Like @ SAC! – Black History Month Book Display

 

Black History Month has its origins in ‘Negro History Week’, established by historian Carter G. Woodson in the US in February 1926.  It steadily grew in popularity in the decades to come before becoming Black History Month as we know it in 1970.  It finally crossed The Pond in 1987 with its establishment in the UK by Ghanaian analyst Akyaaba Addai-Sebo.  The aim of the month is to commemorate important figures and events in the African Diaspora.

To celebrate Black History Month, we’ve set up a book display in the foyer of the Sackler.  The books featured in the display cover topics ranging from the work of black artists in 20th Century Britain, to the representation of race in art; and from the influence of Africa upon Western culture in antiquity, to the existence – or absence – of racism in the ancient world.

First of all, the display features a number of books on the art of eminent black artists. Yinka Shonibare – a British-Nigerian artist known for his work with brightly-coloured Dutch wax fabric ­– is particularly prominent (Yinka Shonibare MBE, Yinka Shonibare: Double Dutch).  Wifredo Lam (Wifredo Lam: Catalogue Raisonné of the Painted Work), a Cuban painter who melded Afro-Cuban culture with the radical artistic styles of the 20th Century, also features.  Finally, Black Artists in British Art: A History since the 1950s provides an overview of the contributions of black artists to the modern British art scene.

Inverting the focus, the display also includes a number of books on black people in art.  Readers looking to explore representations of Blackness in art over time need look no further than The Image of the Black in Western Art, a 10-volume series (of which 3 feature in our display) that exhaustively documents 5000 years of black people in art.  A more geographically-specific take on artistic representations of race can be found in Casta Painting: Images of Race in Eighteenth-Century Mexico, a beautifully illustrated analysis of paintings of racial mixing among Africans, members of the indigenous population and Spaniards in colonial Mexico and the racial dynamics showcased in these images.

Moving out of art and into antiquity, the display includes books representative of two thorny debates within classical scholarship.   The first of these is the infamous Black Athena: The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization.  In it, Martin Bernal makes the claim that ancient Greece was colonized by Egyptians and Phoenicians, and that from the 18th Century this influence was systematically obscured by Western academia.  Also included in the display is Black Athena Revisited, a collection of critical essays written in response to Bernal’s claims – a small sample of the scholarly firestorm that erupted following the publication of Bernal’s first volume in 1987.  Finally, African Athena is a more recent edited collection that seeks to re-open the debate while simultaneously moving beyond it, shifting its terms to focus on the intersections between the Greco-Roman world and Africa and the Middle East, and implications of those intersections.  The second debate featured in the display is the question of whether racism as we conceive of it today existed in classical antiquity.  In Before Color Prejudice: The Ancient View of Blacks, Frank Snowden contends that African blacks, far from being looked down upon, were in fact respected by Mediterranean Caucasians for their martial and mercantile prowess.  Representing the other side of the debate is The Invention of Racism in Classical Antiquity, in which Benjamin Isaac seeks to refute the view that the prejudice of ancient Greeks and Romans was merely cultural, not racial.

We hope that this display serves to highlight both the achievements of individual black artists and the influence of the African diaspora on Western culture more widely.  Furthermore, we hope that it illuminates some of the ways in which race plays a part in the subject areas covered by the Sackler’s collections.  The display will run until the end of the month, but the bibliography will remain accessible on this blog post.

Ben Gable, Graduate Trainee, Sackler Library

We welcome suggestions for future book displays.  Please speak to a Reader Services staff member if you are interested.

Bibliography

Bernal, Martin. 1987. Black Athena: The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization. London: Free Association Books.

Bindman, David, Henry Louis Gates, and Karen C. C. Dalton. 2010. The Image of the Black in Western Art. New ed. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Chambers, Eddie. 2014. Black Artists in British Art: A History since the 1950s. London: I.B. Tauris.

Isaac, Benjamin H. 2004. The Invention of Racism in Classical Antiquity. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Katzew, Ilona. 2004. Casta Painting: Images of Race in Eighteenth-Century Mexico. New Haven, Conn.; London: Yale University Press.

Kent, Rachel, Robert Carleton Hobbs, Anthony Downey, and Yinka Shonibare. 2014. Yinka Shonibare MBE. Revised and updated ed. London: Prestel.

Lam, Wifredo, Lou Laurin-Lam, and Eskil Lam. 1996. Wifredo Lam: Catalogue Raisonné of the Painted Work. Lausanne: Acatos.

Lefkowitz, Mary R. and Guy MacLean Rogers. 1996. Black Athena Revisited. Chapel Hill; London: University of North Carolina Press.

Mosaka, Tumelo, Annie Paul, and Nicollette Ramirez. 2007. Infinite Island: Contemporary Caribbean Art. New York: Brooklyn Museum in association with Philip Wilson Publishers.

Orrells, Daniel, Gurminder K. Bhambra, and Tessa Roynon. 2011. African Athena: New Agendas. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Pinder, Kymberly N. 2002. Race-ing Art History: Critical Readings in Race and Art History. London: Routledge.

Shonibare, Yinka, Jaap Guldemond, Gabriele Mackert, and Barbera van Kooij. 2004. Yinka Shonibare: Double Dutch. Rotterdam: Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen.

Snowden, Frank M. 1983. Before Color Prejudice: The Ancient View of Blacks. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Like @ SAC! Livres d’artistes / French Artists’ Books and the Avant Garde

 

 

 

On 1st March 2016, we welcomed Dr Camille Mathieu (History of Art Department, 2014-2015) back to Oxford, and to the Taylor Institution, where she presented the Taylor Institution Library’s livres d’artiste collection. This collection includes texts by French and foreign authors; with illustrations by well-known 20th century artists such as Braque, Kandinsky, Matisse and Picasso, as well as many others. (Largely for reasons of conservation and space to accommodate it, this collection is now on long-term deposit with the Sackler Library and hence — with Dr. Mathieu’s permission — we are republishing this post on the Sackler Library’s blog.)

 

 

Dr Mathieu’s presentation was accompanied by a display, in the Taylorian’s Voltaire Room, of related items in the artists’ books collection. The following is her summary of her talk.

As far as objets d’arts go, the artist’s book is a rather hybrid form. It turns a story or a poem into an object; it lends the weight of materiality to the metaphorical weight of narrative. It is necessarily a collaborative effort: author, artist-illustrator, typesetter, printer, editor, publisher—all of these people have a hand in producing the final product. It can be presented materially—as a bound book where only one page can be opened at a time—or immaterially, as a series of leaves and pages that feed into one another. 
It was its hybridity as a medium that drew Walter Strachan to the artist’s book; his impressive collection of sheets from these books was given to the Taylorian during Giles Barber’s tenure as Taylor Librarian (1970-1996).

A teacher of modern languages at Bishop’s Stortford College, Walter Strachan became interested in the genre of the artist’s book (or, in its French translation, livre d’artiste) in parallel with translations he was 
executing of the works of poets who inhabited Paris during the first decades of the twentieth century – Tzara, Eluard, and Apollinaire, for example, whose texts ultimately featured in Strachan’s collection.

Tristan Tzara, Juste présente (Paris: Galerie Louise Leiris, 1961). Illustrated by Sonia Delaunay

 

Amassed in repeated visits to Parisian collectors, printers, and book artists and sometimes offered to the collector as gifts over several decades, the Strachan Collection is extremely diverse both in terms of the artists and the authors it represents.  It contains two of the most important works for the history and development of the genre, both of whose process of publication was spearheaded and supervised by the legendary post-impressionist art dealer (his “stable” included Cézanne, Renoir, Gauguin, Van Gogh) and book editeur Ambroise Vollard (1866-1939).

The collection includes two Vollard items — see below images: (1) What is arguably the first artist’s book ever produced in the avant-garde, early twentieth-century sense of the genre that Strachan devoted his scholarship to: Verlaine’s Parallèlement, illustrated by Pierre Bonnard (1900); and (2) Balzac’s Le Chef d’Oeuvre Inconnu, illustrated by Pablo Picasso (1931).

 

Each artist takes a different approach to the concept of illustrating the book. Bonnard’s work is arguably the more innovatively designed of the two, for his illustrations encircle the text, as opposed to providing separate, squared-off vignettes of illustration to the text, as is the case in Picasso’s work.  The rose-colored, frenetic drawing style exhibited by Bonnard in Parallèlement lends the entire production the feeling of being illustrated with sanguine chalk—a feature frequently associated in the late-nineteenth century with the Rococo drawings of Fragonard or Watteau.  This drawing style claims for the art book the purview of the luxury product.

Both Bonnard’s and Picasso’s drawings are more or less illustrative of the actual texts, providing images that generally coincide with the development of the narratives provided. In the case of the 1931 Chef d’Oeuvre Inconnu, the first artist’s book ever to be commissioned from Picasso—an artist who would go on to be prolific in the genre—the illustrations go one step further and take the power of mimesis and the pull of abstraction as their subjects; these are both underlying concepts in Balzac’s narrative as well as powerful motivators for the work of Picasso in the 1930s.  For the man who had invented Cubism (along with Braque) and whose art was currently in a broadly neoclassical phase, the importance of reconciling the live model with a kind of abstracted ideal retained all of the force with which Balzac presents it.  Picasso’s illustrations include both the more traditionally representative (the painter drawing his model) and abstract (the set of line-dot drawings that dominate the “introduction” he provides for the reader [not part of the Taylorian’ sheets from this book).

Pierre Reversy. Le chant des morts. Illustrated by Pablo Picasso (Paris: Tériade, 1948)

The successful marriage of disparate parts and influences that is represented by the genre of the artist’s book— edited, authored, illustrated, printed, etched/engraved/lithographed, and published by a litany of different people with disparate ideas—ironically finds its fullest and arguably most famous expression in this particular livre, whose text and illustrations both insist on the inability of the painter to successfully bind together the real and the ideal.

Dr. Camille Mathieu, Lecturer in Art History and Visual Culture, University of Exeter

Photo credits: Nick Hearn & Clare Hills-Nova (Taylor Institution Library)

 

 

 

 

Further reading

Le livre d’artiste: a catalogue of the W.J. Strachan gift to the Taylor Institution: exhibited at the Ashmolean Museum, Ox, 1987 (Oxford: Ashmolean Museum and Taylor Institution, 1987).

W.J. Strachan. The artist and the book in France: the 20th century livre d’artiste (London: Owen, 1969)