Bookbinding, past and present

The art of bookbinding has not only survived the advent of mass production, but continues to grow and thrive, thanks to its dedicated practitioners. Prime examples of the craft – past and present – are currently on display at two exhibitions, which began in tandem with the Seventh International Forum of Fine Bookbinding, hosted by the Greek branch of Amis de la Reliure d’Art (ARA). The forum ended last week, but the exhibitions, at the Gennadius Library and the Melina Cultural Center, run till December 15. The items on show at «Treasures from the Gennadius Library: 1464-1911» have all come from the the library’s own exceptional collection. Bookbinder Vangelio Tzanetatou, who curated the exhibition and wrote the catalog, gave Kathimerini English Edition a guided tour and explained the philosophy behind her selections. Although, as Tzanetatou explains, bookbinding is quite simply «a matter of the shape of the cover and how it is attached to the book,» the art employs a wealth of materials and intricate techniques. While choosing bindings that reflect the variety of the collection and others that display certain peculiarities, the curator has kept in mind the need to reveal the workings of this arcane world to the uninitiated. Accompanying the exhibits, Tzanetatou’s clear diagrams illustrate methods that have been used to attach covers to boards, insert pages, construct and support spines, enclose books in cases, fasten them with clasps, and decorate their covers, spines and pages. Binding materials used in the exhibits range from paper, vellum, parchment and leather – all subject to different treatments – to ivory and metal, sometimes adorned by silversmith’s work. Among the treasures on display is a highly unusual binding with an inlaid decoration of leather in a scale pattern, once owned by Lord Vernon, a 19th-century book collector. Experts will appreciate the mixture of 16th-century techniques with 19th-century repairs which have made this book difficult to date definitively, but even novices will be struck by its beauty and ingenuity. A tiny Arabic prayer book is written in minute letters on thin parchment and has illuminated headings. The book is covered in red morocco on the sides and flap, which are brass-painted and clear-lacquered, with quotations from the Koran and other decoration. The interplay of styles and techniques and the cross-fertilization of ideas from one culture to another are apparent in the range of bindings on show here. With examples from Italian Renaissance and Greek monastic style to Persian and Islamic bindings, this is an intriguing exhibition. The catalog supplies details of each exhibit and a useful glossary of terms used in the craft. One of the most beautiful items is a «Life of Marcus Aurelius,» printed on blue paper, one of the new products made possible by the import of new dyes such as indigo, as Tzanetatou explains. But every single item here merits seeing. At the City of Athens Melina Cultural Center, 168 bindings from around the world demonstrate the ongoing vigor of the bookbinder’s art. Modernism, which swept the art world in the early 1900s, had a powerful impact on bookbinding, says Tzanetatou, and its influence on design is still visible in many of the books on display. All contemporary trends are represented here, from the resolutely traditionalist, reproducing the materials and methods of the past, to the innovative, playing with new materials, treatments and structures. Since then, says Tzanetatou, the major forces for change have been the English school of the 1960s, which expanded the notion of what could be done to books, and the American school of creating book-objects, some of them works of art intended solely for display. Master Czech bookbinder Jan Bohuslav Sobota’s «Glass Fairy Tale» exemplifies the innovative end of the craft. Working with what Tzanetatou describes as «possibly the only new material available – plexiglass,» Sobota has created a book with glass pages on which the fairy tale is hand-painted. Windows set into the front and back covers show the painting on the glass. His wife, Jarmila Jelena Sobotava, has created a three-dimensional work of Kafka’s «Castle,» where the binding forms walls and battlements around the book. Unlike some book-objects however, this is not intended purely as an object of admiration, but can be taken down from the shelf and read like any ordinary book. Other eye-catching works include Alain Taral’s exquisitely crafted wooden inlay binding; and Odette Drapeau’s meticulous binding and case made of sharkskin with a collage decoration. Many fine examples in this exhibition are by Greek bookbinders. One of the most unusual is Silinia Pedelidou’s delightful concertina-shaped book, with her own text written in Spanish, watercolors and pop-up, fold-out elements. Visitors should bring official identification to the Gennadius Library, as strict security precautions are in force. The Greek scene Though Greece has a long tradition of bookbinding and some very talented people in the field, there is no official school for new practitioners and aspiring bookbinders have no choice but to train abroad, an issue which may finally have attracted notice in the right quarters, since the recent ARA forum was run in cooperation with the Greek Culture Ministry, the Municipality of Athens, the Gennadius Library and the National Book Center. Gennadius exhibition: 9 a.m. – 5 p.m. Mon.-Fri., 9 a.m. – 2 p.m. Sat.; Melina Center: 9 a.m. – 1 p.m., 5-9 p.m. except Mon. and Sun. afternoon.

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