What is an artists‘ picture book? Or: The picture book as an artistic medium

 

At the end of the 1980s, shortly before the Iron Curtain fell, I discovered a collection of small red paper sculptures in the window of a former shop in Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia, which at that time seemed grey and rather dilapidated. This was my first encounter with the work of the Czech artist Květa Pacovská. I was even more fascinated by the delicate, three-dimensional structures when the gallery owner showed me some books illustrated by Pacovská, such as "Rumpelstilzchen erzählt", 1984,(Rumpelstilskin tells his story), together with a few of her artist printmakings. I was struck by the diversity of artistic expression: The illustrations with their large flat areas of unbroken color reminiscent of concrete forms and figures on the one hand and the abstract spatial paper sculptures on the other. How did that fit together?

 

The 1990 International Children's Book Fair in Bologna provided some answers. It came to be an unforgettable experience for me. I witnessed how Pacovská, who in communist Czechoslovakia had had to be content with commissioned works printed on yellow-tinted paper with high wood content, fought tenaciously but graciously for every single detail of her first larger project accepted in the West by the German Ravensburger publishing house. Some may already have guessed it: This project was to become her number book, "One, Five, Many"( see collection), a book object with a spiral binding, made of strong, high-gloss paper with embossing, die-cuts, and small lift-the-flaps – in short, more of a highly-coloured paper object with numbers and words forming collage-art than a picture book. The artist fought for an art object or an artist's book for children, which in the end was to be part of the usual industrial process of book production and distribution. This was a completely new understanding of the picture book genre/medium – not only for me, initially the publisher was also hesitant to follow these uncompromisingly high standards for artistic quality and compelling materiality.

 

That was when I understood that Květa Pacovská was advocating for a new kind of picture book: the picture book as an artistic medium, the overall design and technical production of which she herself had to conceive and oversee rather than leaving them up to the production and marketing departments of the publishing house. The book could only be published the way the artist had envisioned and designed it, the interplay of the colours and forms exactly as planned - not a bit differently. As an experienced print maker, who was familiar with the limited editions of the manual printing process, Pacovská saw this and many of her later book objects as a kind of multiple, i.e. an art object in limited editions. Since then, her works for children have been industrially produced artist's books and correspond to what I consider to be an artist’s picturebook (KünstlerBilderBuch).

 

A standard term for this special type of picture book does not yet exist. At the beginning of the 20th century, some publishers used the term "Künstler-Bilderbuch" or "artistic picture book" as a kind of series title, for example the publishers Jos. Scholz in Mainz or the Munich Georg W. Dietrich Verlag with its "Münchner Künstler-Bilderbücher". In response to the increasing demand for art education at the turn of the previous century, these and other publishers asked well-known artists to create picture books for them. In most cases the format, the length, and a graphic technique that was easy to reproduce were pre-determined. These "artistic picture books" were part of the commercial book market and subject to its conditions.

 

What I call the KünstlerBilderBuch, however, are free works that show a clear proximity to the artist's book and which, with luck and often much later, have found a publisher. An artist's book is usually a unique book created by the artist, which can consist of many different materials and has only been reproduced manually in a very small edition. "A book is more than a book when it becomes a work of art" writes the American art historian Donna Stein in her essay for the catalogue "Artists' Books in the Modern Era" (2001) of the Fine Arts Museum in San Francisco.

 

It was then that I began searching for such picture-book works of art. I looked for places collecting picture books that were conceived by artists in the context of and as part of their artistic expression and who understand the picture book as an independent, artistic medium. My research first led me to the 1986 catalogue "Künstler illustrieren Bilderbücher" ("Artists Illustrate Picture Books"), edited by Jens Thiele and Detlef Hoffmann of the Department of Art and Art Education at the University of Oldenburg. Together with a team of editors/curators, they had put together an exhibition of books with pictures by well-known artists mainly from German-speaking countries, including books for children, and published a carefully researched catalogue, which serves as a valuable reference work.

 

The catalogue proceeds chronologically and gives a historical overview of many different forms of illustrated books. It begins with the first edition of fifty fairy tales by the Brothers Grimm from 1825, illustrated by Ludwig Emil Grimm, which was by no means intended as a children's book. The survey ends in 1985 with the German version of Tony Ross’s picture book "I'm coming to get you" ("Ich komm dich holen!"). Popular editions of 19th and 20th century book art are featured as well as the famous "Struwwelpeter" (see collection) by the Frankfurt pediatrician and psychiatrist Heinrich Hoffmann or the posthumously compiled “Kinderalbum” ("Children's Album", see collection) by the Prussian painter Adolf von Menzel, whose gouaches were first produced as single sheets between 1861 and 1883.

 

The catalogue "Artists Illustrate Picture Books" presents a survey of illustrated books of the 19th and 20th centuries under the aspects of outstanding aesthetic design, including those that clearly belong to the genre of "picture books". It does not, however, attempt a definition of the KünstlerBilderBuch.

 

A few years ago, the Viennese children's book collector and researcher Friedrich C. Heller presented a more concrete proposal for the delimitation of the KünstlerBilderBuch. In his very readable handbook on the artistically illustrated children's book in Vienna from 1890 to 1938, entitled "Die bunte Welt" (The Colourful World) and published in 2008, Heller proposes the term "private picture book" for titles that artists had neither been commissioned to produce nor intended to publish/print. A number of the books presented in my collection correspond to this definition, but as a generic term it seems too narrow to me. It primarily considers the production context of a book project and neglects what I consider to be the decisive aspect of the picture book as a deliberately chosen artistic medium.

 

So how can this particular category of picture books, which are produced by visual artists as an independent, artistic medium, be distinguished from other artistically ambitious picture books? And most importantly: where can books like this be consulted, where can others be discovered? In the absence of corresponding keywords or subject headings in relevant library catalogues, the only option is to search the collections themselves. The extensive holdings of the Burg Wissem Bilderbuchmuseum (Picture Book Museum) in Troisdorf (close to Köln/Bonn) a special museum for picture books and original illustrations, are only on site, as is the case in the Klingspor Museum in Offenbach/Main, which holds picture books in addition to collections of typography, calligraphy and artists' books. The International Youth Library in Munich, which collects children's and young adult literature from all over the world in the original languages, or the children's book department of the Berliner Staatsbibliothek (Berlin State Library) may also house a number of artists' picture books which cannot be found without previously known bibliographic information.

 

Even in major research libraries such as the Herzog August Bibliothek in Wolfenbüttel, which has been building an extensive collection of “artist books” or “painter books” since the 1950s, KünstlerBilderBücher are hidden under the respective artist names, as well as in relevant art archives. However, here too, these treasures can only be accessed with the help of previously known bibliographical data.

 

An important source for international KünstlerBilderBücher is the O.P.L.A. (Oasi per libri artistici) archive of the Merano Public City Library in South Tyrol (opla.gemeinde.meran.bz.it), which was presented during the Children's Book Fair in Bologna 1997. In Merano, "Libri d'artista per bambini" are collected, i.e. "artist books for children", a term that does not work in German or English translation, because artist books, as described above, are generally considered unique copies or limited editions produced and circulating outside the book market. In Merano, the "Libri d'Artista" are a special collection based on a very broad concept of conceptual book art with the aim of drawing the attention of librarians and educators in particular to outstanding picture books.

 

O.P.L.A. is supported by the publisher Marcia Corraini, whose publishing house Corraini Edizioni in Mantua / Italy has for many years been reprinting books by Italian (picture book) artists, the most important being Bruno Munari. The French publishing houses "Les Trois Ourses", Paris, and "Éditions MeMo", Nantes, also publish carefully edited reprints of older, sometimes international artists' picture books, some of which can also be found in my collection.

 

I was further inspired to pursue the subject by the exhibition “Kunst - ein Kinderspiel “(Art - a Child's Play) in the Schirn Kunsthalle, Fankfurt/Main, 2004, curated by the art historians Max Hollein and Gunda Luyken. The accompanying catalogue still offers the most comprehensive source material on toys and books by artists for children in the German-speaking world. This exhibition explores the question of how artists have dealt with the world of children, describing various works by artists associated with Dada, De Stijl, and Bauhaus especially. The last two art movements in particular focus on the entire human experience and strive for its aesthetic redesign. This includes, of course, picture books, although they are often not printed.

 

In the catalogue, for example, we encounter reproductions of photo collages by Alice Lex-Nerlinger and her husband Oskar Nerlinger, which they designed for various picture books. Alice Lex-Nerlinger's picture book sheets from 1928 mainly show animals and children, cut out of her own photos or material found and mounted on coloured backgrounds. Oskar Nerlinger, who also made a name for himself as a graphic artist in advertising, put together bold montages of cars, sportsmen and technical equipment in his "Children's Album", on which he worked in 1927 and whose dynamics still fascinate today. The original sheets can be found in the Stiftung Archiv der Bildenden Künste, Berlin.

 

One of the artists of these years is Hannah Höch, even though she created her "Bilderbuch" (see collection) only in 1945; it was fortunate to be published in a bibliophile edition in 1985 and again in 2008. Hannah Höch belongs to the Berlin circle of friends of the Dada movement headed by Kurt Schwitters (see collection) and, together with her partner of those years, Raoul Hausmann, Höch is regarded as the inventor of photomontage.

 

Altogether, it can be said that in the art historical context, book projects by artists for children keep being discovered, often not completed, reproduced or printed for a variety of reasons. They remain largely unknown unless they find their way into the public domain as often posthumously published works or as original works in exhibitions. In 2010, for example, the Picasso Museum in Malaga/ Spain, presented the exhibition "Toys of the Avant-Garde", including originals of several picture books. The accompanying catalogue is another treasure trove of art for children.

 

Back to my initial questions: How and where can one find picture books that correspond to my idea of the KünstlerBilderBuch and how can one access them? Over the years, I have been able to put together a small private collection of original editions, reprints, facsimiles, reprints and new editions, not without resorting to the services of specialized antiquarian booksellers. One example of my early acquisitions is Christoph Meckel's book "Amüsierpapiere" (Amusement Papers, see collection), published in 1969 by the Munich-based Ellermann Verlag, which shows the famous German poet and painter's vehement use of coloured chalks, brush, pen and ink. It was a lucky find - the few extant copies having gone mostly unnoticed.

 

Occasionally I am also surprised by hints from friends, such as the one about the "Bildergeschichte" (Picture Story), by the Swiss poet and painter Friedrich Dürrenmatt (see collection), which was published posthumously in 2013.

 

My focus on the picture book as an artistic medium particularly emphasizes the connection between the visual arts and the picture book, knowing full well that this relationship is extremely heterogeneous and multi-layered. As described, my research meanders from artist names I know to institutions like museums or galleries where they might be found. It lives from coincidences and unexpected encounters. For example, in the fabulous exhibition "Otto Dix. Der böse Blick" (Otto Dix. The Evil Eye), 2017 in Düsseldorf, I was surprised to see the originals of the "Bilderbuch für Hana" (see collection), which had only recently been discovered.

 

My collection of the KünstlerBilderBücher (ArtistsPictureBooks) aims to draw attention to this very special area of books and to save the many wonderful works of book art from being forgotten. They deserve a place of honour among both picture books and artist books. They are "lighthouses" in the sea of picture books, directing the eye to the art in picture books and giving children their first encounters with the fine arts.

Back to Blog