Reviewed by Sourav Roy
How does one review a book like BibliOdyssey? This is not just a rhetorical question to open a book review, but also a genuine query. Because though BibliOdyssey feels like a book and looks like a (very handsome) book, is anything but.
It started its journey as bibliodyssey.blogspot.com/ a cabinet of curiosities of visual Materia Obscura, collected and curated from the depths of public internet archives, by PK from Sydney. When reborn in a book form, it retains most of the serendipity and adventure of its original form. The glorious randomness, the free association of thoughts, genres and timelines and above all the obsessive-compulsive joy of hopping from one breathtaking visual to the next. For all practical purposes, it’s hardbound internet with a gilded cover.
The kind of entity we all hoped internet would be when it grew up. A boundless sea of beauty, wisdom and surprises, where all you need to set sail is a blue boat of hyperlink.
The review tries to mirror that experience. Picking ten random pages from the book, I have paired them with ten random bookmarks from my personal collection. The only connection between them: those pages prompted me to look up these links, afresh. This is kind of coming full circle, as BibliOdyssey too, started its journey as a list of random bookmarks in PK’s computer.
May you bump into more and more wonder as you sail on the blue boat of hyperlink.
[Please note: all images are hyperlinked to their sources. Happy clicking!]
Page 12: A Flying Ship and Alice’s Flight of Fancy
Formally trained as a graphic artist in the far east of Russia, Sergey Tyukanov combines elements of myth, folklore and fantasy in his unique etchings and paintings.
Tyukanov is an artist fixated, among other things, on Alice in Wonderland. And who can blame him? Even Salvador Dalí could not resist the siren call of it. Here is an excellent hyperlink about a rare edition with original illustrations by Salvador Dalí.
Page 72: Victorian Music Sheet Covers and a Parisian Love Story
Music sheet covers were big business in the 19th century. Changes in technology and social habits fuelled demand for illustrated sheet music, particularly among the Victorian middle class. Innovations in piano design meant that by the middle of the century, upright pianos became a focus of family entertainment in many homes, in a similar manner to the television set in the 20th century. At the same time, people were attending more choral society performances and public concerts, and informal pub sing-songs were giving way to dedicated singing saloons. There was a growth in purpose built venues – music halls – that greatly contributed to the appeal of certain songs and artists. People clamoured for the music sheets so they could hear the popular music of the day in their own homes. The development of the lithographic printing technique, in which images were drawn with greasy crayons onto lime stones, made reproducing vivid colour illustrations easier and cheaper. Subject matter for the covers ranged from the nationalistic and political to absurd and humorous. Satires and comical images were especially prevalent as a reflection of the often light hearted nature of the music hall songs.
This page made me think about the circular nature of things, i.e. music album covers being a modern day avatar of music sheet covers. It eventually brought me to book cover art. This hyperlink celebrates first edition book covers in the famed antiquarian books section of Shakespeare and Company, Paris, via a love story between a skeleton and a vampire victim. Directed by Spike Jonze, stunningly felt-animated by Olympia Le-Tan.
Page 86: Sleepwalking into a Orwellian Nightmare a.k.a. Robida’s Future
French illustrator, Albert Robida, combined humour with an undercurrent of foreboding, in a trilogy of prescient futuristic books published in the last two decades of the 19th Century. He anticipated social advancements in the status of women, public transport and the quality of prisons; alongside improved mass killing machines, a polluted atmosphere and environmental destruction. His books were populated with imagined technologies and gadgetry – including installations of ‘television’ and ‘videoconferencing’ – but he seemed to suggest in his writing that there was no real progress ahead in the quality of life for the people. instead, there would be a continual need to adapt to a perpetual onslaught of unnecessary new devices. Robida’s ambiguous portrayal of a dystopian utopia suggests that he can be cast as either a luddite or a technophile, depending upon your point of view.
[The third book in the series was called La Vie Électrique (Electric Life) from 1892].
Robida’s predictions for a technological dystopia made my mind wander and latch onto this reader’s comment on a Guardian article about the future of books. While I am all for e-books, this comment makes my mind break into a cold sweat. May it never come true.
Page 94: Pre-History of Surrealism vs. the Future of High Art
Giovanni Battista Braccelli was an obscure Florentine artist who produced an enigmatic series of nearly fifty etchings for his 1624 suite, Bizzarie di Varie Figure. The paired acrobatic characters appear through the book to be fashioned out of random household and mechanical bric-a-brac such as plates, screws, rags, geometric shapes and even tennis rackets. Although associated with the tradition of mannerist grotesques, Braccelli’s playfully stylised figures were true originals. They are more closely connected to the cubist and surrealist movements of the 20th century than with any contemporary influences, except perhaps as parody. The capricious forms resist a single, or even necessarily, a simple interpretation. As human simulacra, they evoke a correspondence with puppetry, dance and pantomime scenes, and they have even been touted as precursors to man-as-a-machine cybernetic culture of more recent times. For whatever reasons after it was published, Bizzarie di Varie Figure drifted into a mysterious stream of esoterica known only to a select minority of artists and bibliophiles (Horace Walpole noted in his copy in the 1700s that the author had a ‘wild imagination’) and wasn’t rediscovered and republished for a wider audience until the mid-20th century. Consequently, there are less than ten original copies known to exist and only two of them are complete.
Is there a genome embedded into each piece of art that helps the eye map a connection between two pieces of art even if they are generations apart and look nothing like each other? If Braccelli can be related Picasso and Dalí, there are definitely more genome strands to be unfurled. art.sy is doing exactly that. It might change the business of art forever.
Page 109: When Maps are Not Just Maps
The story goes that the brother of a certain fourteen-year-old girl was sick in bed and needed cheering up. The enterprising girl found an image of Punch (from Punch & Judy) riding a dolphin which she transformed into a comical map of England. This became the inspiration for her series of a dozen maps of European countries made out of stereotype caricatures and published in 1869, along with a short descriptive verse for each picture by the author, Aleph. In the introduction, Aleph tells of his hope that the amusing drawings will encourage young people to be interested in geography. Whether or not a fourteen-year-old girl was capable of developing all the sophisticated political and caricatural nuances portrayed is perhaps a moot point. Aleph was later revealed as the pseudonym of the journalist, William Harvey. Russia is formed by Tsar Alexander II standing back-to-back with a brown bear; Scotland is formed by the kilt-clad piper ‘struggling through the bogs’; and mainland Italy is represented by the revolutionary patriot, Giuseppe garibaldi, waving the flag and wearing the Cap of Liberty, while standing tall over the diminutive opponent of Italian unification, Pope Pius IX, as Sardinia.
Compared to the maps above these maps are science fiction. They track the tourist traffic in the whole world via geotagging the holiday photos on the net and colour codes it to help you travel off the beaten path. But both do the same thing actually , that is add a lot of fun into the drab life of maps.
Page 110: Elephants of Alphabets, Horses of Nudes
Arabic scripts have an intrinsic flexibility making them perfect vectors for a diverse range of calligraphic expression. Their curvilinear nature and and malleability inspired radical experimentation throughout history, but it wasn’t until about the 15th century, when the restrictions on religious iconography were loosened, the artists in Iran began to conjure shapes such as birds and animals from the script. The figural or zoomorphic calligraphy has traditionally incorporated text from the Koran. In the process of artistic abstraction of the letters into visual word forms, new layers of nuanced meaning may develop, where knowledge of the language is undoubtedly required for a complete understanding. The lion, bird and elephant images here are thought to be from a Kufic script from the 19th century.
Muslim script animals apparently are neighbours of Hindu animals made up of nudes (point 2, nari ashva). Why else would they share adjacent alcoves in my mind? Though they have completely different spiritual interpretations, we should love all the animals equally, irrespective of their religion.
Page 120: Napoleon, the king of cliches
At the beginning of the 19th century, a unique array of political and artistic circumstances conspired to produce one of history’s great targets for the caricaturist’s pen in the figure of Napoleon Bonaparte. Although subversive cartoons were hardly a new phenomenon, the military campaigns threatening Europe and the Middle East, combined with the megalomaniac and self-promotional tendencies of the great man himself and the widespread belief that an invasion of England was imminent, fuelled an industry of satirical illustrators led by James Gilray. English anti-Napoleonic caricatures in prints, newspapers and handbills were very efficient in arousing national patriotism, and the thematic and stylistic elements significantly influences the popular illustrative response in Europe. The rare German prints seen here date from the year prior to Napoleon’s eventual defeat at Waterloo. They are fairly vicious in their symbolism, casting Napoleon as the devil’s spawn and suggesting a legacy built on the deaths of his victims.
From Napoleon caricature to a Napoleon painting is not a big leap. But it brought back all the memories when I was standing in front of this painting in the Louvre and the excellent guide was doing a vivid art historical sketch about how the king was a royal arsehole and the painter was no better, despite being magnificent at their respective jobs.
Page 122: Reading with Taccola and Eating with Vinci
Mariano Taccola was known as the Archimedes of Siena and produced some of the earliest examples of the new illustrated style of engineering and machine manuals, that came into vogue during the Renaissance. Taccola’s training as a sculptor honed his drafting skills, and the social realities of Siena – lacking a stable water supply and being in a semi-permanent state of war – provided the technological subject matter for his imagination. The sketch book images here are details from De Ingeneis (The Engines), and Taccola was not averse to including whimsical drawings alongside the more serious creations. He has been variously credited with inventing pumps, bridge building and transmission systems, underwater breathing devices, water and windmill axle mechanisms and less likely, the trebuchet and catapult. Despite any difficulties we have now in attempting to identify specific inventions by Taccola, his manuals are important for their documentation of the innovative excellence of the Sienese engineers of the time period. Leonardo da Vici was known to have viewed some of Taccola’s manuscript work prior to sketching his own series of machine technology masterpieces.
A foiled plan to visit Vinci, Leonardo’s village of birth, while I was in Tuscany is what is behind this bookmark. If you are ever there, don’t forget to dine well. I will be sighing over here.
Page 143: The Cat Out of the Bag and into the Rain Cloud
Many ancient history students will be familiar with the parade of visual gags displayed in the 1852 classic, The Comic History of Rome. This was the second collaboration by two members of staff at the humorous Punch magazine: Gilbert a Beckett and John Leech. Their first outing had similarly combined fact and satire in retelling the history of England. Beckett openly pitched the texts at people ‘willing to acquire information [and] in doing so as much amusement as possible’. Leech was very much a contemporary of George Cruikshank, and another inheritor of the caricaturist mantle from the school of Hogarth, Rowlandson and Gilray. His illustrative output for magazines and books (including Dickens) tended to be a little less severe and sarcastic than the work of his predecessors. The image here of Fulvia, the Roman political operative and third wife of mark Antony, is one of a large number of amusing intertextual details dotted throughout the book.
It’s one thing making up fake histories behind proverbs and it’s quite another to actually believe in them. Snopes shreds these urban hoaxes to pieces.
Page 156: Of Ghost Tracks and Bird Clouds
Annie Besant was a prominent advocate in Britain for social reform and the advancement of women. Her intellectual development took her from Anglicanism to workers rights and strike organisation, through Fabianism and socialist politics, to birth control promotion, secularism, theosophy and home rule campaigning in India. She was a friend to the likes of Shaw, Krishnamurti and Gandhi and became both president of the Theosophy Society and the Indian National Congress Party.
Her theosophical beliefs were influenced by a meeting with Madame Blavatsky and the present work – Thought-Forms – was an attempt to depict ‘the forms clothed in living lights of other worlds’ and “changes of colours in the cloud-like ovoid, or aura, that encompasses all living beings”.
The thought-forms reminded me of many paintings of Wassily Kandinsky and Joan Miró but this one by Lyonel Feininger is, dare I say, spiritually the closest? They would have liked each others company too, I guess. Or not.