101. The Graphic Arts
A typical morning for me. I have been up all night, have bathed and now relax in a yukata, sitting in the reading chair by the windows before going to bed. It is nearing summer and daybreak comes early. I donít need electric lights to read. Cardiff continues to have blue-sky day after blue-sky day with less of the expected rains. The windows of my apartment face southeast and the moment that the rising sun tops the taller buildings on the Hayes, I must pull the drapes closed to protect the art on the walls from direct sunlight.
In the bath, I read paperbacks. In bed, I read from my Kindle which provides its own light. In my chair, I pursue my favorite mode of reading, a hardcover book, preferably octavo size. These days it is just such a perfectly sized book, Running with Sherman by Christopher McDougall. This is a true account of the rescue of an abused burro who recovers so well that McDougall intends to enter himself and Sherman in the International Leadville [Colorado] Pack Burro Race. I can guess the ending, as Iím not yet there.
I am enjoying the book, but this isnít meant to be a book review. I paused to ponder the wonderful fit of the book in my hands, the right size, weight, and thickness. The right size book is a tactile pleasure. This is simply a hardy trade book. Taking the time to appreciate it, I am enamored with its physicality, captivated by the intrinsic idea of a book. Opening its cover is lifting the lid of a coffer to learn what wealth it might contain. A fine press book is the enhancement of that content. This doesnít happen to be a fine press book.
What is the cause of this spark inside me when I see text and illustration combined in a fine press book? I see a very long history of those who shared this passion. There it is in the Japanese emakimono. The emakimono is a book in scroll form combining calligraphy and painting to tell a story. One views it like a slow motion film, unrolling it from one end while rolling up the other, a progression of scenes drift by. A similar effect is achieved with Japanís contemporary manga. The emakimono goes back to at least the 10th century, a portable museum. These handscrolls are marked with red seals. Those are the stamped signatures of the scrollís owners, like bookplates on the endpaper inside a bookís front cover. In later years, artists also signed their works with similar red seals.
The Japanese did not invent this graphic art, but learned it from the Chinese. The landscape scrolls of China evolved into the narrative scrolls of Japan. Nor had the Chinese invented it. Scrolls travelled with Buddhism from India. Sutra means string or thread in Sanskrit, as in the thread that binds or sews. The Japanese and Chinese painted on paper and silk. The patachitra of India were cloth, and they werenít always rolled into scrolls, but sometimes were folded zig-zagging accordion style, closely resembling a codex. In the Library of Congress is the Gandhara scroll made of birch bark. 2,000 years old, it is one of the oldest Buddhist manuscripts.
We can go back 4,000 years to find the oldest illustrated book, an Egyptian scroll on leather at a time when most would have been papyrus. It was Coffin Texts, hieroglyphs combined with illustrations, and containing The Book of Two Ways, a guide to help the dead navigate the afterlife. Eight feet long and written on both sides, it predated the Egyptian Book of the Dead.
Before the graphic arts were made portable in books (scrolls), they were carved into stone. Iíve seen this at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Iíve seen this at the British Museum. The museums brought back ancient stones from Mesopotamia on which we can see rows of cuneiform flowing across bas reliefs. Lamassu, a winged bull or lion with the head of a bearded man, a deity to guard the gates of Babylon, there is often cuneiform between his legs. Is this not the earliest form of graphic art?
And then when I consider cave paintings, what I think I am seeing are illustrations missing their text. The storytellers had not yet invented writing. I feel sure there were stories that were relayed orally.
By the way, where are the practice sketches that led to the finished paintings in the Lascaux Cave, in Chauvet-Pont-díArc, and Cueve del Castillo? These skills could not have appeared all of a sudden. I suspect Neanderthal and Cro-Magnon dispersed illustrations everywhere through the region, but in the open they eventually decayed, were erased by thousands of years of weather leaving only the works deep in caves.
Back to the book that would have been on my lap had I not decided to write. I am very much enjoying Running with Sherman. While not a fine press book, it is sturdy, a utilitarian construction that will last generations. It has more aesthetic value than would a Kindle edition. Iím not unhappy with the photographs that are included in Running with Sherman, but it would have been far more beautiful if illustrated with many drawings. An artist could have captured more moments and perspectives that the camera this time missed.
The sun has not yet breached the rooftop of the Hayes Apartments. There is still time to do a little more reading before I have to close the drapes.