Lucy Bayley, Academic Engagement with Special Collections
The simplest forms can carry the most profound and difficult messages. Beyond the Pale is a new display of prints in the Proscholium (entrance hall of the Old Bodleian Library, Oxford) responding to the ‘black square’.
Beyond the Pale consists of responses invited by the Bodleian Bibliographical Press in parallel to a historical display taking place in the Weston Library – Foreshadowed – curated by Andrew Spira, exploring precursors to Kasimir Malevich’s Black Square (1915), a painting created to bring art history to an end. In Foreshadowed, items drawn from Bodleian Special Collections range from Robert Fludd’s 17th-century representation of the universe as a black square, to the black pages used in mourning the death of a monarch, to use of black pages in 19th-century magazines as an absurdity, a negation of meaning.
As a contemporary equivalent, the prints in Beyond the Pale connect to a range of themes. There are expressions of mourning, of personal loss, of grief for the environment, or anger at political conflict and repression, or playful encouragements to recalibrate our vision of ‘black’. These simple shapes are far from static or lifeless. Several embody references to arts and performance-music, ceramics, drawing, reading, and printing itself. Others, with an inviting tactile surface, tempt the viewer to transgress the square.
Historically, the black square appeared in publications as an expression of mourning. In the prints displayed in Beyond the Pale, there is likewise a theme of melancholy prompted by the black square as a space for reflection. Bridget Bowie’s collograph Unfolded, printed onto the pages of an old book with personal significance, for example, shows the black square as a space to reflect on the loss of a close friend. “I am interested in how we process our emotional responses to loss, places, objects of significance, and the passage of time. I don’t attempt to replace things, but explore how we can find the positive in what remains.”
The pages of a book have also become the basis for the monoprint Motion on Curved Paths by Emily Lucas. Printed on encyclopaedia paper with elements of stitching, at the top you can make out the line, ‘there is a terrible tendency to talk about it.’ For John McDowell, the use of a text as well as a connection to melancholy is made through the pooling of ink from 17th-century printed text of Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy. In this case the black square has been transformed into a single solid black circle, laid sequentially in the book.
For others, the black square becomes a reflection on political conflict and censorship. Elizabeth Fraser has responded to the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. Bomb-like ornaments are nestled in the gaps of a wall of black rectangles created from the backs of woodtype. Another sea of black forms is evoked in a linoblock print by Anouska Brooks. In Corrine Welch’s printed and embroidered scroll, the black square or rectangle stands for redaction in public documents. Welch has created a reverse redaction of Priti Patel’s UK and Rwanda Migration and Economic Development Partnership, in Kigali on 14 April 2022. Welch writes:
‘The speech is digitally printed onto fabric and made into a scroll to illustrate the performative nature of the announcement of this conspicuously ‘tough approach’ to immigration. The reverse redaction is created by hand-embroidered tally marks revealing the hidden reality of the message. The tallies represent the thousands of individuals whose lives will be impacted by this unworkable and unethical policy.’
Many of the printmakers – William Alderson, Marina Debattista, John Christopher and Jemima Valentine and Harrison Taylor, included – have taken direct inspiration from Kasimir Malevich. Harrison Taylor’s block print recalls the cracking paint on the surface Malevich’s ‘Black Square’. Bringing ideas of wounding and healing, the page has been torn and stitched back up. There is a purposeful imperfection in the black revealing the texture of the print and giving it an elusive quality. For John Christopher and Jemima Valentine-Lake the reference to Malevich is a playful one, reimagining the artist not as a modernist but as someone who ‘secretly loved ornaments’.
For some the black square is a playful encouragement for both maker and reader. Isobel Lewis’s flag book, picutred above, is made to be handled. Created in letterpress, it’s filled with different words for black. Read it through or fan it out into different forms. Turn the pages of Paul Hatcher’s booklet Evolutions and see changes in the medlar block as he carved into, and printed with it. Patrick Goossens visualises the printing of the black square on a hand-press, portraying the press itself. Using etching, Claire Bayley imagines one black square seeping ink into a white square.
This sense of action is interpreted through references to performance by other artists. In The Mile Long Lane As Measured By My Body, by Alice Hackney the artist’s body becomes an imprint into a black square. Each layer of black is created by the view every quarter of a mile on the walk very familiar to the artist. For Sarah Bodman, it was a performance event during the pandemic in 2020 that led to Inside Stories, one page from her experimental book project Read With Me.
There are connections to ceramics (Graeme Hughes takes inspiration from a 3rd BC greenware bowl from the Ashmolean Collection), to film (Sophia Missaghian-Schirazi’s print is a proposal for a fictional movie poster called Sprig Thief), and to music. Linda Parr reimagines an alternative Black Album, referencing artist Richard Hamilton’s famous cover for the Beatles’ White Album. In a more whimsical way, Heidi Mozingo takes the black square to be the rests in music composition, as well as the rectangle form of the music stand, referring to Mozart’s statement that ‘the music is not in the notes but in the silence in between.’
- Beyond the Pale is on display until 6 November 2022, entrance hall of the Old Bodleian Library, Oxford. For more information visit Foreshadowed: Malevich’s Black Square and its Precursors | Visit the Bodleian Libraries (ox.ac.uk)
- Download a full list of works in this display
- Winning entries are: Linda Parr, Black Album, Monotype 1/1, Hawthorn dense black ink on Somerset smooth paper, 2022, Corinne Welch, The Hand of Friendship, fabric scroll – digital print and hand embroidery, 2022, and Harrison Taylor, Untitled, woodcut and stitching on paper, 2022.
- The judges for Beyond the Pale: Chris Fletcher, Tinashe Mushakavanhu, Jo Maddocks, Patrick Wildgust, Andrew Spira and Peter Lawrence
- Read an essay by Andrew Spira, related to Foreshadowed: Precedents of the Unprecedented: Black Squares Before Malevich – The Public Domain Review
- Practical printing and experiments in historical hand-press techniques take place at the Bodleian Bibliographical Press