by Mauricio Cruz Arango
Published in Gradiva, Literary
Magazine, II: 6 (sept. 1988)
More than five hundred years ago, around 1480, a monk called Hildebrand Brandenburg dreamt of his own death. It would have been easier to deal with a simple blackout than with the image corresponding to his dream, in which his beloved books were being burnt in a raging bonfire, both consuming his soul and the guilty object of his desires.
Accustomed as we are to the temptations that come with insistent advertising, what can we know about a fifteenth-century monk’s thoughts and feelings, as he caressed those forbidden fruits of knowledge?
Let us imagine him leafing through his books in the obscurity of his cell, animated by a flickering light, poor but sufficient – a scene recalling those of Rembrandt depicting a philosopher. In these conditions, we can picture his awe and marvel seeing those lovingly and patiently illuminated manuscripts: in short, indulging in the pleasure of that ‘salvation,’ albeit precarious, if we remember the horror of his dream. In fact, the monk finally was confronted with the contradiction that mixes - in personal doses - pleasure and guilt. Instead of bringing him the hoped-for redemption, his devout devotion (forgive the repetition) made him know what other monks felt when polyphony was introduced into their religious chants, and which they adequately named “the lasciviousness of the choir.” Like them, Hildebrand experienced what we would call today, unruffled, an aesthetic emotion.
To define this feeling more accurately, let us imagine the medieval ‘landscape’ in which an indirect, almost involuntary pleasure is stretched between two fundamental abysses: the first lies beneath one’s feet, like a tight confusion of bones giving an inexorable warning of damnation; the second extends over one’s head like a heavenly dispelling of invisible architectures, where the single eye governs all under the conditional motto of unprecedented redemption. All this results, as we have already suggested, from the fact that in those times aesthetic emotion was no different from religious feeling: prayer and ecstasy were one and the same. The first purified the second, in so far as it was faithful to its raison d'être. In this way, the manuscripts which the monk caressed –first with devotion, then with pleasure — became the recipients of a double nature in which emotion could not be pleasurably assumed without the unavoidable share of guilt being previously remitted. And it is facing this apparently irreconcilable duality that the monk’s shrewdness revealed a ‘negotiable’ space: Hildebrand offers his bibliographical treasures to the Order of Saint Bruno, where his books will fall, perhaps, into more innocent hands.
At this point, all this would be nothing more than one of those exemplary stories that serve as a warning about the moral ‘inconvenience’ of certain books, were it not that our monk took special care to leave a curious and devilish testimony inside the books before handing them over: in every single one, he imprints his mark as their previous owner, placing a small sheet with his name and hand-colored distinctive arms on the inside of the front cover. With this gesture – one that commemorates his pleasure and enjoyment — the monk redeems himself entirely, in both body and soul. Overwriting the “you shall not take joy in thy name,” he inscribes his name, thus achieving a marvelous balance through a well-meditated act of charity.
The story that I have just reconstructed in my own terms is also exemplary, as it corresponds to the beginnings of a bibliophile custom, where precious volumes receive similar endowments by their proud owners, and also because it unknowingly launched a particular artistic genre: the ex-Libris or bookplate. From then on, following the logic implicit in all refinements, variations will exist mainly around a common theme such as “identification through heraldry”, i. e. through coats-of-arms. Later, complex heraldic codes gave way to a type of images that, though dissociated from the symmetric structure that characterizes heraldic imagery, belong to a similar iconographic family. Indeed, a type of expression appears in the nineteenth century that corresponds to the Modernist Symbolist ‘recoveries’ where the heraldic image is subverted - even if it remains emblematic -, revealing what the coat-of-arms was hiding. If the shield is solidly structured as a ‘cipher’ in which different elements are organized to contain an unequivocal and determined meaning, it is also true that its deciphering (no longer through its codes but through an analysis that attentively examines “the other side of the coin”) makes us intuitively broach a thematic dimension which is what the pictorial image reveals to its viewers. Curiously, ex-libris begin as an artistic genre at the point when the expression compressed within heraldic imagery ‘continues’, albeit indirectly.
This is probably the point where a phrase by Alfred Jarry (creator of Ubú Roi) becomes pertinent: “clichés are the armour of the absolute,” perhaps indicating the potential significance that the cliché, as a much-repeated formula, bears within it: a cliché (the image) acts as a symbolic structure that represents an absolute in the context of a historical variable. So, ultimately, what do such images say? What is hidden beneath their multiple masks of hazard?
The analysis (which does not need to be exhaustive) of ex-libris images that have appeared throughout the last five hundred years shows the natural and absolute domination of a thematic element whose alternation, intermittence or dissociation can be resumed in two words: Love and Death - two poles that run through all human experience. If this essential duality may be understood as an absolute image, each cliché, then, informs us about its specific variables, as categorized under its particular historical, religious, and cultural circumstances. There is always an essence and a circumstance in each image, a game and a set of rules. It is enough to consider the eternal image of the Greek theater, where the scenic space is shown as potential emptiness framed by two masks: Tragedy and Comedy. Of course this is something well-known, but this does not make it less valid, nor does it exhaust the incredible generative capacity of the aforementioned elements. In this sense, one can say that the work of art is essentially an art of variation, and that knowing this does not in any way ensure its efficiency.
Now, to consider ex-libris as an “artistic genre,” we would first have to identify the concrete conditions of their autonomy. We must ask ourselves whether ex-libris are essentially prints that are pasted inside books, or whether, despite this function, they belong to the category of prints as a genre. On the other hand, we can question whether their definition as a “genre” resides in the implicit nature of their function. Ex-libris would not be defined through a technique (as do paintings and prints), but instead would find their specificity in their intimate relationship with the book as their finality and support. If this is true, a framed ex-libris, outside a book, would be a different thing: a print that alludes to ex-libris but that does not function as such.
The specificity of an ex-libris, as indicated by its name (“from the books of…”), is intimately connected to the book and to the particularities of its owner, its “possessor.” Incorporated into an object that opens up and shows itself, while keeping its contents away from prying eyes, ex-libris are encountered with a certain unawareness. If this is considered, the ex-libris constitutes a form of expression that is, quite literally, ‘marginal,’ and whose autonomy, paradoxically, cannot be separated from its relationship with the book. In a way, the difference between an ex-libris and images that are placed upon a canvas or other sorts of surfaces is that it is an image placed upon an object that ignores its very existence. Even so, by its marginal character, by its decorative nature, this ‘invasive’ image manages to give rise, by itself, to an expression which words cannot reveal throughout their entire discourse.
The book is a repository of knowledge which, in the intimate process of its consultation, remains secret, oracular. To open a book is an act whose expectancy merges with the desire of a double appearance – as a peephole whose residual image cannot be other than the one embedded deep inside Western thought: Eros and Thanatos. The ‘forbidden fruit’ that Hildebrand of Brandenburg fervently caressed (as we all do), made him discover, amidst the ambiguous and fascinating heat of its flames, the nature of passion.
Translation: Patricia Zalamea / revision: Benôit Junod
14 de septiembre de 2006