a torch, and arriving in an open book, scattering the masses.

The design is richly associative; provocative without being confrontational, and completely lacking in sentiment. Note the pilgrim hat and the woman fleeing, her hands over her face. I recall Dostoevsky’s comment in one of his notebooks: “The European enlightenment is more important than people.” Gilsi’s bookplate seems as relevant to America today as it did in Europe, circa 1923.

Mileva Roller (Austrian) for Helen Anderle (1912). At a glance, many people could pinpoint the origins of this image: Wiener Werkstatte, early 1900s. Sure, it’s of the era.

What of the artist, Mileva Roller? In doing a little research, one finds more references to her beauty than to her artistic efforts. There doesn’t seem to be much of her stuff around. Was she not very productive? Merely derivative? Not encouraged? So many questions. To what extent did she achieve recognition, outside of her obvious association with famous male artists of the era -- her husband Alfred Roller, Solomon Moser, Gustav Klimt. What’s her story?

Fritz Schwimbeck for Dr. Arthur Ludwig (1912).

Look at those etched lines. That’s a steady hand. A setting sun, and the light still reaches out to touch every boulder, to invade every nook, as if to lay claim. Then the approaching night and tailgating gloom; you can almost feel its fur against your face.

Heinrich Seufferheld (German) for Dr. Med. A W. Pietzcker (1915).
Skeletal Death is a frequent actor in medical bookplates. Vengeful, predatory. Lurking close. In this Seufferheld bookplate, however, its treatment is unique. Maybe I’ve made up a storyline, but I’m going with it. Death is the one in trouble here. The struggle is past and the patient has proved the stronger. She has won this battle. In her tender care for the actor Death, we see its grim touch in her embrace, the taste is in her mouth, its stench fills her nostrils. This closeness, this ‘brush with death’, has given her foresight, so she takes pity. No one claims victory over Death. Time will take its toll; she won’t always be strong; someday, as certainly as night follows dusk follows day, their positions will be reversed. She is pleading mercy for her own gentle end.

Arthur Paunzen (Austrian) for Th. Alexander (1917). The still-raging horrors of WWI are in this Paunzen bookplate. Small details are telling: a simple home, beside it a lone figure tries to work peacefully at a table; and the curve of the ground, suggesting not that Death is tramping across an isolated farmer’s field, but stalking the globe.
A further note on the artist: as noted on, in 1938, “Paunzen fled Nazi Austria for England with 504 drawings and graphics and one violin.”  He died two years later on the Isle of Man, interned in a prison camp there by the British. I mention these facts and the website for those wanting to learn more about the artist, and to encourage collectors with Paunzen art to consider contacting the research team on the website, led by Gregory Hahn, Pd.D., who are compiling a Catalogue raisonné of the artist’s work. 

Richard Lux (Austrian) for Martha Winter (1934).

A shimmery emotive quality to this scene by Richard Lux. Sometimes I look at bookplate scene and wonder, “How does this relate to its owner?” (Martha Winter, in this example below.) Did she visit the artist’s studio and choose from his existing works, ‘Yeah, make me that one please.’ Or was Lux given free reign and he found inspiration in her personal history.
        To Be Continued
Mark Witteveen

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

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