Art – Sasha Grishin
Ex Libris: Celebrating the art of the bookplate
Megalo Print Gallery, 21 Wentworth Avenue, Kingston
Closes June 25, Tues-Sat 9.30am-5pm
From ancient Egypt through to the Middle Ages, ownership of manuscripts was indicated with a small ornate inscription. With the advent of the printing press, not only did the number of books multiply, but the ownership tags could also be mass-produced and by the 15th century, in Germany, the modern Ex Libris, or bookplate was born.
Ex Libris, Latin for "from the books of …" appeared on the printed tag accompanied by the name of the owner or institution. Heraldic crests and coats of arms frequently appeared on these bookplates as some of the great artists of the time, including Albrecht Durer, Lucas Cranach and Hans Holbein, engaged with this new art form. Imagery on great Ex Libris plates could include an insight into the intellectual and psychological character of the owner and one can think of the bookplate that Durer designed for his humanist friend, Willibald Pirckheimer, in the opening years of the 16th century. Bookplates became miniature works of art, where artists demonstrated their skills in all of the subtle forms of printmaking.
Good ideas spread quickly and soon all of Europe was printing bookplates and the fashion soon spread to the Americas and Australia. Collecting of bookplates became very widespread by the mid-19th century and now most major libraries and art galleries have a bookplate collection. As far as I am aware, the State Library of Victoria has the largest collection of bookplates in Australia with more than 60,000, which dwarfs into insignificance when compared with Yale University's collection of about 1 million or the British Museum with about 250,000. However, Australia is the home of the Australian Bookplate Design Award, the world's richest bookplate design prize, for which I was a judge in 2015.
Megalo's new members' exhibition is called Ex Libris: Celebrating the art of the bookplate. Certainly titles can be deceptive as more than half the exhibits have nothing to do with bookplates and are simply small-scale prints that belong in the popular miniature print exhibition category. Of the actual bookplates, the two that stand out in the exhibition are two linocuts, both by Peter McLean. The first is a narcissus-like figure of The Bather for books that belong to the artist; the other print is The Walker for books from the library of G.H. The bookplates have a simplicity and starkness, yet also sophistication as effective relief prints.
Millan Pintos-Lopez has adopted a striking constructivist design for his bookplate screenprint with a crisp professional appearance that would be effective within a book. At the opposite end of the aesthetic spectrum is Melinda Woodward's intricate floral design with an elaborate MW embedded within the design structure. Both artists draw heavily on artistic conventions that they have adapted for their own purposes.
Maiju Altpere in a linocut adopts what appears like a banksia pod design around which to weave the Ex Libris structure, while Katy Mutton with delightful simplicity delineates a child who is involved in a puzzle of learning. The endlessly inventive Nicci Haynes on Post-it notes has a simple letterpress slogan: "It's mine."
Other bookplates that rise above the rest include those by Juanita Gabriel, Linda Balding, Petra Weber, Diana White and Rebecca Setnicar.
The Ex Libris is a humble, generally uneditioned, democratic print with prices at this exhibition ranging from 20 cents to $90 with the great majority priced at $25 or under.