Wednesday, 8 August 2007

What If? Art 1: The History Book That Never Was

Recently I was introduced to a contemporary form of art that I had not encountered before: Book Art. This is not, as I initially thought, about illustrating books, that apparently comes under Print-Making, it is more books made by artists, sometimes, for example binding together collections of their images or bits of text and concertinaed pieces of paper or even scrolls with images on are popular too. Sometimes they just make one copy, sometimes they run off thousands. Some go much further and do not just use paper and card but things like wood or textiles or even metal. There is another strand which is taking existing books and altering them in some way such as cutting shapes in them or sticking in other images and/or text or even objects. A lot of the themes are pretty nostalgic: images, text and styles from the 1930s-1970s or drawing on the memories of the artists' grandparents. One thing about this form of art, which I accept would not appeal to everyone, is that unlike paintings and I suppose most sculpture, you can actually handle most book artists' work. I suppose 'book' defines its scale too, you could not have a book feasibly the size of the 'Black Watch' or even the 'Mona Lisa'.

Anyway, after this, in my search for 'what if?'s and counter-factual material, I came across an art project at the University of the West of England (acronym UWE). They do a lot of book art there apparently and in 2003, I think, asked artists to produce work under the title 'The History Book That Never Was'. The examples of the work can both still be seen and are freely downloadable if you go to:

This got me thinking and I wondered what it would be like to produce some of these for myself, with an emphasis less on art and more on counter-factual history, i.e. images of books which if they had actually existed would have implied an alternate history than the one that our world encountered. I do not have a sophisticated graphics package but found an old one I had that allowed me to do most of what I wanted (except write in gothic script which is a shame) and on my first effort I produce these three examples below.

'Mein Leben in der Kunst' by Adolfus Hitler (1967)

I hope got my German correct on this one, please let me know if I slipped up and what it should be. For this one I used a cover of a book that was actually in Hitler's library, it was a historical atlas so seemed to me the right sort of format for a book which would include 'plates' as photographic illustrations were called in books in the past even though it is shown as published in 1967. This was the one that I wanted to use gothic print for, but I guess by 1967 something like this, especially in a world where Hitler did not come to power and so reasserted the use of that script, would have been more likely.

If my German is correct, the title means 'My Life in Art' and the 'what if?' it suggests is that Adolfus Hitler (that was the name he was given when he was born, he had no middle name and always used 'Adolf') remained an artist and lived out his days in Austria (he was an Austrian, born in Linz close to the German border, if the German authorities had not granted him German nationality he would have been barred from becoming leader of Germany later). Wien is the German spelling of Vienna; I made up the publisher it means New World Art, after the initial one I thought of turned out to be an actual publishers and I thought they might sue someone suggesting that they published a book by Hitler. By 1967, Hitler would have been 78 and presumably a rather bitter, maybe mad artist of not large repute who had chafed seeing Germany deal with its problems in the 1920s and 1930s possibly through an authoritarian regime, but certainly stopping short of the Nazi regime and the Holocaust.

'Current Reforms in Seminaries of the Autonomous Russian Region of Georgia'
by I.V. Dzhugashvili (1947)

This one is similar. Josef Stalin's real name was Iosif Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili. He was born in 1879 in Georgia and attended seminary school until he was expelled in 1899. This book envisages that he stayed on and ultimately became a priest in the Orthodox Church of Georgia rather than becoming involved in the growing Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (RSDLP) which split into the Bolsheviks (who went on under Lenin to set up the USSR) and the Mensheviks (who were pushed aside in 1917-18) in 1903. Stalin did not take part in the October (November on the West European calendar) 1917 revolution which brought Lenin to power, but he was a dominant force in the Bolshevik Party and by 1928 had become leader of the USSR until his death in 1953. His rule saw millions die in engineered famines and from purges which sent them to prison camps and had them executed. This 'what if?' sees Russia having a revolution but probably going no further than that of February (March) 1917 with some kind of democracy established and increasingly autonomy for the different ethnic states of the Russian Empire such as Georgia. Valentin Andreevich Antonieff (1877-1962) in our world was a leading Russian Orthodox priest in Australia, so would have been in a position to translate a book like this if Stalin had turned out to be a reforming priest rather than a ruthless tyrant.

'Selected Speeches of Col. Gamal Abdel-Nasser'
by Professor Anthony Eden (1962)

This one is less wide-sweeping than the other two. It envisages that rather than going into politics in 1922 Anthony Eden who spoke French, German and Russian and got a First from Christ Church College, University of Oxford in Arabic and Farsi (the language of Persia/Iran) stayed on at the university rising to become a professor (for US readers, not all tutors at British universities are 'professors'; there are four ranks: lecturer, senior lecturer, reader and professor, only the highest rank is addressed as 'professor', the others are generally 'doctor' or sometimes 'Mr./Mrs./Miss./Ms.'. Professors are either promoted to being a professor usually having had an outstanding career or are 'given a chair' a special position concerning a particular area of study) and was awarded what I have called the Pococke Chair of Arabic Scholarship. Edward Pococke was a scholar of Arabic at Christ Church in the 17th century, so, though no such chair exists it would be feasible.

In our world Eden became a minister in 1931 and was Foreign Secretary in 1935-38, 1940-45 and again 1951-5; he became Sir Anthony in 1954. When Winston Churchill retired in April 1955 Eden became Prime Minister but his time in office was short-lived after the bungled attempt to re-secure control of the Suez Canal from the Egyptians in October 1956 in conjunction with the French and Israelis. This was seen as a humiliating defeat for Britain and Eden was compelled to resign in January 1957, having held the post for only 21 months. He became the Earl of Avon in 1961 and wrote successful memoirs and contributed to documentaries on the Second World War. Some feel that continued tension in the Middle East stemmed from Eden's agreement to carry out what became known as the 'Suez Crisis'; others argue it was just its failure which meant that outcome. In 1955 Eden did meet Nasser (this is where the picture comes from) who had become president of Egypt in 1952 and was to retain that position until 1967. This book envisages Eden having taken a different career path, possibly one that kept him away from large events and possibly may have led to a more peaceful Middle East in the 1950s, though maybe still turbulent later; one man or his absence could not resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict. This cover is modelled on the kind of political/current affairs books Penguin produced from the 1930s to late 1960s.

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