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A Subconscious Key to Ordering the World: The Artist’s Book in Poland

Updated: Aug 31, 2020

By Dorota Folga-Januszewska | Whether in the form of painting, spatial arrangement or photography, the artist’s book has become a locus for multiple dimensions of creative expression. “Bookization” pervades contemporary art, resulting in myriad manifestations from books-objects and books-monuments to books as ideas whose existence may be autonomous or dependent on other factors.

Practicing art in the form of a book provides a multifaceted outlet for today’s creators to describe and document reality, develop a narrative or open a social discourse. Pages act as canvases that await a story, essay, poem or sketch. The artist’s book draws from the storehouses of taboo, shame and reminders, and locks abstract extractions into a visual form. Because the medium connotes the linear model of the book, the artist’s book gives a beginning, middle and end to other media that it adapts, e.g. painting or sculpture. It is not art that influences the form, shape or idea of the book, but the book that has infiltrated into modern art and digital media. In that sense, the artist’s book faces a special mission, as it heralds change—yet not so much through its physicality, but rather through its emotional and intellectual structure. Its essence as a book that conveys a symbolic language fell on fertile ground in Poland, where contemporary artists continue the historic practice of infusing signs, marks and emblems into their work. After the Polish avant-garde interval (from 1918 to the late 1960s), the process of making all types of art meaningful revived in the 1980s. The holistic approach, so deeply rooted in the organizational structure of art, is particularly visible in the current relationship between artists and curators, whose dynamics resemble those of authors and editors. Collaboration towards publishing a new "text" complemented with explanatory "illustrations" is ubiquitous. In contrast to the conceptual art of the 1970s, works of art since 2000 have no longer been valued for their categorical purity. Art rather "reveals," "explains" and "illustrates" wherever and whatever it can, including ephemeral, spiritual and sensorial matters. It also employs diverse methods, but, having profited from the experience of Fluxus (whose explosive power was not limited to happenings and actions, but also expressed through dozens of experimental books), addresses its message to interpreters raised on illustrated handbooks. Artists are immersed in the phenomenon, exploiting book format to communicate socio-political statements, articulated and composed in sequences, which may be traversed like pages. In this sense, film and video, with their defined frames, are the grandchildren of books. Even Joanna Rajkowska's work Satisfaction Guaranteed (2000), a series of cans containing the homeopathy of her own body, holds that overwhelming notion of a "volume" associated with books. The cans resemble not only elements of physiology, but also mental contents; their arrangement on a refrigerator shelf evokes books on a bookshelf, thereby imperceptibly continuing the story of a library of the body . . .

In Poland, posters enhanced the process of "bookization," as did pages or covers torn from titles. Though amputated and independent, tear-outs act as fractions that radiate the book’s greater content when there is not much time to read. Not by chance was there an absence of paintings cataloged into old Polish art collections. However, hundreds of libraries existed that amassed collections of prints and albums as well as portfolios of drawings and iconographic descriptions. Book format, being easier to hand over, was pragmatic for a country so often afflicted by wars. When an unknown artist was painting a portrait of young Polish nobleman Tomasz Zamoyski 400 years ago, he placed the sitter in front of a bookshelf for a fundamental reason: books gave knowledge. Books and music, sheets, words and sounds. And in that old representation was the book as a shape and an idea, as much as in Artur Zmijewski's video Singing Lesson 2 (2002), in which all of the sonic emanations and captured motions result from graphic signs in sheet music, bypassing consciousness. The book is not only Henryk Sienkiewicz’s The Deluge, but also the written religious song Magnificat and Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. It is a sequence of images and words, colors and symbols. The format can involve sounds, scenarios, astronomic calculations and politics. Understanding the bookishness embedded into our cultures may be challenging without reminding ourselves of the signs’ widespread conventionality, freedom of thought and vividness of image. The book—graphic, artist’s, author’s—is a "notation," a storyline denoting everything, sometimes even life.

The book is also a prison.

In a conversation with Artur Zmijewski, Pawel Althamer talks about this intuition, about the direction of changes that should come: “My art is born of longing for a non-verbal language. . . . Art is born of nostalgia for the times when people were creatures without [a] physical body, and the presence of other beings was marked by warm and cold flows, silence and noise.”1 The understood subjection to the dictatorship of the book, script, sign or narrative provokes objections. Only after several hundred years did a longing for "non-bookish" art appear.

Which is why the condition of the artist’s book is so good in Poland, a country that values papers, freedom and protests. Unlike architectural works, the book is an anti-space, a temporal object. It can be read in an hour, a day, month, year or whole life; it can be looked at, one can come back to it, even abandon it, but it cannot be read in millimeters, kilometers or miles. It can be opened or closed. And what is even more important, the book is a hard missile and a dangerous weapon. Zbigniew Libera and Darek Foks created a book called Courier (2006), in which Gina Lollobrigida appears in a coordinated narrative of the Warsaw Uprising of 1944. The cover of Joanna Rajkowska’s Patriotic Literature (2006) contains a mirrored layout stirring a cocktail of anti-Semitic context, inner doubts, open provocation and emotional overtones.

It is worth drawing attention to the fact that the book can be the marriage of an artist’s poetry and images. Zygmunt Januszewski's Versgraphik (2006) is a sea voyage of prints and poems whose meeting was inevitable, determined even before they were created. In this “Poemography,” as the title translates into English, visualization is a word atom of language, whereas the word is an image, an element of graphic matter. Verses beat times in poems and lines, smudges and symbols give paintings a rhythm that can be sensed; in many instances, it is common. A constant circulation among various forms of expression lingers throughout Poemography. Rhythms of syllables, words, meanings, associations of memory sometimes take the shape of words, sometimes of pictures. A musical spirit hovers over the work that transports quanta of energy from a picture to a word, and they detonate in contact with paper, thus creating the author’s print.

An artist’s book is in those cases equivalent to a painting, film or installation. It is a medium of art that derives its species from the medium itself. In the Book of Cut-Up Time (2004) by Andrzej Dudek-Durer, strips of paper from a shredder fill a glass jar like jam; in Blazej Ostoja Lniski’s Letters (2006–2012), pages are paintings that consist of never-ending letters. Pawel Nowak’s A Living and Dead Book (2016) takes sculptural form, as thousands of pages of useless telephone books wrap into a circle. These are art books of spirit and idea whose authors abandoned pages and covers many years ago and left numbering to mathematicians. They can fly like birds on the internet.

Zygmunt Januszewski, Versgraphik Wierszografia, 2006, artist’s book, 11 7/8 x 8 1/2 inches (30.3 x 21.5 cm). Layout by Zygmunt Januszewski and Marcin Mikolajczyk, published by Pro Libris Publishing House, Warsaw, 2006, photograph by the artist.

However, there are also artists’ books that are objects. Books washed out of narrative and letters, books-that-are-matter, in which only the name alludes to the book—the noun "book" and the symbolic message of the object—while the spirit, narrative and discourse have been put aside. Books as tamed matter borne from the spirit of material, self-referentially penetrating, testing the endurance of imagination and the borders of the field. With their inapplicability for books in a conventional sense, artists’ books become pure works of art that still metaphorically refer to the idea of the book. One does not know how tightly their symbolic meaning connects to the “book” rooted in the cultural unconscious; artists’ books often carry a message, although sometimes, on the contrary, they call for condemnation of text.

Andrzej Bednarczyk creates non-openable volumes, such as Anatomy of Angels (1998) and The Fourteenth (2012), by extracting words from the “holy” books and transliterating them into sculptural form. Some contents become encrypted, other tomes latched. Certain texts end up embedded into monumental blocks that Bednarczyk installs upright into a field. The only way to read a book like Field of Angel’s Whispers (1998) is in motion, by walking from one column to the next, imbibing clues while animating memory . . .

[This interview appears in full in the print and digital editions of Celebrating Print, Vol.3, No.1.]

Image: Andrzej Bednarczyk, Field of Angel’s Whispers, 1998, sandstone, 86 5/8 x 271 5/8 x 271 5/8 inches (220 x 690 x 690 cm), photograph by the artist.

Image top of this post: Pawel Nowak, A Living and Dead Book, 2016, steel, pages from phone books, 47 1/4 inches diameter x 39 3/8 inches height (120 x 100 cm), photograph by the artist.


1. Artur Zmijewski, “Piesn skorzanego worka: Z Pawlem Althamerem rozmawia Artur Zmijewski” [Song of a leather sack: Arturs Zmijewski’s interview with Pawel Althamer], in Artur Zmijewski, Drzace ciala: Rozmowy z artystami [Artur Zmijewski, trilling bodies: Talks with artists] (Krakow: Bytom, 2006), 40.


This article A Subconscious Key to Ordering the World: The Artist’s Book by Dorota Folga-Januszewska appears in the print edition of Celebrating Print, Vol.3 No. 1, published in April 2017.

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DOROTA FOLGA-JANUSZEWSKA is an art historian, art critic, curator, museologist and educator. As a professor at the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw, she heads the Theory Department at the Faculty of Graphic Arts. She is also a Deputy Director at the King Jan III Palace Museum in Wilanow, Warsaw. Her research—which covers topics like the intellectual condition of contemporary printmaking, theories of vision and neuroaesthetics—has been published in over 300 books, journals and catalogs. She has curated over 50 exhibitions and served as a juror in numerous contemporary print competitions. Folga-Januszewska is an Honorary Member of the International Print Triennial Society in Krakow and President of ICOM Poland.

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