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An interpretation of an artists’ book: Monologues

By Anne Scheu | 12 October 2012

Continuing our guest blogs, photographer, bookmaker and teacher Doug Spowart gives us his reading of Monologues, a book of mezzotints by Graeme Peebles with a text by Gottfried Benn.
Images of all pages of the book are available through the SLQ Onesearch catalogue.

I have been given a book to ‘read’—an artists’ book. The book is of a modest size, squarish in shape and is enclosed in a black linen covered clamshell with two black ribbon ties. Before going much further I should declare that for some time I’ve been quite interested in the nature and form of the artists’ book. On this occasion I’m going in cold—as such, I’m demanding that the book tell its story.
I untie the bows and open the black clamshell revealing a cover of cream heavy paper, with the text MONOLOGUES printed small, all caps, in maroon ink just above the centre of the page. The text is not just printed; as I hold the sheet at an angle to the light I see a depression of letters—it’s letterpress! The edge of the sheet shows a ‘plate-mark’, hardly visible but none-the-less it’s there as a considered aspect of the page’s design and creation.
 Even at this early stage of viewing the book begins to communicate a subtext or meta-narrative. The next folio is ‘blank’; four sides of ‘nothingness’ maybe, for me however these pages are a time for the me as reader not to wonder what’s missing, but rather to have the mind cleared so that what follows is to enter the experience of being a reader.
 The book’s form, feel, and front matter imply that it’s based on the tradition of the fine press and this creates a kind of expectation for what follows. As I turn pages the names of the poet Gottfried Benn and artist Graeme Peebles appear on separate pages of the next folio. Another title page appears, this time in black ink and on the opening of the folio the publisher’s name opposes, under tissue, a well inked mezzoprint consisting of fragments of shapes—a beast’s jawbone, another bone form—or is it part of some crustacean’s exoskeleton (?), a feather form and a collection of curved lines. The verso features another dark print of a cleaved apple and what seems to be feathered fly-fishing lures. The next folio features another dark print—the same as the first image but more of the subject’s details are revealed through the darkness.

In these early pages information about the origins of the book are revealed. There is an introduction by Jenny Zimmer in which she announces that, Pictures and poems reverberate, leaving shadows on the world. She adds that the book, recital or picture frame ... live on as recollections, and she introduces Benn and Peebles, suggesting their Monologues cause the minds eye to intuit, perceive and consummate a glimpse of the sublime.

Facing the introduction another print of the same subject as before shows the emergence of still more information. More mezzoprints follow and Benn’s poem, firstly in German text and then translated into English. It’s loaded with metaphor and weighed down with an apocalyptic overtone. Reading on into the book the mysterious content of Peeble’s prints are now being transformed—shadows appear, light flushes across the surface and delicate forms become even more discernable.

I encounter more text, this time from Pavel Petr. It is an explanation of Benn’s text and its origins in a struggle between the poet and the Nazi regime in the 1930s. What do I, the reader, take from this knowledge? As I ponder for a moment, I come to the conclusion that the monologue of the prints is that meaning and clarity of subject emerges and is freed from the blackness of the printed page. The other, being the poem activated by my reading, is being freed from the silent white page allowing the now dead poet to tell a narrative of the time in which he lived—now passed to me as an evocative warning.

In the beginning Zimmer predicted... a glimpse of the sublime and that is exactly what I am reflecting upon as I replace the book into its grey library case for it to be returned to the stacks for a future reader to encounter and consider in their own way.

Dr Doug Spowart



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