One of things we admire most about the artists and artisans we feature this week is the conscious and deliberate choices they have made while creating their work. Their skill in visual or verbal language, the nuances and intentions on view or part of a subtext, mean that their creations can speak eloquently to successive generations while influencing their own eras.
The two exhibits at The Grolier Club embody these ideas to perfection, showcasing the craft, inventiveness, and work of people involved in book production, from the artists and writers, to designers, engravers and printers, publishers, governments, and the public. ‘Building the Book from the Ancient World to the Present Day: Five Decades of Rare Book School & the Book Arts Press’ presents rare books and texts from across centuries and countries, examining their creation, purpose, and impact in a contemporary and historical context. It’s awe-inspiring to realize that one person’s hopeful act of preserving a historic document ensured that we could see and learn from it today, decades or centuries later.
Of course, sometimes what we learn is that we weren’t the first to think of certain ideas, or even that we don’t do some things better than previous generations. For instance, it would be difficult to surpass the stylishly erotic drawings of Aubrey Beardsley, if only because the taste nowadays is for a certain frank vulgarity. And yet, people return again and again to his images, finding a certain honesty in his work, as it acknowledges some of the many aspects of love and lust in a way that porn can’t match. But there is so more to this 19th century artistic legend than NSFW illustrations as ‘Aubrey Beardsley, 150 Years Young’, located in The Grolier Club’s 2nd floor gallery, proves. The 70 objects from the Mark Samuels Lasner Collection in the University of Delaware Library, Museums, and Press range from private letters to publications by this remarkable talent whose career only lasted a few years before his death from tuberculosis in 1898. Beardsley’s designs for books and magazines became synonymous with the English Art Nouveau and Aesthetic movements, instantly recognizable with flowing lines and use of positive/negative space that was ahead of its time and perfect for printing. Graphic design history simply wouldn’t be the same without him.
Another example of autonomy in artistic terms is an exhibit on view now at The National Arts Club. ‘Selections from Australia’s Western Desert From the collection of Steve Martin and Anne Stringfield’ presents six artworks from five Indigenous Australian artists who use their cultural background to reference, but not make explicit, aspects of their beliefs, history, and local landscapes. This protects information that is sacred and private, giving the artists’ control of their narrative in a way rarely seen in history. Instead, abstract shapes, made with large swaths of paint or small dots, stippled across the canvas, merely hint at a meaning to outsiders, while being clear to the people fully conversant with indigenous culture. It’s an elegant solution to the problem of choosing what to say and how to say it, without losing their sense of self in the process.