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Tomasz Wilmański

Visual poetry in the context of artist's book


The point is to create sets of words which are, as a whole, a verbal, vocal and visual space of a message, the three dimension body of language, while this body is a vehicle of a specific, concrete „aesthetic message”.

Max Bense, 1965


Great Avant-guard and Word

Max Bense, an outstanding German theoretician and author of concrete poetry, whose quotation opens this essay, emphasized the verbal, vocal and visual features of a word and addressed his remarks to the new way we deal with poetry and text, being a kind characteristic strategy of avant-guard movements in the 20th century. The experiences of the artists and poets of Great Avant-guard from the beginning of the 20th century are very important inspirations for contemporary creators of artist's books and poem works. Four main aspects of their achievements: a visual poem, a free typographic text composition, illustrative prints fully integrated with a text, a book as an autonomous work – they are of fundamental importance for the present shape of visual poetry and artist's book so closely related to the latter and regarded, to quite large extent, as an independent art work.

Un coup de dèsa poem written in 1897 by Stephan Mallarmè, a French poet, was one of the first signals to re-evaluate our approach to poetic record. It was a thoroughly innovative piece of poetry; it got rid of traditional, linear word layout, it had new syntax, it had almost no punctuation marks. Mallarmè was calling: Let us stop our eyes to run ceaselessly to and fro, from one line to the other, to begin reading once again from the next new line.” We can say the poet has marked out a new space for perceiving poetry: an active space where readers were demanded to pay their attention not only to senses contained in single words, but to the visual composition of words on page. Guillaume Apollinaire, a French (of Polish origin, his mother née Kostrowicka) play-writer, art critic, exponent of modernism in Europe, wrote “lyric ideograms” which used to be called calligrams. They enhanced the role of visual aspect in poetry; words in calligrams create a kind of letter pictures, images of animals, genre scenes, landscapes. One of the best known of his works is Il pleut  (It's raining), where letters and words are dripping down in five rows like drops of water on a window pane. Quite unusual work made in those days (in 1905) is a phonetic poem Fisches Nachtgesang  (Night Song of A Fish) written by a German poet, Christian Morgenstern. The poem is composed of metric signs only giving a shape of fish; it can be regarded as one of the very first calligrams, where the used signs can be understood as a metric signs for long and short syllables. The given examples of poetic records were sporadic experiments in verbal-visual recording of those days, however they were important inspiration for next artists, who continued and developed poetry in the 20th century.

This domain was totally revolutionized by the futurists. Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, an Italian writer, poet, art theoretician was the most important person, the “commander-in-chief” of the movement. His idea of “parole in libertà” (words at large) introduced to poetry (and to literature in general) absolutely new dynamic; first of all it rejected linear transcription, used different shapes and sizes of letter within one word, eliminated punctuation signs and traditional grammatical sense of articulated phrases. Using onomatopoeia he created in his works sound imitating dynamic structures which can be clearly experienced in Zang Tumb Tumb published in 1914 as a book. In the Technical Manifesto of Futuristic Literature Marinetti wrote: “Destroying traditional phrases, overthrowing adjectives, adverbs and punctuation we will cause the collapse of the overritualised harmony of style, so that a futuristic poet will be able to use onomatopoeia, even the most cacophonous one which will reproduce the numberless sounds of the matter in motion.” Poems by Carlo Cara, Comte Volta, Fortunato Depero, Luciano Folgore, Andre Soffici and other Italian futurists were published as books and strongly influenced artists and poets in whole Europe.

The Prose of Trans-siberian Train and Little Jeanne from Franceis a good example of cooperation between a poet and an artist; the poem was published in 1913 as a simultaneous book with art layout made by Sonia Delaunay, a painter. It was two metre long paper leporello and the text was printed with twelve different typefaces of various colours. Cendrars used to cooperate also with Fernand Leger, a French painter, who perfectly completed with his drawings the gloomy and aggressive nature of the poet's texts.

Let's focus now our attention on the achievements of the artists in Russia, before the Revolution, where futurism in poetry and art had many adherents, although they found a bit different way of articulating and understanding poetry, namely cubo-futurism (strongly inspired by French cubism of Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso) and zaumny language (from Russian za umom meaning literally “beyond the mind” - beyonsense). Aleksei Kruchenykh, Wasili Kamiensky, Jelena Guro, Benedict Livshyc among the others, but first of all Velimir Khlebnikov, were the members of Hylea group; they often cooperated with painters (Matushyn, Malevich, Lissitzky, Burluk), who  illustrated poetry booklets that used to be published in those days in Russia. A very interesting example of a book looking almost like contemporary design, is a work by El Lissitzky, who made a layout and graphic design for a poem Dla golosa (For a voice) written by Mayakovsky and published in 1922. The book is 19x13cm in size, its form reminds a contemporary telephone notebook with cuts-in at the edge of the page. The letter layout is very expressive and well combined with geometrical graphic signs, all black and orange. The visual aspect of those books was very often strongly integrated with verbal transcription of poems. Aleksei Kruchenykh, one of the main theoretician and creator of Russian futuristic poetry wrote in 1913: There was no word art before us. Similarity of word to sense is the only and unrefutable evidence that so far a word has been fettered; people used to maintain, that a rule is imposed on a word and not the opposite. We have found this error, we have created a free beyond-mind language, universal language. In the past artists used to approach words through thoughts, while we approach direct understanding through words (this tendency has its analogy in painting experiments of Malevich, Punia and others). Both thinking and talking can't keep up with human experiences, and that is why artists has the right to express themselves using not only an ordinary language (ideas / thoughts), but a personal (not ossified) one as well, which is “zaumny” (beyond mind / beyonsense). The ordinary language fetters, the free language makes a free utterance possible. Words are dying. A word is always living. An artist has seen words anew and gives names to everything, like Adam did...”Zaum” was a key word for the experiments carried out in search for a new language both in poetry and art in Russia. A new idea, as well as typography of “zaum” art survived a few years more after the revolution, but very soon they were, unfortunately, condemned and banned by new proletarian and communist bigwigs.

Yet the Great Avant-guard would be uncompleted and poor without Dadaistic revolution. It's hard to imagine the achievements of concrete poetry, or Italian poesia visiva, or French poésie sonore without Hugo Ball, Tristan Tzara, Hans Arp, Richard Huelsenbeck, Raoul Hausmann, Kurt Schwitters and their works. The importance of Cabaret Voltaire founded in Zurich at Spiegelgasse 1 (in Mr.Ephraim's “Meierei” pub) in February 1916 has been analysed and appreciated till today. On one side it was the artists' reaction to the nonsense and cruelty of the World War I, on the other side the DADA movement introduced some innovative features to art, but first of all to poetry, to the way it was scored, articulated and performed. Just briefly, DADA is chaos, humour, provocation, accident, irrationality, lack of program (unlike Futurism) and automatic creation. The following statement by Hugo Ball, a German poet, founder of Cabaret Voltaire, is very significant: A moment will come soon when poetry will make up its mind to get rid of language for the similar reasons painting got rid of an object [...] We must find the most secret alchemy of a word, or even leave it, if poetry is to keep for itself its most sacred domain. Ball, especially in his “Swiss period” (1915-1920) used to compose absolutely abstract poems, the best known of them are Karawane, Totenklange, Wolken, Seepferdchen und Flugfische, or Katzen und Pfauen – irrational and based on abstract, rhythmical phonetics of a language. A landmark achievement in this domain was a DADA evening in June 1916 (which took place in the new venue, the seat of Cabaret Voltaire, in the Zur Waag guild), when he performed his phonetic poem O Gadji Beri Bimba consisting of absolutely abstract sequences of vowels. Ball was wearing a thick paper costume designed by Marcela Janco – a blue tube covering his legs, cardboard collar wrapped in gold and purple, blue and white top hat – he was carried on the stage and was reciting or rather performing his poem like a mystic, noble priest and in one moment he tuned to the “style of holy mass singing”. The calm and down-to-earth Swiss townspeople were shocked with the way he treated poetry. And this is what Dadaists wanted to achieve: to make people anxious and confused, to provoke, to break stereotypes in thinking, but first of all to build new, innovative art features and values. DADA poets cooperated with artists and very often they published their works in magazines and books of limited edition. In 1918 Tristan Tzara, a Romanian poet, co-founder of Cabaret Voltaire and one of the creators of DADA, published a book titled Vingt-cinq poèmes;Hans Arp illustrated them with his woodcuts. Marcel Janco, a Romanian artists mentioned above, and Marceli Slodki, a painter coming from Łódź, played also an extremely important role in this movement.

Dadaism was developing also in Germany, although a bit differently than in Zurich; it was deeply rooted in political problems, which is easily understandable after the defeat in the World War I – this fact had an enormous influence on general frustration and existential uncertainty in the country. Raoul Hausmann, the “leader” of Berlin dadaists used to create phonetic and optophonetic poems, often “illustrated” with photo-collages. In the case of this artist the single elements of the poem score – varied types, rejected linearity, coloured letters – were equally significant.  This is what he wrote about his poetic strategy: A phonetic poem combines breathing and speaking in strictly determined sequence. It means that both breathing and a generated sound should play a creative role, as a mean of expression, in poem (audio) performance. To show these elements in typography I used letters of various sizes, big or small, thin or bold, to create a kind of score. This is how an optophonetic and phonetic poem has been created being a first step towards an abstract, totally nonobjective poetry. His poem titled Fmsbw and published in 1920 as a poster inspired a German artist living in Hannover, Kurt Schwitters, an outstanding artist of German avant-guard. In 1922-1932 he wrote/composed (mainly for vocal performing) a poem titled Ursonate based on five letters used earlier by Hausmann: f, m, s, b, w. Schwitters sellected words very carefully to avoid any meanings in any specific language. The poem is composed like sonata and is divided in four parts: Erster teil, Largo, Scherzo, Presto. It is also a kind of a score for performing. This entirely abstract phonetic poem, being written during ten years, is unique for whole avant-guard, fascinating for many artists and performed also today (by Eberhard Blum, Jaap Blonk, Christopher Butterfield, Christian Bök and others)

Fümms bö wö tää zää Uu,


                                                   kwii Ee

This is the beginning of Ursonate and this typographic motif is repeated many times in whole composition which takes 40 pages A4 and its vocal performance lasts about half an hour.

Like in Western Europe and Russia the new avant-garde art ideas, especially those of Futurism, were developing in Poland, although Polish artists were not in touch with European art and began to act much later. Poets and artists connected mainly with Cracow avant-garde kept experimenting with word transcription and applied radically modernized typography in their publications. Tytus Czyżewski, Bruno Jasieński, Anatol Stern, Stanisław Młodożeniec, Aleksander Wat, among others, were the main figures of Polish avant-garde of two decades in between the world wars. Most of them cooperated with Zwrotnica magazine. The first collection of poems written by Tytus Czyżewski  Poezje formistyczne. Elektryczne wizje (Formistic Poems. Electric Visions) (1920) is an excellent example of the new approach to text transcription and to a book regarded as an integral entity. Czyżewski refered somehow to dadaistic poetry, especially to the optophonetic poems written by Raoul Hausmann, using great variety of typefaces, different sizes of letters, letter clusters without any meaning. The unique feature of Polish futurism was the lack of traditional orthography {although rz and ż are pronounced exactly in the same way, replacing rz with ż or vice versa is almost unbearable shock and torture for Polish eyes – translator's note} - NUŻ W BŻUHU published by Bruno Jasieński and Anatol Stern in 1921 is a very good example. Dynamic and expressive visualisation of the text is combined with futuristic typography, with “freedom” of speech declared by Marinetti. In 1919 Anatol Stern published a small book titled Futuryzje making a scandal both artistic and moral. It was a collection of scandalous poems attacking bourgeois habits, printed untidy and carelessly on twelve yellow pages, with burning orange covers. In those days such publications were a very radical challenge to the ruling aesthetic order, bravely attacking the audience of traditional art and poetry. In his manifesto titled The Primitivists to the Nations of the World and published in 1920 Anatol Stern wrote as follows: [...] WORDS have their weight, sound, colour, shape, THEY NEED SOME ROOM IN THE SPACE, these are the crucial  features of a word, the shortest words (sounds) and the longest words (books) [...] size and printing – these are the main features of a book, the content comes after, this is the reason why a poet should be a typesetter and binder of his book, should shout it everywhere by himself, not merely recite.

Poems created in those days, both written and published in books and magazines, as well as those performed on the stage (cabaret, theatre) hit directly the ossified townspeople, tradition, seriousness of the opinion-forming art milleu, being at the same time a fresh gust of freedom in art. “Hat-drawn words”, simultaneous poems by Tzara, Hausmann's optophonetic poerty, phonetic poems written by Ball, Schwitters, Doesburg and many others had direct impact on works of concrete poets in the 1950s and of Fluxus artists in the 1960s.

Concrete poetry and visual poetry

The new strategy in poetry transcription began to be formed in the 1950. As it has been already said, young artists and writers, inspired by the experiences of the futurists (Parole in libertà), but first of all of the dadaists, were active all over the world (concrete poetry was developing dynamically from Buenos Aires and New York to Prague, Vienna, Berlin and London). Unlike the dadaists, neglecting the order, dependent on accident, referring to the strategy of the new poetry transcription quite incidentally (dadaism was a revolution encompassing whole culture), concrete poets introduced their rigid, intellectually balanced, rules of poetic consciousness very seriously and systematically. They used to publish manifestos, programs, organised numerous symposia, etc. Their theories referred to literature (Mallarmé, Apollinaire, Pound, Joyce, Cummings), to avant-garde music (Weber, Boulez, Stockhausen), to concrete art. The notion “concrete” originates from the Concrete Art Manifesto published by Theo van Doesburg in 1930 in the “Art Concret” magazine. Theoretic inquiries of concrete poets dealt mainly with the issue of materialness of both language and script. They focused first of all on material (physical) and visual character of the language. Text and syntax forms, words and letters were composed in a new way, while a language sign seen as a phenomenon was separated from the objects. They applied the processes of reduction, isolation, reduplication and permutation of language creations. The visual poetry didn't cope now with any out-of-language reality, but was inseparably connected with the language itself, with its elements and the strategy of combining these elements. A poetic creation (poem/picture) was just the final visualisation of the process. Professor Waltraud Wende, a theoretician of literature, media buff writes as follows: Words, letters and blank spaces in “visual poetry” have significantly symbolic meaning and sensual-optic quality. Each time a reader must find a semantic potential of the text, switching between watching and reading, between sensual-visual perception and cognitive-intellectual decoding. Öyvind Fahlström, a Swedish poet, graphic artist, painter, performer (born in Sao Paolo in Brasil, in the cradle of concretism), one of the first creators and theoreticians of concrete poetry, published in 1953 the Concrete Poetry Manifesto. He wrote: Poetry [...] can be created also as a structure; however not as a structure that emphasizes expressing ideas within it, but as a concrete structure. No more problems with well-ordered or bad-ordered psychological factor, modern culture or universal matters! Words are symbols, that's true, but there is no reason to stop us to experience and create poetry using a language as a concrete material and starting point.  Fahlström's poetic work, which seems but one of many other art activities of his, can be referred more to the poetic texts by E.E.Cummings than to the concrete poetry mainstream. Among main precursors of concrete poetry were Brazilian writers, members of Noigandres group: brothers Augusto and Heraldo de Campos and Deco Pignatari. In 1958 they published A Concrete Poetry Program, an important theoretical base for any analyses of this art. We can read as follows: Concrete poetry: wordobjects spread in the time-space system. A dynamic structure: the size of simultaneous motions [...] Concrete poetry: total responsibility towards a language. A Perfect Realism. Versus subjective and hedonistic poetry. To create precise problems and solve them within categories of comprehensible language. In his poetic works Heraldo de Campos takes repetitions of one word preserving the linearity of the transcription and juxtaposing it with other words sounding differently as a base for game of words and word compositions. Although de Campos brothers base their works on precise rules, sometimes they “smuggle” to their works irrational aspects, give permission to hidden jokes or nostalgic, almost lyrical reverie. This can be seen also in the poems written by the third member of the Noigandres group, Deco Pignatari, who ironically transforms Coca Cola into cloaca in his poem titled beba coca cola written in 1957 (using only 6 letters he creates a rhythmical, sonorous creation)

beba   coca cola

babe            cola

beba   coca

babe   cola caco




Pignatari was also a professional designer and many times he was talking about parallel thinking happening on the border line between modern advertising (letter-picture ads in newspapers and in city streets) and concrete poetry. Like the dadaists, also Brazilian poets used to perform their works vocally, while lately they have transformed their “static” poems written on a paper leaf into computer animations thus giving them a new, mimetic feature (especially Augusto de Campos).

Concrete poetry uses commonly the logic of word layout (often one word is being multiplied thus creating a “constellation”), or letter layout; a letter composition can be abstract, often difficult for verbal reading. A word is reduced to a sign form and stands for itself – to some extent it is an object located by an artists in the space of page. Tadeusz Sławek, a concrete poetry theoretician, used to say: Concrete poetry brings to life objects, ale it eliminates empathy between somebody who creates and something which is created. It is literally, but not metaphorically, not in McLuchan sense of this notion, “cold” poetry [...] In the case of traditional poetry a human is watching the world; in the case of concrete poetry the world is watching a human. Maybe it looks “cold” at first sight, but with no doubt its internal message is soaked with big mental-spiritual energy. This is the immanent dilemma of concrete poetry perception. Transcription of such kind is mainly a reduction of language. Eugen Gomringer, a Swiss, is considered “the father” of international concrete poetry movement; he is both an outstanding theoretician and poet. In his first book titled Constellations published in 1955 he wrote about his approach to poetry: Constellation is the most simple possibility to form the poetry based on words. It takes a group of words, like it takes a group of stars. In a constellation the words are located one beside, or behind the other, two, three, or more words, but not too many, a thought-substance relation. In his poem titled Wind written in 1954, the word “wind” is repeated several times and the letters are scattered as if by a strong gust of air. Whirling letters, words with no spaces, geometrical figures composed of letters (circles, squares and others), words making the images of various objects – used already in Renaissance or Baroque, in mystique and religious scriptures, magic inscriptions, or calligrams mentioned above – have been applied by concrete poets very often, however the general starting point for such visualisations was of course different in the case of the concretists. Visual poets used  the whole alphabet as a complete sign system to create a poetry work. Suicide by Louis Aragon is a very significant work. Such iconographic manipulations were often used by Emmet Williams, an American artist, and are clearly visible in his Meditation or Alphabet Square cycles, as well as by Henri Chopin (Quelle importance), Stanisław Dróżdż (Język) or Claus Bremer (abcdef), where the alphabet is a paradigm of a meaningful language.

Pierre Garnier, a French poet, critic and translator systematized the issues of the 20th century poetry in the following way:

- concrete poetry: working in language-matter

- phonetic poetry: constructed on phonemes, sonorous bodies of a language

- objective poetry: based on painting, graphic, sculpture or music arrangements

- visual poetry: a word or its elements taken as objects and centres of visual energy

- sound poetry: a poem created on a magnetic tape, where a word and a phrase are treated as an object and centre of auditive energy

- cybernetic poetry: verbophonic and permutation works

The space is very important in the case of new poetry, both the one marked by words or letters, and the blank one, the page background; they are integrated and cooperate, so that a poetry work should be perceived as a whole, like a painting. Thus concrete poetry coming from literary tradition refers directly to visual arts.

Both concrete poetry and visual poetry were the art strategies used practically all over the world. In Germany the following artists should be mentioned: Claus Bremer, Max Bense, Hansjörg Mayer, Klaus Burkhardt, Franz Mon, Reinhardt Döhl, Timm Ulrichs, Ferdynand Kriwet; in Czech Republic and Slovakia: Ladislav Novak, Jiři Kolař, Jiři Valoch, Josef Hirsal, Vaclav Havel; in Austria: Ernst Jandl, Gerhard Rühm, Oswald Wierne, Heine Gappmayer, Konrad Bayer; in Great Britain: John Furnival, Ian Hamilton Finlay, Edwin Morgan, Bob Cobbing; in France: Bernard Heidsieck, Henri Chopin, Jean-François Bory, Ilse and Pierre Garnier, Julien Blaine; in Hungary: Lajos Kassák, László Lakner, Dezsö Tandori, János Géczi, Tibor Zalán; in the USA: Emmett Williams, Dick Higgins, Mary Ellen Solt; in Japan: Yasuno Fujitomi, Seiichi Niikuni, Kitasono Katue; in Brazil: José Lino Grünewald, Edgard Braga, Pedro Xisto, Noigandres group; in Belgium: Paul de Vree. Works of visual poets were many times collected in various anthologies and published as books. Concrete Poetry by M.E.Solt, Anthology of Concrete Poetry by E.Williams, Texbilder-Visuelle Poesie by K.P.Dencker are important sources of information about this art.

In the end of the 1960s and in the beginning of the 1970s there was a growing interest for conceptual art and concrete poetry in Poland. Probably the most significant exponents of them could be found in Wrocław:  Stanisław Dróżdż, Marian Grześczak, Roman Gorzelski, Zbigniew Makarewicz, Wojciech Sztukowski, Marzena Kosińska, Grzegorz Kolasiński, Michał Bieganowski, Marianna Bocian, Bogusława Michnik, and others. With no doubt the “spiritual father” of Polish concrete and visual poetry is Stanisław Dróżdż who in the 1960s began to create concrete works calling them notion-shapes. The name comes from the shapes of the notions which realize themselves right in the moment when they are formed in space. In his visual poems his used single words (sometimes the set of two or three words), numbers, minimalistic as a form and always black-and-white, giving them new maximal existential meaning. According to Stanisław Dróżdż The point of concrete poetry is to isolate a word, to make it autonomous. To isolate it from the language context, to isolate it also from the context of the off-language reality, to make a word mean as if by itself and for itself only. In concrete poetry the form is determined by the content and and the content is determined by the form. Traditional poetry describes an image. Concrete poetry writes with an image. His ascetic letter works were often exhibited directly on the gallery's wall, being more an art context than semantic message. Quite significantly, although he was graduated as writer (he was studying at the Wrocław University, Faculty of Polish Philology) his poetry works could be found mainly in art galleries and museums; in 2003 he represented Poland at the 50th Biennial in Venice, showing a work titled Alea iacta est.

Books soaked with letters

It might be like that this radical statement by Carlo Bellini one word is enough to write a book has sense referring to the contemporary book works made by artists. Artists' books, blossoming mainly in the 1970s have always been closely related to visual poetry. It's difficult to distinguish clearly what is a sheer poetry transcription, and what is an autonomous book work. In many cases it's also hard to distinguish clearly types and categories of the transcription within visual poetry itself – quite often they are overlapping each other, and are conglomerates of many different conventions and thinking options. Many times artist composed their visual poetry works in the way so that later they could function like a logical and “closed” book work. Or course, we do not mean now small collections of poems published for decades by “traditional” (in the context of art issues being discussed just here) poets, and for aesthetic reasons (for visual pleasure) illustrated by hired “professional” graphic artists. In the case of books discussed here the artists, while making them – the books being independent, self-sufficient art pieces – they cope with absolutely different intellectual-creative mechanism.

Emmett Williams was an American artist who skilfully combined visual poetry with book work. A very good example is a book titled Faust zeich nungen publishd in 1983 by Rainer Verlag. Every following page reveals for us a logical sense of poetry score composed of only 16 letters a reader can find in the title. Rainer Verlag, a Berlin publishing house, published many book works of artists dealing with concrete and visual poetry: Claus Böhmler, Jiři Valoch, Gerard Rühm, Ernst Jandl, KP Brehmer, Ann Noël, Oskar Pastior, Jean Dupuy, Rune Mields, Laszlo Lakner and others. Book works of that kind were strongly influenced by specialised small presses, often run by artists and theoreticians of visual poetry: Something Else Press (Dick Higgins), Edition Hansjörg Mayer, Edition Hundertmark (Armin Hundertmark), Boekie Woekie (Jan Voss) among others.

In Poland, a poemgraphic work Sand-glass by Stanisław Dróżdż – an existential dissertation on time and passing away, where on 54 pages the artist uses three words “było” (was), “jest” (is), “będzie” (will be) – was published as a book by Janusz Tryzno and CoreStudio in Łódź in 2007; it is a perfect example of an alliance of visual poetry with artist's book. Dróżdż referred to the issue of time and space in all his career, many of his works were imbued with the atmosphere of passing away, being “in – between”, “from – to”. Among the first book artists connected with visual poetry and applying innovative typography was Andrzej Partum, who in the 1960s cooperated with Alfred Lenica, a painter. Most often these books were quite “poor”, published primitively in small editions. In the beginning of the 1970s Jarosław Kozłowski published his first books: A-B, Language, Reality, in small editions, too, and their contents directly referred to intellectual-analytic trend in conceptual art. In his book Reality (1972) Kozłowski used the text (an exact copy of it) titled On the base of general grouping all objects as phenomena and noumena a subsection from Kritik der reinen Vernunft by Immanuel Kant, eliminating words on the following pages and leaving but punctuation marks. Reality is the subject of “Reality”. Punctuation of the written language is something that can not be confronted with reality, it is neither reproduction of reality nor its description. Andrzej Ciesielski made a similar operation of erasing words from a specific text and reducing it to comas, periods, dashes, etc. although the context was totally different and a bit ironical in his book Pan Tadeusz (based on the works of great Polish poet, Adam Mickiewicz, a national bard). Franz Mon's conclusion we pay not enough attention to the fact that reading is something more than only letter decoding, […] a page with a few drops of water on it is a kind of relation that should be read, too perfectly illustrates the issues of the book by Andrzej Szewczyk  W pracowni malarza opadają liście (Leaves are falling down in a painter's studio) (1979). The author discuss the problem of script, of leaving traces, of its existential presence – his Manuscripts show this clearly and sharply, those books where the author makes signs with black ink on old paper leaves from the 1930s, incomprehensible signs, as if he was writing the history of his life using a secret system known only for himself. Joanna Adamczewska is an artist who makes books combining them with words and letters. One of the most interesting of her works is Bible (1983). The book made in edition of three copies has exactly the size and shape of the Bible at her family home, bound in black and having 1007 tracing paper pages. She wrote on the last page the following quotation in the beginning was the Word (St. John's Gospel) and then traced it carefully on all other pages. After a few dozens of pages the process of constant tracing transformed the letters into an abstract drawing. The words were no more words but a free composition of lines. We can risk a statement, that here, in this very case, a word has become a flesh – an abstract visual sign, and thus it has lost its fundamental communication function. It is very important, that for the artist the very first page (according to the pagination she applied) is the page in the very end, the one with the legible phrase. This book work is an example of system approach to the issue of a book phenomenon as it is. The artist used the tracing method in the Polish Alphabet cycle – 35 books, each for one letter of Polish alphabet. Waldemar Kremser, a Berlin artist, also referred to the alphabetic order in his works; his latest works are based on The Great Polish-German Dictionary, where he chooses entries assigned to single letters of the alphabet and locates them on separate pages (printed bold), thus making his own book being a kind of personal interpretation of how Polish and German language correlation are understood. These book works are also made publicly, as voice performances. Waldemar Petryk is an artist who in his books also uses words in a system way. Babel – an attempt of reconstruction (1984) is a book where he judges his personal status, his ego. Using a simple rubber stamp and green ink he marks every page of the book with the word jestem (I am), a bit like a clerk does when stamping an official paper he verifies the importance of its content. On one side we feel the extreme importance of the word message in this book (obsessive act of highlighting one's presence), on the other side this “attempt of reconstruction” made by Petryk can be seen as the mocking and subtle gesture of the artist who has challenged the seriousness of a book (and of himself). In the case of books by Cezary Staniszewski, of the world of minimal means and maximal analytic condensation of thoughts, we face the issue of a book itself and the text encoded in it. The artist is interested first of all in essential content of the assumed problem (presented in the text he had written earlier) that is being realised within the precisely designed system on the successive pages, developed and brought to culmination. A good example of this procedure is the book titled Bolero, a one-off work, where on 300 pages he wrote the text down using the encoded Morse alphabet – thick and thin lines of various colours. Transcripting of this type was continued in his black-and-white books Rondo and in two parts of the book titled Categories – referring in its verbal and essential matter to the wide scope of existential-philosophical features of human status. The visual-aesthetic aspect of these works are of secondary significance for the artist. Staniszewski assumed first of all an intellectual-logical unit and work it out with a help of book medium. Tomasz Wilmański works with words, with text, in a bit different way. His hand made unique books, referring somehow to the poetic experience of French artists of  poésie sonore, are completed with words recorded on a tape (three or four line verses), words sounding in a special way, characteristic for Polish language, written in an exquisite poetic form. This is so in the case of the book titled Sounds where unique sound of the language, especially the characteristic melody of Polish diacritic signs ś, ć, ź, ż, ą, ę, is identical with the visual iconography (for example, woodcuts) completing the structure of the book. The artist made also books (MOD, EMOH) where verbal transcription – the composition of letters in the words dom or home – is being compiled on every page in every possible logical manner. These books refer directly to the tradition and assumptions of concrete poetry. Małgorzata Dawidek Gryglicka, a young generation artist and a theoretician of visual poetry, circles around linguistic signs in her book works. A book is understood here as an intimate “dictionary”, a record of personal feelings and thoughts; as a form of artistic expression enabling a special kind of intellectual concentration. Usually the starting point for her book works is an alphabet – a systematised and logic order of letters from a to z. In her book works she proposes “to decode” the signs of language code. The artist assigns to every letter precise sign-visual connotations and verbal meanings, for example: A – silence, C – context, or F – friendship. It seems two aspects, important for the artist, are being united here: of verbal communication (semantic, intellectual) and visual-spatial occurring within the substance of the book, on pages, and consistently in the given architecture of the venue where the book is displayed. De-Kody (De-codes) is a book work which is to certain extent an “encoded” game to be penetrated, proposed for a reader-spectator.

Robert Szczerbowski makes books based mainly on text structure. His hypertext book Æ was created in 1985-1990 and was imagined as a work with no author and no title. It consists of two parts, and its dualistic nature can be experienced on different levels. For example, the pages in the shorter part (called A from anepigraph which means a work without title) are numbered so that every next page number is the square of each preceding page number. In the larger part (E – from exegesis) there are only even numbers in parenthesis. The total number of pages of both text is 101 and is symmetric. In the very middle of the larger part E there is a two column list of all entries. The first edition had 2222 copies. According to the author:  In this edition the first page has been omitted on purpose: it carried no content at all (there was no author's name on it, nor title). Lack of the title as the external name of the text is the result of the simple fact that every word of this text is but an attempt to name this text, or a title (an internal title). The lack of the author's name is the result of the fact that there's no personal author behind it. HeraticPress published in 1996 another book by Szczerbowski: Hermetic Scriptures. The first volume is a brochure containing a text written with pictographic script created by the author (for the first time used in The Book of Life). The second volume is the result of notation in decimal system, an automatic cryptogram – a text is composed mainly of one line of digits, from 0 to 9, which seems to generate an infinite number. While in the third volume we can find a text printed on transparent sheets, so that the lines of both pages overlap each other making the reading impossible. Another artist who should be mentioned is Roman Bromboszcz, a creator of cybernetic poetry, who presents the interactive versions of his poems in the Internet or perform them publicly. In 2008 he published his works in a book titled digital.prayer using very interesting typography for the transcription; the attached CD enable us to experience the texts and listen to the computer sound arrangements of the author. In a poem titled The Incredible Development of Polish Language, one of many that can be found in this book, we can read such “words”:

(an excerpt)

Źfąsw bąhłę, śwęs rsaśńem, sal zuf, śńyn żązjęo,

Homóśa wszóbńęo hsónąfa, rónr źmózoęśźćźę kilo

Óśwąwńoę łońa nąkwón zasząma śoi ź silo

Śmópćę lszązó źąćjófźo, ź ńon sęśźwą ńąfźoęo.

This quotation (the first four lines of the poem) refers directly, at least it seems so, to the phonetic poetry of Hugo Ball or Kurt Schwitters or to the early works by Anatol Stern.

A few examples of book works given in the text above, where the artists make the most of the transcriptions and senses contained in visual poetry or text, does not drain out the abundant tradition of making such art works. We should mention here a complex issues of liberature or of interactive e-book connected with netart that has been developing lately so rapidly. Although these issues are very interesting and important, they belong to another domain of art which is not analysed here.

Both a text and a book – regarded as a material for analysis, and for making verbal articulation and iconographic transcription – have been present in avant-garde art for more than 100 years, and they still can be an object of art analysis, a reason to look for new forms of verbal and non-verbal communication, to widen constantly the perception of linguistic reality in modern art. Needless to say that the problems of visual poetry and its alliances with artist's book have been precisely analysed by scholars, critics and artists themselves, however they can not be judged intellectually in a clear and unambiguous way; they belong also to the world of art which is magic and can't be defined ultimately. Otherwise we might speak only of logical and objective science, and Gomringer's “constellations” should be regarded as astronomical phenomena.


Poznań, October 2009

(Translation Radosław  Nowakowski)