Week 5: Chapters 11 and 12

“All art is erotic.” – Gustav Klimt (http://www.arthistoryarchive.com/arthistory/symbolism/Gustav-Klimt.html)

This week in Chapter 11 we studied the bridge, Art Nouveau (1890-1910), which crossed from the Victorian era  to Chapter 12, “The Genesis of Twentieth Century Design.” A “human bridge” of the era was German designer Peter Behrens (1868-1940), whose six-color woodcut “Untitled/The Kiss”  was “largely responsible for popularizing the Jugendstil (or German Art Nouveau) movement” [Ola Robbins, http://www.quailhollow365.com/blog/2011/02/artwork-of-the-day-peter-behrens-the-kiss/) when it was published in in Pan, volume 4, n. 2 (1898) (http://www.spaightwoodgalleries.com/Pages/Behrens.html).

"The Kiss" by Behrens“The Kiss” embodies many Art Nouveau characteristics:

–Flowing lines which according to Robbins “refer to the ever-present and sometimes irrational movement within nature”
–Attention to craftsmanship (six colors aren’t simple to do in a wood block print)

The androgyny of the figures was somewhat controversial, which garnered even more attention for the movement. Reprints of this work are widely available today as posters and postcards. The original artist’s prints can be found in many museums; a print which is implied to be an artist’s print is available for “only” $3500 at http://www.spaightwoodgalleries.com/Pages/Behrens.html

(image from http://www.moma.org/collection/browse_results.php?criteria=O%3AAD%3AE%3A438&page_number=2&template_id=1&sort_order=1)

"The Kiss" by Gustav KlimtAround ten years later (1908), Austrian Gustav Klimt (1862-1918) produced his famous painting also entitled “The Kiss.” According to Wikipedia, this painting is “a masterpiece of Vienna Jugendstil—Viennese Art Nouveau,“  a movement which followed the Berlin Secession of which Behrens was a part.  Klimt’s work mirrors the simplified, idealized female facial features of Behren’s woodcut, and retains some of the curvilinear flow, but is moving toward later linear geometric designs.

(image from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Kiss_%28Klimt_painting%29)

I find it slightly ironic that while Behren’s “The Kiss” was designed for reproduction and printing, and of course Klimt’s painting “The Kiss” was not, it is much easier to find a reproduction Klimt’s work today.  Of the two, however, I think Behren’s work would be more likely to be mistaken for a more contemporary piece, if only because it has a more “graphic design” quality and foreshadows some of the flowing-haired album covers and posters that were produced in the 1960’s.  Still, I suspect that if you asked any random person sitting in Starbucks today, that person would be more likely to recognize Klimt’s piece. This, too, is somewhat ironic, since graphic design is by nature aimed at the large public. Through modern reproduction techniques, a unique piece of art can enter the realm of popular reproduced graphic design.


Week 4: Chapters 9 and 10

‘Classic.” A book which people praise and don’t read.” — Mark Twain (http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/authors/m/mark_twain_5.html) (“But if it’s a Kelmscott edition, they can enjoy looking at it.” –OG)

This week we read about “Graphic Design and the Industrial Revolution” in Chapter 9, including a visit to the Victorian era and considerable details about the vagaries of typographic design. We also studied “The Arts and Crafts Movement and Its Heritage” in Chapter 10, a chapter which emphasized book design. For the first time, I appreciated the artistic design of our textbook. In this class, we first concentrated on the many images presented in our text, then began trying to unravel the huge ball of detailed written information. Studying our book’s illustrations and the histories of modern book design this week, I finally realized that our text is more than just a text. It is a gestalt of illustration, information, typography, layout and printing. Looking at a modern book as a piece of art/craft is an interesting but disturbing experience. I would love to see a Morris edition of Chaucer, but would the beauty of the object detract from my concentration on the work itself?

One continuing theme in all of our readings is the necessity to swim with the current or drown. Job security as a trained scribe was doomed by the proliferation of the printing press (although calligraphy is practiced to this day). Scribes tried to hold back the tide with legal action that cried “unfair competition” to no avail. Each successive improvement in printing techniques resulted in the uprooting of workers who had mastered a skill that was rendered obsolete. Workers would protest or sabotage or even riot, but progress continued. Some clever designers, such as Howard Pyle, changed with the changing times. Pyle began illustrating with pen and ink and moved on to half-tone illustrations, then two-color and full-color illustrations. (See Meggs, page 172.) Those craftsmen who couldn’t or wouldn’t learn new skills faded from the graphic scene.

Skills never seem to completely vanish, however. The Arts and Crafts Movement deplored the poor quality that printed materials eventually fell into. For instance, Kelmscott Press brought master craftsman Hooper out of retirement to contribute to the production of exquisite hand-pressed books. (Meggs, page 183.) Progress in modern printing technology continued to accelerate, but even the professions of lithographers or wood block cutters or inkers could no longer employ thousands of people, appreciation for the products of methods that were no longer economically viable did not totally disappear.

Design and technology are now entering a new era with the proliferation of virtual communication. Publishing houses are tightening their belts or closing, just as lithography houses once did. Printed newspapers are slowly becoming obsolete, just as tablets, scrolls, and broadsides once did. This week, a 7-inch iPad was introduced; Kindle continues to gain popularity; Google Books offers many publications online. Our book has amply illustrated so far that people employed in traditional publications need to look ahead and develop new skills to suit the new technologies. But just as books as works of art were still appreciated after modern printing methods were established, I believe that published materials as a tactile experience will always still be appreciated and never disappear entirely. There is hope still for bibliophiles. To quote a recent NPR program: “One reader in particular told us that when he has a book that he loves, he wants to be able to access it in any format. So with the Harry Potter series and the [Song of Ice and Fire] series, he’s actually bought all of those books as print books and as e-books, just because they matter that much to him …” (http://www.npr.org/2012/10/23/163414069/americas-facebook-generation-is-reading-strong)

This week, it seems that studying history is a bit like gazing into a hazy crystal ball to determine the future.

Week 3: Chapters 5 – 8

God help us — for art is long, and life so short.” –Johann Wolfgang Goethe von Goethe, Faust http://www.goodreads.com/work/quotes/16721-faust-eine-trag-die

We continue the march through graphic design history, a tale sometimes surprisingly dramatic and bloodthirsty. Who knew that the DaVinci of typography, Gutenberg, was cheated of his own print shop? Or that in France in the 1700s unauthorized use of the state typeface was punishable by death?

Chapter 5: Printing Comes to Europe

Last week, we learned that movable type was not useful to the Chinese because of the great number of Chinese letterforms. This week, we discover that in Europe, movable type changed the European world.

Before movable type, as early as the 1300s, block printing was mass producing playing cards, devotional prints of saints, and eventually wooden picture books with religious function.
Some of the first propaganda was fed to the public in the guise of books on “the art of dying,” designed to convince parishioners to leave their worldly goods to the Church.
The first unions, in the form of trade guilds, kept progress at a slow pace by insisting on divisions between wood block designers and wood block cutters.
In the early 1400s, Gutenberg assembled the first movable type printing machines and shop, took on the arduous task of printing the forty-two line Bible, partnered with the devil in the person of Fust (proto-Faustus) who repossessed Gutenberg’s shop on the eve of the Bible’s publication. (Fust established the first powerful movable-type publishing family dynasty, but he did almost get burned at the stake for witchcraft when trying to sell printed Bibles as manuscripts. Even then, bible salesmen were suspect.)

Chapter 6: The German Illustrated Book

Human nature never changes. Scribes began to see the writing on the vellum as printing streamlined the work of publishing.In Genoa, scribes attempted to have printing banned, and in Paris scribes sued on the basis of “unfair competition.” Nonetheless, progress in printing continued.

More and more books became available to the public, and illiteracy slowly ceased to be the norm.
Printer Albrecht Pfister planted the beginnings of the illustrated typographic book when he added wood block illustrations to his books.
Travel books were created with lush illustrations.
Broadsides, the precursors to posters, became common. The everyday man was inundated with political and religious broadsides; Fox News’ ancestor, the broadside, spread such important information as deformed births.
The art of printing slowly spread from its birthplace in Mainz to Italy, to England and France. The first typographic book in English was printed by William Caxton in 1475. It seems that all of the advances in printing had not erased the heavy burden of those involved in bookmaking since the scribe Florentius complained (see blog, week 2); William Caxton wrote:
“”my pen is owrn, my hand is weary and shaky, my are are dimmed from too much looking at white paper” (Meggs, page 91.


GID 041 Week 2

Good design goes to heaven; bad design goes everywhere.

— Mieke Gerritzen (not the Scribe Florentius)

(from http://designwashere.com/80-inspiring-quotes-about-design/)

A bit meatier this week. (I’m still chewing.) We read four chapters:

Chapter 1:  The Invention of Writing

  • From the caves at Lascaux to Thailand and Mesopotamia, touching on Egyptian hieroglyphics and illustrated manuscripts, the book briefly chronicles mankind’s attempts to record, inform or authenticate by making marks.
  • An occasional graceful turn of phrase: “Perhaps the extensive use of luminous blue and green was a response to the intense blue of the Nile and the rich green of the foliage along its banks; a cool streak of life winding through vast reaches of dessert.” (Meggs, page 19, regarding illustrated manuscripts of The Book of the Dead)

Chapter 2:  Alphabets

  • Yes, the building blocks of written communication — but sometimes I’d rather look at an entire building than scrutinize every single brick. Fewer details in this chapter would leave room for more images elsewhere.
  • The author waxes poetic again, this time about the Greek alphabet: ” … the letters became symmetrical geometric constructions of timeless beauty.” (Meggs, page 27) Does this enthusiasm explain the great number of details included about various alphabets?
  • Some hints for typographers and designers: ” … vertical ascenders followed by horizontal curved strokes below convey a kinetic rhythm as it moves across the page.” (Meggs, page 25, regarding the Aramic alphabet)
  • The author’s conclusion might explain the inclusion of so many details about alphabets: “Alphabetic writing became the mortar binding whole communities against limitations imposed by memory, time, and place.” (Meggs, page 33)

Chapter 3:  The Asian Contribution

  • In a book about the history of Eastern graphic design, would there be a chapter on “The Western Contribution”?
  • Chinese calligraphy, paper, printing, movable type … incredible inventions born in China. (If Chinese calligraphy had invented a phonic alphabet with a limited number of characters, making movable type practical, would the effect have been as profound on Chinese society as the effect of Gutenberg’s printing press on Western society?)
  • Again, the author provides hints for designers and typographers: “… every stroke and dot is given the energy of a living thing.” (Meggs, page 36, regarding “The Album of Eight Leaves,” painted by Fangying.)

Chapter 4:  Illuminated Manuscripts

  • The term “illuminated manuscripts” is used in the textbook for “all decorated and illustrated handwritten books from the late Roman Empire until printed books replaced manuscripts …” (Meggs, page 46). Previously, the text used the term “illustrated manuscripts” to describe Egyptian carvings and writings which combine illustrations and words.  Would the beautiful Chinese paintings with words and illustrations be considered … prints?
  • A major purpose of illuminated manuscripts, particularly in the thousand years of the Middle Ages, was to illustrate religious teachings. This did not preclude a little exercise of healthy human ego. For a version of Pope Gregory’s “Moralia in Job” (Commentary on Job), the scribe Florentius designed a dazzling full-page commemorative labyrinth which when deciphered reads “remember the unworthy Florentius,” and placed it opposite the monogram of Christ. (Meggs, pages52-53).

(image from http://iccd360.blogspot.com/)

Florentius was also the scribe who exhorted persons who handled his manuscripts to treat them gently because of the torment he endured creating them.

“A man who knows not how to write may think this no great feat. But only try to do it yourself and you shall learn how arduous is the writer’s task. It dims your eyes, makes your back ache and knits your chest and belly together—it is a terrible ordeal for the whole body. So, gentle reader, turn these pages carefully and keep your finger far from the text. For just as hail plays havoc with the fruits of spring, so a careless reader is a bane to books and writing.”


Perhaps he had reason to complain of suffering. In Scribes, Scripts and Books,Leila Avrin writes, “He [the scribe] sometimes expressed his feelings to his fellow scribes and to posterity by writing in the margin of his quire notes such as:

‘Thin ink, bad vellum, difficult text.’

‘The parchment is hairy.’

‘Thank God, it will soon be dark.’ “(page 224) http://books.google.com/books?id=4q1MHDoFVwkC&pg=PA224&lpg=PA224&dq=the+scribe+florentius&source=bl&ots=vCv0Slwh0f&sig=GNaS3D_tboQNmTW8VC989rkbfw4&hl=en&sa=X&ei=ioV1UMKAHo7UigLWroHQAg&ved=0CDUQ6AEwAQ#v=onepage&q=the%20scribe%20florentius&f=false

And thus it begins … (continues?)

“Design can be art. Design can be aesthetics. Design is so simple, that’s why it is so complicated.” –Paul Rand

Does a history ever actually begin, or just continue? I guess a History Class has finite limits in Time. Ask me in about 12 weeks.

I am so-o-o glad we are not using the Third Edition of A History of Graphic Design by Philip B. Meggs. I checked it out of the library while waiting for Amazon to deliver my own (horribly expensive) text. The illustrations were fascinating at first glance. On the second look, I noticed how illustration changed from the organic lines of the cave paintings of Lascaux to modern digitized perfect and angular lines. (More advanced tools don’t necessarily improve a craft.) On the third viewing, I realized (duh!) that a LOT of illustrations were in black and white (for example, page 270: ” 17-31. Theo van Doesburg, composition XI, 1918. In a careful balancing of rectangles of primary color on a white field …” Color? What color?)

Then Meggs’ History of Graphic Design, Fifth Edition, arrived. More color, better color. (Digitized color printing cheaper?) Still too many black and white photos of color work, but fewer than in previous editions. Before buying any more art texts, I think I’ll hold out for the holographic editions that allow perfect reproduction of color and texture and views from all sides. Then I’ll hop in my hover car and fly by the nearest museum ..

I can see how recording any history objectively and completely would be impossible. I doubt I could even recreate one hour of my own day in my own living room fully, much less the entire history of a genre. Still, I miss some of the deleted illustrations from the Third Edition.

None of the prefaces quite answered the question, “What is graphic design?” Every art class seems to address the “What is Art?” dilemma. Enquiring minds need to know. What is “graphic design”? Is graphic design solely for communication? Must it be reproducible to be graphic design? Can it be merely decorative? How does it differ from fine art? Is “graphic design” a real genre, or just a convenient category for discussion? what are we talking about here?

It’s  a mystery.

At least I didn’t accidentally return my new text instead of the old edition to the library after all. Things must be looking up.