Liber Artificiosus Alphabeti Maioris


The previous post reminded me of this, one of my favourite examples of ornamented alphabets from the 18th century. Liber Artificiosus Alphabeti Maioris (“Artistic Book of the Major Alphabet”, 1782) was written and designed by Johann Merken, with the book’s 56 plates being engraved on copper by Heinrich H. Coentgen. I first saw these in a post at the now-defunct (and much missed) BibliOdyssey where Mr Peacay had found copies of the alphabet plates at some library archive or other. Happily, the Getty Research Institute made a scan of their own copy of the book a few years ago which includes all of the plates plus the accompanying German text.


The first part of Merken’s volume is unique in its combination of abecedarium with a variety of objects, emblems, symbols and other designs: silhouette figures, plants and flowers, ornamental gardens, coats of arms, calligraphic doodles, trophies (those accumulations of military paraphernalia), birds and animals (eg: a pair of monkeys playing the drums), monograms, mathematical figures, etc, etc, all festooned with the familiar swags and foliage of baroque decoration. In the second part of the book there’s more emphasis on science and technology, with plates devoted to astronomy, alchemy/chemistry, the orders of Classical architecture, and so on. The later pages are interesting but it’s those in the first section that really stand out. Many of the alphabet designs push their elaboration and embellishments to such a degree that the letters appear to be mutating to resemble their own decorations. The book as a whole is a curious blend of the 18th-century enthusiasm for taxonomy and categorisation combined with the baroque love of the grotesque and the arabesque. I wish there was more like it.




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Michael Baurenfeind’s extravagant calligraphy


I like extravagant calligraphy, the more extravagant the better, as with these examples from Schreib-Kunst (1716) by Michael Baurenfeind (1680–1753). The book is a recent scan by the Getty Research Institute whose art and design collection includes many similar volumes, although finding the good ones usually means clicking hopefully on blank covers with promising titles. Baurenfeind’s book was published in the middle of the period that extends from the mid-1600s to the mid-1700s when this kind of maximal elaboration of lettering was at its height. Books published later in the 18th century are more devoted to the mastery of careful penmanship, although you still find depictions of calligraphic excess mixed with baroque decoration. These later studies can be very impressive but I prefer the books like Baurenfeind’s which is a demonstration of the calligraphic art pushed to extremes of elaboration and ornamentation. Some of the capitals in this volume are the most excessive examples I’ve seen outside Paul Franck’s Kunstrichtige Schreibart (1655), a book filled with elaborate letterforms which yet seems crude in comparison to many of Baurenfeind’s pages. Baurenfeind goes beyond Franck’s solid black curves to create shaded interlacings that are less examples of calligraphic formation than intricate knotworks that just happen to resemble capital letters.


There’s more of the same in a Baurenfeind book from 1736, also called Schreib-Kunst, which includes several plates that show the construction of the letterforms. Volumes like these are usually showcases rather than instruction guides so this is unusual; Baurenfeind even has a guide to cutting your goose quill before you begin. Having tried writing with a bird’s feather once or twice I wouldn’t recommend it unless you have no other choice. Metal nibs are always better.




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Holzmüller and the Quays


US one sheet (1996).

Heinrich Holzmüller (also spelt Holtzmüller) was a German printmaker and calligrapher active during the 16th century. He may have been dead for centuries but this inconvenience didn’t prevent him from appearing as an interviewer in the catalogue for the MoMA exhibition of artworks by the Brothers Quay that ran throughout the end of 2012.


Film tie-in edition of Jakob von Gunten (1995).

One of the more informative pieces of information to come from that interview concerned the Quays’ resurrection of typefaces designed by Holzmüller in his Liber Perutilis, a book about lettering and calligraphy published in 1553. The Quay versions were most visible around the time of the production of their first feature, Institute Benjamenta (1995): you can see them on the posters, on the cover of the Serpent’s Tail tie-in edition of Jakob von Gunten and also inside the rare soundtrack CD which the Quays designed for Lech Jankowski.


Institute Benjamenta soundtrack booklet (1998).


Institute Benjamenta soundtrack booklet (1998).

I’ve had the MoMA catalogue since it was published, and more than once had searched half-heartedly for Holzmüller’s book without success. A more recent search turned up the goods, however (sometimes it helps to keep following leads from one page to another): a copy of Liber Perutilis may be found online at the Universitätsbibliothek Basel.


Liber Perutilis is only a short book compared to some in the field, but it’s also much more varied and original than others I’ve seen. Among the alphabets which the Quays digitised there are sets showing the letters doubled and tripled in the manner of monograms. The Quays have often signed themselves using a double Q so this may explain the attraction. The undoubled alphabet is especially striking for Holzmüller’s distortions of the letterforms which make them seem like characters viewed under rippled glass. At a time when most books about lettering and calligraphy were showing alphabets produced by careful and elegant hands this is a feature which to our eyes seems surprisingly advanced. The Quays have copied the alphabets fairly closely, making minor changes such as rounding off an E and adding the J and U which are always missing in Latin alphabets of the period. Elsewhere in the book there are many examples of calligraphic flourishes and some unusual pieces of decorative knotwork. As for Holzmüller’s posthumous interview, copies of the MoMA catalogue are still available, while the interview itself will be reprinted in the booklet for the BFI’s forthcoming Blu-ray collection, Inner Sanctums—Quay Brothers: The Collected Animated Films 1979–2013.

Elsewhere on { feuilleton }
The Quay Brothers archive

Weekend links 233


Alchemical Stone (2014) by Daniel Lasso Casas. Via full fathom five.

• “I am unsure if this reality is an everyday one. We don’t know if the universe belongs to a realist genre or a fantastic one, because if, as idealists believe, everything is a dream, then what we call reality is essentially oneiric.” Jorge Luis Borges in 1984 in conversation with Argentinian poet and essayist Osvaldo Ferrari.

• “I am transgender, so ‘he’ is not appropriate and ‘she’ is problematic. I’m what I think of as pure transgender.” Antony Hegarty talks to Cian Traynor about Turning, a new DVD and album project.

Unearthing Forgotten Horrors 2014 is a weekend festival of rural weirdness at the Star and Shadow Cinema, Newcastle-upon-Tyne.

Henry Darger, one of the most celebrated examples of an outsider artist (see: Vivian Girls), has been uniformly ignored by the literary firmament. Despite the success of his artwork, none of his fiction manuscripts have seen print. The language of literature is the language of privilege, in which even the stories of the working class are regularly clad in a bourgeois prose. The language of literature cannot be extricated from its white, genteel roots. Those of us without access to education are welcome to practice, but we must come in from the cold, adopt the house language. We must be civilized, scrubbed clean. Naiveté has no place in the colosseum of words.

Ravi Mangla on Coming in from the Cold: Outsider Art in Literature

Carel de Nerée tot Babberich en Henri van Booven, a collection of Beardsley-like drawings by a neglected Dutch artist.

Forever Butt is a new collection of the best of recent issues of BUTT magazine, still the best print mag for gay men.

Anne Billson’s guide to Brussels, another European city I’d like to visit some day.

• At BibliOdyssey: Schönschreibmeister, a calligraphy master’s album.

Third Ear Band live (and in colour!) on French TV in 1970.

• Mix of the week: Secret Thirteen mix 132 by Spatial.

• The Internet Archive now has an Internet Arcade.

Crazy Cat Lady Clothing

The Pattern Library

Stone Circle (1969) by Third Ear Band | Sacred Stones (1992) by Sheila Chandra | Stoned Circular I (1996) by Coil

Jarek Piotrowski’s Soft Machine


Jarek Piotrowski is a Polish-born Canadian artist whose exhibition of hand-cut PVC mats at Galerie8, London, borrows a title and inspiration from William Burroughs’ The Soft Machine. From the usual slab of gallery-speak:

Drawing on the subversive William S. Burroughs novel The Soft Machine (1961), Piotrowski’s work explores themes of the human body under siege, repetitive rituals and institutions of control. Through an immersive installation of paintings, cut-outs, experimental music and live performance, structure and order are broken down and unanswered fundamental questions of human nature confronted.

These creations no doubt look better in situ than in photos. The close-up below makes me think of Brion Gysin’s meshed calligraphy and the slots in his Dreamachines. Piotrowski talked to Dazed Digital about the Burroughs influence:

I don’t necessarily have a favourite part of the book, I like it as a gesture in itself completely rather than a particular part. I think of it more as an entity, but I do particularly like the phrase, ‘two assholes and a mandrake’ – it is a beautiful picture that I find quite intriguing.

Soft Machine runs to March 11th, 2012.


Elsewhere on { feuilleton }
The William Burroughs archive