Hilma af Klint and Innovations in Large-scale Abstractionist Art

“Adulthood,” from Group IV, the Ten Largest on stages of life,  developed in 1907 via mystical revelations during sceances.

Over a decade before Kandinsky and Malevich discovered the transcendence of non-objective painting, a spiritual thinker in Sweden was creating hundreds of giant abstract canvases, automatic drawings inspired by biomorphic shapes, and a series of squares that predated Albers by half a century.

Hilma af Klint: Paintings for the Future, the Guggenheim’s surprise blockbuster running through April 23, introduced the world to the glorious visions of a woman who believed that spirits were guiding her to create a temple laden with images that explored transcendentalism.

Armed with the best painterly education, Hilma soon abandoned her impressionist landscape leanings of the 1880s and by 1906, dedicated her life to channeling spiritual thought through references to biology, evolution, planetary discoveries, radio waves, and other scientific forms that were invisible to the eye.

1915 painting from Group IX/UV, The Dove, depicting planetary and astrological symbols

She began by creating large works representing big thoughts that she claimed were channeled to her by spirits via seances, but later developed a more personal style.

Take a look at Hilma’s work on our Flickr album. And listen to the audio tour of the show here.

And hear what the Guggenheim has to say about this remarkable, innovative, and otherwise unknown painter:

Photo-Science Pioneer Atkins Debuts Work in New York

Plate from Anna Atkins’ 1849-1850 Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions.

The New York literary and art world have spoken: nearly 150 years after photography pioneer Anna Atkins faded into obscurity, her work is receiving the tribute it deserves in the NYPL’s Wachenheim Gallery off Fifth Avenue – gorgeous, hand-crafted compositions of ephemeral marine flora in hand-stitched volumes, using a untested, new technology.

Volumes of Anna Atkins’ Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions, 1849-1850

Blue Prints: The Pioneering Photographs of Anna Atkins, on display through February 17, is a show that has it all – an artistic first, a publishing breakthrough, Victorian time travel back to Darwin’s day, and a resurrection story of a visionary woman rescued from history’s dustbin. Although this innovator was born in 1799, it’s the first full full-blown retrospective of her work.

The show centers on the achievements of a female amateur botanist, who came up with an ingenious method to use one of the latest technology breakthroughs to transform her specimen collection of British algae into the world’s first book illustrated entirely through photographs. It’s also the first scientific book illustrated that way.

In a day where smartphones have made image taking (and making) ubiquitous, Anna’s show takes you back to the time before photographs, where meticulously observed drawings, sketches, and a watercolor box were the only means available to record the floral wonders of the world.

Anna’s 1823 spondylus shell illustrations

As a talented young artist, her scientist father commissioned her to illustrate his translations of Lamarck.

In 1842, Anna heard about a family friend’s accidental discovery of cyanotypes – basically blueprint technique – and she had a brainstorm. Instead of making drawings of plants that would require tedious hours of replications by hand, maybe the new technique could let the sun do the work.

She treated paper with a mix of chemicals, arranged her botanical specimens on top, and exposed it to the sun.

1860s printing frame with prepared cyanotype paper and specimen

The photographic impressions were incredible – detailed and beautiful. The task of documenting her collection of complex, seaside plants now didn’t seem so overwhelming.

Although this is a tiny show, the gallery experience delivers quite an aesthetic impact  – rows of rare prints in blazing blue, delicate images of marine plants that compel close study, and exquisite hand-stitched bindings on multiple volumes, lovingly created for family and friends. It’s a maker tour de force.

In her day, Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions was considered a triumph of technology, art, and science.

From an artistic perspective, you simply can’t stop admiring Anna’s work. Seaside stuff simply never looked this good. Take a look at our Flickr album.

Volume III of Anna Atkins’ 1853 publication

Most of the gorgeous books and artworks in the show have been acquired by NYPL. The curators have added a range of other items to put Anna’s achievement in context – early herbariums, Anna’s own watercolors, a frame used for making cyanotypes, and Henry Talbot Fox’s first book promoting all the ways that his “photographic drawing” invention could be applied.

To drive the last point home, the curators included a 1839 magazine that wrote about Talbot’s invention. But upon closer inspection, there’s something quite curious: No one had yet figured out how to use photographs as publication illustrations, so the magazine commissioned a woodcut to replicate what a “photographic drawing” looked like!!

Album of 74 artistic cyanotypes created in 1861 by Anna Atkins and her friend, Anne Dixon

Anna’s cyanotype techniques allow her pages to still dazzle 175 years after they were made, compared to other early photo techniques whose images have faded and remain barely visible to the modern eye.

Later in life, Anna collaborated with her childhood friend on artistic arrangements of botanical specimens that went way beyond algae.

The show is dazzling and should serve as an inspiration to anyone with a passion, a collection, and the creativity and drive to take a personal project and see it through to the end.

Walk through the show with our Flickr album.

Ye Olde Hip-Hop Brings Met Armor to Life

It’s Showtime NYC troupe. Photo: MetLiveArts

Nimble knights and knaves again take the stage tonight amidst the horses, banners, shields, lances, and heraldry of the Metropolitan Museum’s Hall of Arms and Armor in Battle! Hip-Hop in Armor, part of MetLiveArts.

The amazing dancers from It’s Showtime NYC are putting on their gauntlets and knee guards to show spectators what it’s like to bring medieval and Renaissance armor to life in a co-production with the Met’s Department of Arms and Armor.

The static state

Tonight’s program is the third in a series of performances, running through spring, where street-style choreography presents a modern interpretation of chivalry, battles, honor, mysterious tales, and ghosts.

The dancers took a crash course in the days of old from curators in the Met’s Arms and Armor department and got to learn how to apply accoutrements that are normally relegated to the mannequins and cases in the popular hall.

Bashford Dean, the Victorian world traveler and collector who began this department over 100 years ago, would have loved it, since he is a man that also liked to dress up in similar regalia.

Kester Esterphane makes chivalry and armor come alive

The troupe from It’s Showtime have created several dance pieces, including one that tells the story of a long-dead king who springs to life from his medieval tomb to terrorize craft thieves who try to steal his stuff.

Rising up dressed in an authentic chain-mail tunic, the king brings zombie-like commotion to the tale and answers the choreographic question: How does a dancer bring a feeling of terrifying mayhem to the stage when he’s wearing that many pounds of heavy, constricting steel?

A conversation with curators revealed that although visitors see the armor displayed in static form, all of the engineering involved makes it incredibly flexible. So, asking dancers to try it on and create new moves actually shows off something that isn’t apparent about the Met’s incredible collection.

Knaves face wrath of an angry king’s ghost.

Congratulations to the curators of Arms and Armor, MetLiveArts, and the It’s Showtime NYC dancers for such a fantastic concept and program! More! More!

It’s Showtime will perform it’s pieces several times tonight and reappear like knights of old on February 8, March 22, April 12, and June 7.

And in case you think this is the first time the Arms and Armor curators have ever tried to put a new twist on a medieval subject, take a look at one of Bashford Dean’s brainstorms when movies were just starting to be made in Queens.

Yes, he talked to Barrymore and other early actors and directors of American cinema on just how to get people interested in the past. Here’s a link to one of Bashford Dean’s media pieces that also brought the knights back to life:

City Dreams by Bodys Isek Kingelez

Visionary Dorothea model created from cut paper and found objects in 2007 welcomes visitors to the show.

You can see what dreams are made of on MoMA’s upper floor when you walk into a world created by a self-taught artist from Zaire who saw all the possibilities of a new nation as his country transitioned from Belgian colonization.

Closeup of 1996 Ville Fantôme, a large utopian cityscape of cut paper, packaging, collage, and paint.

Bodys Isek Kingelez: City Dreams is a retrospective of visionary cities, skyscrapers, public buildings, stadiums, and monuments created from paper, cardboard, packaging, paint, ink, bottle caps, and other stuff over his lifetime. Experience the sheer genius of it all – and a virtual-reality tour – through January 1.

Three of his eight fully realized city models are featured at MoMA – examples of work that was eventually shown in (and collected by) art museums throughout the world.

Kingelez (1948-2015), who came from a small colonial village in the Congo, was taught by missionaries early on and went on to teach secondary school. But when political change came to the Belgian Congo in the Sixties, Kingelez became determined to contribute his vision to what his country could become.  And he used the materials at hand to create models of buildings that symbolized harmony, peace, and understanding.

After his work was shown in Paris, the international art world came calling, and Kingelez had the opportunity to work full time as an artists, creating ever more elaborate cities and models. Although he never traveled out of Zaire until 1989, Kingelez always imbued an international vision to his creations.

Detail of 1992 Reveillion Federal, a temple to democracy.

The models are precise, clean-cut visions of the future.  MoMA has created a VR-headset experience where you can walk through one of the cities, fly to the top of skyscrapers, and cross bridges to the future.  It’s a great way to enter 2019.

Take a look at our Flickr album of some of the work in this amazing show.

Enjoy this video of the artist himself showing how nature and lofty ideas can be put to work in architecture, engineering, and design:

 

For more on Kingelez and his life, click here. For a soundtrack, MoMA’s assembled a great one from Zaire here.

Catholic Inspiration for Fashion at the Met

Balenciaga’s 1967 silk wedding dress in the Romanesque Chapel at the Met Cloisters

The brilliant installation of haute couture in the historic halls of the Met Cloisters, Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination, closing October 8, also serves as a surprising showcase for the spectacular medieval art residing in the same space.

Curator Andrew Bolton’s thoughtful placement and narrative creates a genuine conversation between European couture and religious-themed works made over 500 years ago at both the Cloisters and the Met’s Fifth Avenue location.

The Cloisters show starts spectacularly with Balenciaga’s 1967 wedding dress dramatically casting shadows across the floor of the largest room at the Cloisters, the Romanesque chapel with its outsized arch and crucifix.

Closeup of Jean Paul Gaultier’s 2007 evening ensemble printed with 15th c. image of the Virgin by Jean Fouquet.

The jeweled pieces of German stained glass are echoed by Gaultier gowns, and Craig Green’s avant-garde ensembles created from Islamic prayer rugs are at home amidst the 13th century tapestries in the Hall of Heroes. Looking at each contemporary expression fully reflects the magnificent artwork resting just a few feet away.

Hidden spaces, leafy cloisters, underground tombs, light-filled corridors, and dark, secret corners of the Treasury all provide surprises and context for exploring visitors – Valentino’s Garden of Eden dress, Galliano’s Machiavelli gown for Dior, Dolce & Gabbana’s gold silk-and-metal macramé wedding ensemble, and McQueen’s crown-of-thorns headpiece.  Seek and you will find.

Sleeve detail of monastic paper taffeta 1969 evening dress by Madame Grés.

Take a look at our Flickr album to see many close-up the details of all the clothes and surrounding artwork.

The Met has gone all out to make the connections between clothes and the Catholic themes explicit, providing innovative high-res photos, several brief videos and blog posts. Read more about the themes here.

Andrew Bolton, the show’s curator, gives an overview of all the inspiration and documentation of the exquisite clothing, jewelry, and inspirational art work in the show in this video here.

Closeup of Olivier Theyskens’ 1999 evening dress with a hook-and-eye closure in the shape of the cross. From the Crusades section of the show in the Gothic Chapel.

Click here to walk through every room of the Cloisters with Andrew Bolton and hear him explain how he made the selections according to the surrounding artworks.

The Fifth Avenue portion of the show is, like so much of Catholic pageantry, more of a public event, filling the Medieval hall with fashions inspired by angels, secular clergy, nuns, Mary, and saints, all dominated by an Ecclesiastical Fashion Show.

The Fifth Avenue portion of the show is, like so much of Catholic pageantry, more of a public event, filling the Medieval hall with fashions inspired by angels, secular clergy, nuns, Mary, and saints, all dominated by an Ecclesiastical Fashion Show.

Highlights include a procession of works from Gianni Versace’s last collection, Gaultier’s hologram votive dress, Mugler’s floating angel, and the loft high above it all, populated by ethereal figures wearing choir robes by Balenciaga.

1984 dress by Thierry Mugler from his Winter of Angels collection, part of the Celestial Hierarchy at Fifth Avenue

Here’s a link to the Met’s walkthrough video.

An important part of the Met’s undertaking is a spectacular mini-exhibition of incredible works of clothing art from the Vatican, which took significant negotiation. Here, Andrew shows highlights of the items on loan from the Vatican, some of which have never been displayed abroad before.

Walk through the Met’s Vatican section of the show here.

How Cakes and Pies Got into the Museum

Thiebaud’s 1964 watercolor, Nine Jelly Apples

Treat yourself to a non-fattening way to enjoy all the cakes, pies, and goodies packed into the Morgan’s show, Wayne Thiebaud: Draftsman, on display a through September 23.

As soon as you enter, you’ll see a wall of masterful drawings of the desserts that made Thiebaud famous – luscious candy apples, cupcakes, and candy lightly sketched and drawn in watercolor in a way that makes them shimmer and glow.

The Morgan’s show is the first to turn a spotlight on Thiebuad’s works on paper, where he experimented and played.

Lunch Table, Thiebuad’s 1964 watercolor

Each section of the show illuminates how he mixed commercial art, popular culture, Old Masters techniques, and abstraction to create a unique, colorful, and joyful body of work.

Taking leave of sunny California in the Sixties, Thiebaud took his sketchbook to New York and embedded himself among New York abstractionists who were just starting to claim their place on the world stage.

Thiebuad’s 1964 pastel

He always loved pop culture, storefronts, and cartooning the lighter side of life. When confronted with the grit and angst of the New York abstractionists, he tried giving an AE spin to the storefront windows and rows of food that entertained him as he walked the streets of New York.

But with advice from the most passionate painters at The Cedar Tavern, he was encouraged to paint what he loved and what he knew.

 1964 cross-hatch drawing

Taking that advice, he used traditional techniques and a deft hand to create works that people wanted the minute they saw them. His first New York City exhibition catapulted him to instant recognition. Every painting sold.

During the Seventies, he began to teach, using old masters drawing techniques as a grounding for his students – an approach that he himself used every time he embarked upon a new subject.

The show has side-by-side examples of an ice-cream cone meticulously rendered in cross-hatch technique with more gestural pen-and-ink and watercolors of the same.

1970s Cityscape drawing

The show also includes an impressive wall of streetscape drawings inspired by the up-and-down streets of San Francisco.  The cityscape resembles tectonic plates shifting beneath finely rendered blocks of architecture.

Take a look at our Flickr album here and see more of the pieces from the show here.

Listen to a recollection on how Franz Kline’s admonishment to a young artist turned into a legacy:

Fashion Man-About-Town on a Bike

Bill’s jacket, bike, and Nikon

Bill Cunningham’s stuff isn’t going anywhere.  It’s going to stay right inside the New-York Historical Society, a tribute to the man that made “as seen on the street” a go-to source of what’s happening in style on the sidewalks of New York.

To celebrate its acquisition of Bill’s photographs, letters, and personal mementos from a life spent documenting clothes, people, and fashion, the NYHS has populated its second-floor micro-gallery with his early hat designs, his own instantly recognizable blue jacket, and his Nikon in Celebrating Bill Cunningham through September 9.

Take a look at some of the show’s highlights here.

A 1960 beach hat made from raffia and rooster feathers — wearable art

The NYHS show features hats and dramatic evening hair ornaments that Bill designed under his own label after he arrived in New York, back in the Fifties. It’s a piece of his life story that few know, so it’s nice to see the fantastic feathered “wearable art” that delighted his clients. His summertime Hamptons shop sign is even preserved here.

When women stopped buying hats in the Sixties, he switched careers to fashion journalism, first for Women’s Wear Daily, then as a stringer for big-city papers throughout the country.

Bill began taking photos at fashion shows in 1966, and soon embarked upon a fun project – finding interesting building facades around the City, getting period clothes that matched the building’s year, and asking friends to pose. Here’s our Flickr album of a few spectacular photos from this project, which the NYHS showed in 2014. Read our coverage here.

Bill Cunningham covering a fashion show

The work for which Bill is best known is tucked into a little case – his work for The New York Times — the photo-mosaics that Bill assembled from the candids he shot.  Society types, people going to work, edgy downtown twentysomethings – they were all part of Bill’s mosaic. Real people showing real style.

One day it might be black-and-white polka-dots spotted around town; another day, the story might be bright yellow. If there was a particularly severe streak of hot, cold, rainy, or windy weather – particularly during Fashion Week, Bill would show us the person-on-the-street fashion and gear solutions that he admired most.

Everyone became used to people-watching through Bill’s eyes and lens.

2009 coverage in The New York Times

Anyone planning a high-end charity event in New York sat on pins and needles on the night of the event, hoping “Bill would make it” and anxiously asking others on the committee, “Has Bill arrived?” If he did, you could breathe a sigh of relief, knowing that your friends and charity cause would get some real estate in the precious pages of The New York Times.

Always low-key, Bill often bicycled to two or three events in one night, quietly snapping pictures and then heading off to see which ones were the best.

Steady streams of gallery goers have been popping into the tribute show to get close to a legend who held a unique place in the New York social and fashion scene. All day long, people are sitting at the far end of the gallery, quietly watching the documentary and listening to this humble icon speak for himself.

Still from 2011 Bill Cunningham New York

Statues Converse in “Like Life” at Met Breuer

Two “ballerinas” — a costumed 1880 Degas bronze and a clothed 2007 mannequin by Yinka Shonibare. Collection: The Met and private.

Can statues talk to one another? If you visit the Met Breuer’s exhibition, Like Life: Sculpture, Color, and the Body (1300 – Now) before July 22, you’ll find out. The 120 sculptures on display across two floors are having some pretty major conversations among themselves.

For starters, just witness the dialog between everyone’s favorite, the dressed bronze Degas ballerina, and Yinka Shonibare’s little girl statue who mimics the ballerina’s pose with a gun hidden behind her back.

Or the “conversation” between modern installations, such as the hyper-real day-in-the-life illusions by Duane Hanson, and the Renaissance statues evoking a more classical human “ideal”.

Is “white” better than color? Does one statue appear more “noble” than other? Do you “like” one better than another? The questions in your head keep flowing as you make your way around corners and bump into other provocative pairings.

Duane Hanson’s 1984 bronze, “Housepainter II.” Private collection

In the galleries devoted to the “presumption of white” theme, you will see and experience what happens when classicists decided apply colored wax to otherwise “white” statues’ to create a more “real” illusion. Does it work?

Witness John Gibson’s 1850s “Tinted Venus.” Victorian audiences were shocked that it looked like a “naked lady” and not like the popular, idealized goddess.

Will this show be the first time you encounter the contemporary life-size Jeff Koons porcelain of Michael Jackson and his pet primate, Bubbles? If so, it will probably stop you in your tracks. It’s right next to an 18th-century painted plaster experiment by Canova. Just what is it about this pairing that seems so “off”?

1894 marble sculpture of Louise Gould by Saint-Gaudens with wax version commissioned to “bring her back to life”. Private collection.

The show pulls from a wide range of collections within the Met – contemporary, European, and the Cloisters – and beyond. It’s all designed to pull art out of its historical context, ask questions, and encourage you to look at historical sculpture in a new way.

What happens when Medieval sculptures of the saints become overtly muscle-bound? How do artists incorporate clothes, hair, and real human teeth to give their creations a different form of life? How to contemporary artists riff on ancient forms to start a new conversation?

1989 reproduction of 1765 mechanized “Sleeping Beauty”. From Madame Tussaud’s, London.

Look at some intriguing selections from the show in our Flickr album.

The Met has convinced other museums to contributed show-stoppers that normally don’t travel – a costumed 18th-century bullfighter from Spain, an eerie 16th-century Florentine “Saracen” mannequin used for jousting, and a highly disturbing life-sized sculpture of 19th-century UK philosopher Jeremy Bentham, which contains his actual body.

The other floor explores “proxies” for the human body, such as life-size mannequins and sometimes creepy artist “dolls.” Sculpting in wax is a tried and true artist technique that gives the appearance of flesh.

Examine the light-breathing mechanized wax beauty from Madame Tussaud’s of London, and the bust of Mrs. Gould that Saint-Gaudens crafted for her bereaved husband so that he could pretend that she was still there.

The journey through the show evokes a range of genuine emotion, strange attraction, and shock, just as the artists intended.

Listen as the curators provide a brief tour of the exhibition:

Women Rise Up for Cruelty-Free Hats

1885 satin evening dress embellished with swans’ down. Collection: Brooklyn Museum collection, The Met.

While early 20th century American women were still lobbying for the vote, activists first scored a victory for the environment – convincing the United States government to change the laws to protect wildlife and lobby the millinery industry to remove the mania for birds and feathers from the fashion equation.f

The New-York Historical Society’s exhibition, Feathers: Fashion and the Fight for Wildlife, running through July 15, presents a neat three-gallery exhibition that tells a forgotten tale of the citizen uprising and activism that led to a major environmental win for wildlife. Take a look at some of the items in our Flickr album.

The exhibition uses its Audubon watercolor collection to maximum effect.  The final gallery of the show displays JJ’s life-sized depictions of gorgeous water birds in their native habitats, providing an emotional counter-punch to the dozens of disturbing 19th-century hats, muffs, fans, and headgear adorned with plumage of the same creatures in the first gallery.

Must-have 1894 accessory, a gold aigrette with diamonds and feathers from breeding Great Egrets. Collection: MCNY

The show tells the story of the fashion feather craze that swept the world of high society in the 1880s and 1890s across America and Europe – a mania that resulted in large-scale destruction of birds, nesting grounds, and habitats. Destined for millinery shops in major cities, birds were shot and nests ransacked for exotic plumage, fluffy down, and entire bodies of wild and domestic birds that could be artfully arranged across shoulders and on brims.

Aigrettes, a delicate diamond-encrusted tiara, with wisps of egret feathers, were fashion accessories in extremely high demand. Hunters laid in wait for Great Egret males during mating season just to get these little wisps for the European and American trade.

Audubon’s portrait of the majestic male hangs in the final gallery. Its label states that in 1902, London alone received shipments of 1.5 tons of this wispy plumage, representing a sacrifice of about 200,000 birds and perhaps three times that number of trampled Great Egret eggs.

Audubon’s life-size 1821 watercolor of the then-endangered Great Egret. Collection: NYHS

Audubon’s Birds of the World could only be purchased by super-wealthy patrons, but smaller, individual prints of the massive, famous set were widely available and people loved them. Armed with binoculars and inspired by Audubon’s journeys, societies of bird enthusiasts took to pastures and woods to document and enjoy local species across the eastern United States from the 1880s on.

Gallery 2 tells the stories of these early environmental leaders, such as publisher George Grinnell who pioneered Audubon Magazine and Mabel Osgood Wright of Connecticut who used photography to document local bird species and educate others about them.

But even as they enjoyed the diversity of bird species around them, bird lovers, scientists, and environmentalists of the 1890s were horrified by the magnitude of the destruction.  Every fashionable woman on the street was wearing or carrying some accessory with a bird, bird part, or feather. The magnitude of the problem, they knew, was unsustainable.

Contemporary reproduction of an early 20th c. Audubonnet, which uses ribbons, not feathers

They faced daunting odds, since the millinery trade employed thousands, retail giants were benefiting, and the average fashionista simply didn’t want to know.

Emboldened by the activist strategies surrounding suffrage, the concerned women and men protested, lobbied, and offered solutions. One solution was the Audubonnet, a wildlife-friendly design approach that advocated dramatic ribbons and bows to replace wildlife on hats.

Copy of a 1900s newspaper ad selling featherless ladies’ hats.

By 1904, the fashion and retail pendulum swung in favor of the activists. Saks and Gimbels started promoting Audubonnets, and the industry agreed to abandoned the use of exotics and restrict itself to domestic birds and fowl, such as pigeons, doves, crows, hawks, peacocks, turkeys, ducks, and the like.

Buyers felt good about moving away from destructive fashion and sporting eco-friendly looks. The ribbon and artificial flower trade boomed. By 1918, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act passed, banning bird hunting and killing and protecting all bird parts, feathers, nests, and eggs of hundreds of species.

Naturalists, scientists, activists, the Supreme Court, and Theodore Roosevelt all played a part in shifting environmental consciousness and politics of the time – a larger story than this exhibition tells but one that’s outlined in the first-floor TR galleries across the street at the American Museum of Natural History.

Audubon’s 1833 life-size watercolor of the Common Eider, once endangered by down gatherers disturbing eggs and nests in the wild. Commercial farms now raise them and collect their down.

The AMNH’s historic 1902 diorama of the Pelican Island water bird habitat, created to inspire New York audiences to protect endangered wildlife, is long gone from the museum.

But what a pleasure to see the NYHS Audubon watercolors continuing to do the job that JJ intended them to do — amaze, inspire, and bring the wilderness and the birds he loved to life on Central Park West.

How Ancient Tablets and Scrolls Became Books via Socks

Show curator, Georgios Boudalis, and map of how new book technology spread in the ancient world

How did people make the transition from reading and writing on scrolls to creating bound books? And what did it have to do with making socks and sewing?

You’ll take the journey across several centuries in The Codex and Craft in Late Antiquity, an exhibition on early bound book forms on display at the Bard Graduate Center Gallery through July 8.

Curator Georgios Boudalis of Thessaloniki’s Museum of Byzantine Culture explains how papyrus (or parchment) packages were joined together and modified over time by sewing, thread-looping, cutting, gilding, and fancy leather embellishments.

“Poetess of Pompeii” with her tablet, 50-70 A.D. Fresco photo: National Archeological Museum, Naples, Italy

Modern readers constantly debate the pros and cons of reading on tablets versus bound books, so it’s relevant that the exhibition’s story begins with fourth-century tablets.

Ancient tablets are about the same size as iPad minis, evidence that young people were using portable re-writable (i.e. wax) media long before the modern era. Just look at the portrait of the “Poetess of Pompeii.”

Boudalis makes the case that the technological transition to the “big book” idea began when craftsmen started to modify wax tablet frames (i.e. holes and grooves) so they could stitch and loop several together in a stack. After that, the stacks began to sport wooden covers.

The show includes some rare, early ninth-century manuscripts, when this type of book production was mainly commissioned by monastic religious orders.

Tooled and cut leather on 9th c. Gospel uses similar techniques as footwear. Collection: Morgan Library

In 1911 on his annual pilgrimage to Egypt, J.P. Morgan seized the opportunity to buy several old bound manuscripts discovered in a dry well in the Fayum oasis. The bound pages, most likely a Coptic monastery’s entire library, were hidden a thousand years earlier by monks to save their literature and gospels from destruction by invading armies.

The Morgan Library generously allowed Boudalis to examine the fragile bindings on this ninth-century treasure and lent it to Bard for the exhibition.

Along with ancient, fragile works from The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Brooklyn Museum, American Museum of Natural History, Yale, and other American collections, the exhibition’s digital animations and modern replicas vividly demonstrate how craftsmen bound books, embellished covers, and protected sacred writings.

Modern sample of cross-knit looping technique for ancient socks

Complex looped-thread techniques were used to join sections of these early books – technology application used by many ancient cultures. As evidence, the exhibition features ancient woven leather belts and creative looped-knit socks next to woven book straps and looped-thread bindings of the manuscripts.

Complicated textile patterns and interlocking designs on textile fragments are shown next to similar gilded and tooled leather book covers.

Modern facsimile of the Morgan’s 5th century Glazier Codex. By Ursula Mitra

Gilded and tooled leather shoes were likely made by the same craftsmen who cut, tooled, and gilded leather book covers. Take a look at more on our Flickr album.

As ancient people sought more convenient and artistic packages of their intellectual property, they turned to skilled craftsmen to create it.

Listen to the Boudalis speak about the art of sewing and craft in the birth of books and see his examples of Peruvian feathered blankets, Parcas textiles, and fish nets from Camaroon – which all use simple, one-thread loop techniques to create astonishing things: