Picturing Words

Artists of all types have long toyed with incorporating typography into their work.

From the illuminated manuscript to Islamic calligraphy, words have mingled with the visual to enhance meaning or simply attract attention.

“Il Pleut” by Guillaume Apollinaire

In the manuscripts, the images, while incorporating letters within the image, illustrate, often literally, the story they precede. The text itself flows as it would in any book we see today.

Islamic calligraphy is highly decorative and is revered because the artistry reflects the religious heritage. Visual representations of divine figures or events are forbidden, so calligraphers used the ornate writing as a visual image to attract readers to the text.

Micrography, developed somewhere around the ninth century, is Jewish word art. It uses letters, often in abstract or geometric designs, to represent different themes in the text.

In the late 1800s, designers, including Henri Toulouse Lautrec and Alphonse Mucha, twisted lettering used in posters to incorporate information into the design.

But in 1918, the French writer and critic Guillaume Apollinaire published “Calligrammes: Poems of War and Peace 1913-1916.” The layout of the book featured typography and hand-written texts that were intended to be read, not in a normal fashion, but in a way that suggested a meaning for which the written word alone would not suffice. The letters were not simply manipulated for adornment or illustration, but to function as a fusion of word and image to create a new whole.

In a letter to André Billy, Apollinaire writes, “The Calligrammes are an idealisation of free verse poetry and typographical precision in an era when typography is reaching a brilliant end to its career, at the dawn of the new means of reproduction that are the cinema and the phonograph.”

Calligrams, which means “beautiful writing” and are also called “concrete” or “visual” poems, offer the writer a chance to challenge the reader to think about the poem in a different way, to look past the literal meaning of the word and delve into a deeper context.

“Eiffel Tower” by Guillaume Apollinaire

Apollinaire was an early Surrealist — he coined the term in the program notes for a Jean Cocteau ballet — and counted such Parisian artistic luminaries as Pablo Picasso, Gertrude Stein, André Breton, André Derain, Jean Cocteau, Marc Chagall and Marcel Duchamp among his friends. He was heavily involved with the Cubists as well. He was injured in World War I and died in the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918.

The calligram-style of poem pre-dates Apollinaire. English poet George Herbert wrote “Easter Wings” and “The Altar,” two famous “shaped” poems.

Apollinaire did not live to see the growth of the art movement that incorporated typography like no other up to that point. Dada was a loose collection of avant-garde artists who incorporated the visual, written and theater arts, formed in reaction to the horrors of WWI. Vehemently denying they were a “movement,” these artists rejected convention and sought to present their ideas through a culture of “anti-art.”

Dadaists sought to incorporate everything and anything into their work, including glass, plaster, wood and fabrics. Through the groups’ work, assemblage, collage, photomontage and the use of ready-made objects gained mainstream acceptance.

Typography until Dada followed a reasonably conventional format. After all, despite twisting the letters, the words were expected to be easily read. The Dadaists didn’t care about that at all. If it was convention, they were against it. If it was hard to comprehend the text, all the better. Their publications combined illustration with type, often seemingly at random.

The Dada poet Tristan Tzara, in the 1918 Dada Manifesto, writes that, “Every page should explode, either because of its deep seriousness, or because of its vortex, vertigo, newness, timelessness, crushing humor, enthusiasm of its principles, or the way it is printed.”

An overview on Dada-overview.com quotes the Italian Filippo Marinetti’s Manifesto stating, “I undertake a typographical revolution directed especially against the idiotic and nauseous conception of old-fashioned books of verses […] Better still: my revolution is directed against what is called typographical harmony of the page […] I intend to redouble the expressive force of words.”

It goes on to argue that Dada’s fundamental contribution is to detach the graphic work from the content it transmits: the graphic element is considered in and of itself.

The German Dada artists, notably Kurt Schwitters, Hannah Höch and Raoul Haussman, were on the forefront of using collage and photomontage incorporating typography.

Dada overview states that, “It was natural that the movement, seeking to turn away from all areas of the past, destroy old hierarchies — particularly by turning to disciplines less prestigious than the humanities or the fine arts — would seize typography and attempt to make it, renew it, into art,” with Schwitters arguing in 1924 that, “With regard to typography one can establish innumerable laws. The principal one would be: never do what someone else before you has done.”

The Dadaists changed fonts and type sizes on the page, often within the words themselves. They turned the letters and used them to create abstract designs within the page.

Around the same time, the Russian avant-garde was also playing with convention. While Kasimir Malevich was creating abstracts from geometric forms, the poet Vladimir Mayakowsky and the artist El Lissitzky were collaborating on 1923’s “For the Voice,” a collection of 13 poems that were carefully layed out to present the words in such a way that the page became an image — often with individual words broken to pun on other words that were similar.

“Merz 11168” by Kurt Schwitters

Mayakovsky was a revolutionary, not just politically, but culturally. His poems were written to shock and challenge his audience. El Lissitzky worked with the printer to exploit all the possibilities of the printer’s art, writing, “The book is created with the resources of the compositor’s type-case alone. The possibilities of two-colour printing (overlays, cross hatching and so on) have been exploited to the full. My pages stand in much the same relationship to the poems as an accompanying piano to a violin. Just as the poet in his poems unites concept and sound, I have tried to create an equivalent unity using the poem and typography.”

In the 1960s, the Fluxus movement, which featured Yoko Ono, created performance and visual imagery that was based on everyday actions and experiences. Michael Corris writes, “The ‘Fluxmanifesto on Fluxamusement’ used innovative typography and ready-made printed images to communicate the concept of the self-sufficiency of the audience, an art where anything can substitute for an art work and anyone can produce it.”

In the 1970s, another iconoclastic movement exploited the use of unconventional typography. The Punks were politically disaffected and the bands’ posters and album covers looked back to the Dadaists and their use of collaged letters. On the Sex Pistols’ 1976 “God Save the Queen” single, artist Jamie Reid takes the classic portrait of the Queen that was on the pound note, and shatters the regal image by using cutout letters that cover the monarch’s eyes and mouth. The fact that the single was released during the Queen’s silver jubilee year, a time of reverence and celebration of the institution of the monarchy, made the cover all the more shocking.

On March 13, 2001, an English panel of judges for the book “100 Best Record Covers of All Time,” selected Reid’s design as the “best record cover ever produced.” Editor Andrew Harrison wrote, “The Sex Pistols is the best crystallization of all the excitement rock and roll gives you. It was also probably the first and perhaps the last time something was put on the front cover which collectively shocked a nation.‘’

“God Save the Queen” by Jamie Reid

It is interesting that Apollinaire, in the quote to André Billy, thought that new technology would signal the demise of typography. In fact, the rise of technology, particularly the personal computer, has expanded the use of typography in ways he could not imagine.  The unconventional uses of type of which the poets and artists of the 1920s were so proud, are now accepted and encouraged. It is hard to find even the most mainstream magazine that does not use color, font or size for artistic effect to help “sell” the content of an article.

Most computers come with upward of 100 fonts. Web sites like fontcraft.com’s scriptorium offers a wealth of downloadable fonts under headings as diverse as Celtic, Ancient and Arcane, Viking and more.

In a final twist on Apollinaire’s foreboding about cinema, Scriptorium features “Captain Kidd,” a “piratical font” inspired by, you guessed it, the title lettering of the 1945 Charles Laughton movie.

“Fluxus Manifesto 1963” by George Maciunas

Even if the written word fades away, and paper gives way to LED screens, one can bet that someone will try to figure out a way to make the word stand out visually.

Story by Andy Coughlan – ISSUE Editor
Issue Magazine- September 2013