El Palacio Magazine, El Palacio, Vol. 113, No. 2, summer 2008.
Album Amicorum: The Case for Friendship
By Tom Leech
When the assignment to accompany a Los Compadres del Palacio tour to Turkey landed on my desk last October, I was delighted by the opportunity to renew friendships made there in 1997 with Turkish artists at an international gathering of marbling artists and introduce them to the Friends of the Palace. What I wasn’t thinking of when the trip was first discussed was how the echoes of the past can still be heard in the background of today's headline news. I also didn’t know that I would be starting on a little mission to save the world.
To speak of marbled papers is to speak of travel—through time and history and place. If not the first abstract art form, these speckled and swirling-patterned papers are certainly an early incarnation of the idea. Hundreds of years before Jackson Pollock dripped paint on canvas, anonymous artists were reveling in splashes and gestures of color. Yet these papers have the delicate charm and mystery of old maps. For practitioners of this art, marbling is akin to alchemy and a metaphor of a spiritual, transcendental journey.
Marbling has antecedents in Japan, China, India, and Persia. While I have heard any number of places along the Silk Road suggested as the birthplace of marbling, all such claims remain conjectural. What is known is that, today, Istanbul has an unbroken five-hundred-year tradition of marbling.
Chances are good that you first encountered marbling in the endpapers of an old book. It was almost de rigueur for nineteenth-century books to include marbled endpapers. Think of them as musical preludes, or as a promise of all things wonderful in the pages you are holding. Even today, publishers wrap slick paperbacks with marbled designs to evoke sophistication and good taste. But marbling’s marriage to books goes back much farther than that, to the time shortly after Gutenberg changed the world with the invention of movable type.
Five and a half centuries ago, as now, the eyes of the world were on the Middle East. For European Christians in 1453, the unthinkable had just happened. Constantinople, the heart of Byzantine Christendom for more than a thousand years, had fallen to the Ottoman Turks. Its name was changed to Istanbul, and it was now in Moslem hands. Europe was terrified by the thought of what might happen next. Perhaps Gutenberg was too. Although all credit goes to him for producing the first printed bible, what preceded that masterwork off his press were papal indulgences sold to raise money for the defense of Constantinople.
Uneasy as the peace following that monumental conquest may have been, I like to think that friendship, that oft-ignored force of nature, had a hand in breaking down the walls of mistrust and fear. It was during this period that the first marbled papers appeared in the workshops of Istanbul. And in Germany small, pocket-sized books, alba amicorum, Latin for “friendship books,” were the prized possessions of student scholars who collected writings and illustrations from their colleagues and professors. Many an album amicorum included marbled and otherwise decorated papers acquired from Turkey.
In 1610, the same year that our own Palace of the Governors was completed, English poet George Sandys left London and began a chronicle of his travels to the Holy Land. Relation of a Journey (the short form of a long title) included this observation: “The Turkes curiously sleeke their paper, which is thicke, much of it being coloured and dappled like chamolets [and] done by a tricke they have of dipping it in the water.”
A postscript to Sandys’s travels worth mentioning is that in 1621 he sailed to Jamestown, Virginia, where he held official posts for the next ten years. Francis Bacon, one of the most eminent thinkers of the day, also commented on the Turk’s “pretty art” of decorating paper in his book Sylva Sylvarum (1627), which was sold in Fleet Street at the sign of “the Great Turk’s head.”
This historical preamble ends in the Pacific on Captain Cook’s ship Discovery in 1774. Frustrated in his attempts to win over Melanesians and about to be voted off the island, Cook presented sheets of marbled paper from the ship’s stores. The feathery, magically colored papers impressed the headmen where knives and nails and other ironware had failed. He and crew were invited back for a needed R & R, and we are left to imagine the celebration that followed. That is one of history’s moments I dearly wish to have witnessed.
I really do believe that “what is past is prologue.” And if marbled papers had a way of opening doors in times gone by, then what doors might be opened in the twenty-first century by this ancient but overlooked art? Such was my thinking when, at the same time the museum trip to Turkey was being planned, I was invited to curate a marbling exhibit for the Business of Art Center, a nonprofit arts center in Manitou Springs, Colorado. (Oh, the doors that are opened when one says yea instead of nay!) When there is passion for the task, curating an exhibit is a creative endeavor. Not at all short on passion, my challenge was to present contemporary marbling in a manner that would also highlight its history. To me, one of the more compelling aspects of the marbling tradition was its propensity for crossing continents, borders, and oceans, not to mention its affinity for the baggage of travelers. The idea was still half-formed as I left for Istanbul.
Looking back, I regret that I didn’t collect Turkish newspapers during the trip, because they would have presented a poignant counterpoint to the beautiful papers that I did bring home. Their garish pages were plastered with stories of anti-American protests over the “Armenian Resolution” in the US Senate, and about Turkish retaliation for cross-border raids by Kurdish PKK rebels in Iraq, and about US opposition to that retaliation, and about more protests against the US opposition. The Devil may be in the details, as the saying goes, but Hell is in the headlines. Print and broadcast media were having a field day with the confused situation, so much so that anxious e-mails and phone calls from home to me and my fellow travelers expressed concern for our safety.
For us, though, the hype was just that. Posturing politicians don’t command the stage very long in a country where Who’s Who includes the likes of King Midas, Homer, Alexander the Great, the Virgin Mary, Saints Paul and John, Constantine, Justinian, Rumi, Mehmet the Conqueror, Suleyman the Magnificent, and Kemal Ataturk. Instead of feeling threatened, we were welcomed into homes, studios, libraries, and private collections, where we were fed, serenaded, and treated like family. If anything, we were the willing captives of the artisans of Turkey who, over eons, worked magic with stone, clay, metal, glass, fabric, parchment, and paper. And all the while, those little alba amicorum were in the back of my mind.
Home again in Santa Fe, and with the Colorado exhibit opening just two months away, I took a leap of faith and composed an e-mail letter that had been percolating in my thoughts for weeks. Addressed to paper marblers, I talked about my recent trip, the tension between my country and Turkey, between Turkey and Iraq, and the ongoing war there. I mentioned that it seemed to me that the Middle East, once a place of wonder and inspiration, had instead become a source of fear. And I recalled the origins of marbling in lands now torn by strife, and how, over centuries, the art had crossed international boundaries in books of friendship.
My letter, I went on to say, was an e-mail invitation to participate in a very special and unusual exhibit, where the artists themselves were the curators. Each artist was to be selected at the invitation of another artist who, in turn, would forward the invitation to another artist across an international border. The exhibit, sponsored by the Palace of the Governors, would bring together beautiful papers from twenty international artists as a response to the fear that grips the world. The title of the exhibit would be Album Amicorum: Gems of Friendship in a Frightened World. The date was November 19, 2007. I typed the address of the first invitee and clicked "Send."
I hoped that the Internet would allow the exhibit to come together very quickly. It did, and it didn’t. In my dreams, my invitation would fly around the world, passing from artist to artist in a matter of hours, or a couple of days at the most. It would be carried by an angel on graceful, marbled wings. I could see her thumbing her nose at international borders, postal services, and customs agents. (My angel is not without humor.) The truth is, it took one month and required international telephone calls, e-mails, faxes, translators, and even text messages. In the end, twenty-one artists from fourteen countries in Europe, Asia, Australia, and South and North America sent work. Like any good journey, unforeseen turns in the road added to the experience. Two artists submitted sheets of paste paper, a decorated-paper technique and cousin of marbling that also found its way into alba amicorum. Another two sent gorgeous papers created with techniques unfamiliar to me. And in a stroke of brilliance, one artist suggested that the number of artists be increased to twenty-one, to represent the twenty-first century.
Each artist is, in his and her own way, a virtuoso at making beautiful papers. While hardly household names, these artists have spent their careers at their craft. In order of travel, the invitation passed from me to Hikmet Barutcugil (Turkey), Einen Miura (Japan and USA), Susanne Krause (Germany), Renato Crepaldi (Brazil), Milena Hughes (USA), Karli Frigge (Netherlands), Brigitte Chardome (Belgium), Katalin Perry (France), Marianne Moll (Switzerland), Sabine Rasper (Germany), Joan Ajala (Australia), Victoria Hall (England), Nuri Pinar (Turkey), Montse Buxó (Spain), Alberto Valese (Italy), Nedim Sönmez (Turkey), Tini Miura (Germany and USA), Robert Wu (Canada), Iris Nevins (USA), and Lucie Lapierre (Canada/Quebec). Not only have they offered us a snapshot of an old art as practiced at the beginning of a new millennium, they have also agreed that friendship speaks louder than fear.
On January 18, 2008, when the exhibit opened on a very snowy evening in a small town in Colorado, more that 200 people (and perhaps one angel) attended. Album Amicorum has also been featured at Mesa Public Library in Los Alamos, New Mexico, and will be offered to selected venues around the world. This summer, this jewel of an exhibition can be seen at the Governor’s Gallery, on the fourth floor of the state capitol. As if through a kaleidoscope, visitors can consider the exquisite world of ever-changing and infinitely varied possibilities—past, present, and future.
In reality, it is obvious that all this will not stop any wars. But as for saving the world, I can tell you this: when someday the world is finally saved, friendship will have had something to do with it. So when you come to the exhibit, bring a friend.
Tom Leech, a master papermaker and marbler, is director of The Press at the Palace of the Governors in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
In an increasingly polarized world, the artists in this exhibition have come together to create a gesture of friendship across international and cultural boundaries.
The technique of marbling may have been invented in the Islamic world, probably in Central Asia , and is a dynamic example of the emphasis on pattern and abstraction in that civilization. However (and appropriately for our theme), it may also derive from earlier examples in China and Japan . It traveled to the West along trade routes, among them the route between Constantinople and Venice . One instrument for this movement from East to West and from country to country were Alba Amicorum, or “friendship books.” Interestingly, one of the “chains” in our contemporary grouping was from Turkey (Nuri Pinar), to Spain (Monste Buxó), to Venice (Alberto Valese) and back to Turkey (Nedim Sönmez). The development of decorated papers is a vivid example of the benefits of such exchange.
Marbling is a perfect metaphor for this enterprise because it is an art built upon tension and its resolution, and on individuality and intermingling. The first step in marbling a sheet of paper is to “break the tension” of the water in the tank. What better gesture of conciliation today? The colors then float on the surface of the water. The chemical action of the process, traditionally the addition of ox gall to the pigments, prevents the colors from mingling. Each color retains its own identity: blue and yellow cannot blend to make green. Yet each individual color works together in a unified composition. The “tension” still remains in the fine lines that can be created, drawn out and held taut across the paper.
Thus, as we can see in the examples in this exhibit by masters of the art, all the colors and forms remain separate, yet amalgamate in works of balance, harmony, and beauty. Each object in the exhibition exemplifies the fruits of cooperation, and the exhibition as a whole demonstrates how friendship transcends political and cultural divisions.
Marbling and the Album Amicorum
The Ann C. Pingree Director
Peabody Essex Museum
When I was a kid, I went with my brother over to Paramount Studios in Los Angeles (then called Hollywood) to stand at their rear entrance and get autographs from the people entering and exiting. I have since lost my album, but my brother still has his, signed by dozens of Hollywood unknowns and a few famous people including Elizabeth Taylor, Cecil B. DeMille, Rex Allen, Keenan Wynn, and Duncan Renaldo (who was the Cisco Kid).
We had a parallel album of signatures of classmates and friends, usually gathered at the end of each semester. We’d enter “Roses are red” verse, draw pictures, and combine our wit and wisdom for the ages. These were friendship albums of a sort, and they were composed by many people.
They were books with multiple authors, each with a different “signature”—not merely the signatures of the person, but the signature of the personality. We thought they were the latest thing, and to us they were.
But in fact, these were the alba amicorum of the twentieth century. We had no idea that what we were compiling was a part of a tradition going back at least to the middle of the 16th century. Such albums originated in Germany; today thousands of these wonderful volumes survive in libraries and private collections.
They contain, of course, signatures of the friends and acquaintances of the owners, but also they contain pictures, calligraphy of high sophistication, fancy borders, and other amazing inclusions. One that I saw had a group of excellent Schattenbilder in it—silhouettes on black paper, tipped in. Another had a rosette of pink paper in the middle of a circular decorated floral illustration; the rosette had a tiny string on it, and when the viewer pulled it up, the rosette raised in tiny cut strips to reveal a lovely miniature beneath it of a nude woman.
The artwork in them could be truly amazing, and scholars believe that some of the works of art were commissioned by the albums’ owners, who hired professional painters, miniaturists, to do the work. The inscriptions could be anything from a simple signature, to one dated, to a saying or poem, to a paragraph or more from someone who would be recorded in history as important in the world of letters or science.
The genre of commonplace books preceded this one, but those were usually compilations of wise or witty sayings done by a single person selecting exactly what goes into the text. The difference here is that the compilation for an album amicorum is also done by its owner, but the text is governed by its contributors.
Another genre of the late Middle Ages was the emblem book, containing on each page a moral saying, a picture, and a gloss on the saying. Often these features appear in the album amicorum, though for the album the picture often has nothing to do with the signature, the prose, or the verse on the page. In fact, many of the illuminations on the pages of the albums are unaccompanied by signatures or text.
Also, illuminated manuscripts from the Middle Ages were common, and in one way, the album amicorum is one of them: the miniature paintings in them sometimes illustrated the text, often with exquisitely composed scenes of people or landscapes or buildings. So the friendship album is an amalgamation of different genres—illuminated manuscripts, emblem books, and commonplace books, even leaf books of a sort since some of them contained tipped-in illustrations from other sources—with their own idiosyncratic features.
The albums, by their very nature, then, are friendly phenomena—containing good words, good pictures, and good thoughts to good friends. And for this very reason, they contain artistry of various kinds, beauty constructed from whatever materials were available to the signers and artists who contributed to them.
Hence it was appropriate to add to these volumes beautiful papers of different sorts, to keep the spirit light and the beauty visible from the beginning to the end. Many of the albums had decorated endpapers. Recently, I saw three albums, one with fine old marbled endsheets, the other two with wonderful paste paper endsheets reminiscent of those done at the Hernhuter community in Germany in the seventeenth century.
It should be added here that such papers were often used as substitutes for the more costly leather bookbindings, partly to save money, and partly to add a measure of beauty that the decorated leather could not impart. And though most of these albums are bound in leather, their use of decorated endpapers was an additional aesthetic touch to give the books an additional level of sophistication and elegance. When a reader opened the leather cover (every album amicorum I have seen was bound in leather), she would sometimes be greeted with one of these decorated endsheets, a perfect welcome to a friendly and beautiful text.
The present exhibit at the Governor’s Gallery in New Mexico’s State Capitol building appropriately harkens back to these lovely little volumes by alluding to them in its title. Tom Leech, of the Palace of the Governors, is to be congratulated for his vision here, not only for the way he links the endsheets and beauty of the albums with the beauty of the exhibit’s papers, but also for the broad range of participants he was able to get who sent in their decorated papers from around the world.
While hundreds of these albums exist hidden away in private and library collections, Tom’s exhibit is like a visible, public album amicorum itself, with its prominent display of elegant papers. And in a way, this exhibit is as portable as the little volumes it commemorates since the show will travel to other – and international – venues.
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Decorated papers long predate the album amicorum. In Japan, by the twelfth century, artists produced lovely Suminagashi papers, containing patterns from colored pigments that were floated on the surface of a trough of water, then gently dispersed over the surface into patterns. A sheet was laid on top of the bath that had the pattern floating on it, and the pattern would transfer to the sheet.
Perhaps in an attempt to copy those decorated sheets, artists in Persia (some say India, but Persia is more likely) created marbled papers as early as the fifteenth century. The technique is similar to that in Suminagashi in that the decorative pattern of pigments was floated on the surface of a bath and then transferred to the sheet, but it was different in many details. For instance, Suminagashi artists used a bath of plain water. In marbling the colors were floated on the surface of a “thickened” water, made more gelatinous with the addition of carrageen, Irish moss, or some other thickener. The pigments were mixed with drops of ox gall—the thick liquid from the gall bladder of an ox—which would allow the colors to sit on the surface of the bath without sinking, spread out in circles (the size of the circles depending on the amount of ox gall used), and sit beside other droplets of pigments without blending.
For Suminagashi, the paper did not need to be treated for the pigments to transfer from the surface of the bath to the sheet. And for the porous, unsized Japanese sheets, often the Suminagashi pattern would not merely transfer to the sheet, it would soak into the paper so that the pattern would be visible from both sides. In marbling, however, it was necessary to treat the paper’s surface with alum or some other mordant so that the pigments, transferring from the bath to the sheet, would stick to the sheet.
Over the centuries, artists learned to control the pigments in various ways, not just with the amount of ox gall they would put into the colors. A skilled marbler could get carefully placed drops of pigment onto the surface of the bath and then comb out the drops into various patterns. Or the marbler could put the drops down and, with a stylus or needle or some such fine tool, could pull the dots into recognizable patterns: flowers, geometrical figures, animals, fish, insects, and so forth. Certain patterns or random configurations of drops became recognizable and were given names: peacock, nonpareil, vein, stone, Gloucester, tiger eye, and so forth.
In the exhibition, the so-called “random patterned” marbles of Iris Nevins and the stylus-drawn papers of Joan Ajala and Victoria Hall are extremely beautiful examples of this branch of the art.
The papers of Einen Miura, Renato Crepaldi, Katalin Perry (a two-layered pattern), and Nuri Pinar are fine examples of the combed patterns. Figurative marbling is represented by the works of Hikmet Barutcugil, and Milena Hughes, along with the piece by Nedim Sönmez which combines “random patterned” combing with a finely “drawn” desert scene. Hikmet’s tulips and Milena Hughes’ branch, leaves, and flower are remarkable examples of figurative marbling.
Representing a level of marbling beyond the simple (or complex) combing of others, the papers of Tom Leech, Karli Frigge (who has added fine calligraphy to her sheet), Montsé Buxo, Alberto Valese, Tini Miura, Robert Wu and Lucie Lapierre are wonderful patterns almost beyond description. This is partly because they are so original that they defy the known vocabulary of marbled-paper description.
Over the centuries, these papers have been used for bookbindings, box covers, box linings, wrapping papers, and myriad other decorated purposes. In my own collection there are marbled-paper-covered napkin rings, pencils covered with marbled paper, marbled wrapping for incense sticks, marbled paper dust jackets for books, and so on.
Another early paper-decorating technique that emerges contemporaneously with or even slightly before marbling is paste paper. Again, as a cheaper means of decoration than leather or even marbling, paste papers can be produced in limitless patterns and colors, and with myriad uses.
The technique of their production is simple: mix up a batch of paste (using, for instance, wheat starch or rice starch), add a pigment to it, and spread it evenly on a sheet of paper with a brush or sponge. While it is still wet, you touch the paste in a variety of ways with your fingers or any of hundreds of tools or stamps, and wherever the wet paste is touched, the brushed-on pattern is disrupted into the new shape of decoration created by the reconfigured paste.
For instance, one can take a potato masher and impart a lined pattern to the paste. Rubber stamps can be used, or a small pastry wheel. One can cut a pattern into a rubber eraser or a potato and use them as stamps. And so forth. As I said, the possibilities are endless.
Several papers in the exhibit are the product of artists whose work is not marbled.. Susanne Krause’s quietly beautiful paste paper stands in contrast to a hyper-active paste paper by Sabine Rasper. Brigitte Chardome and Marianne Moll have mastered innovative techniques that seem to fit somewhere between marbling and paste paper.
Other kinds of decorated papers are produced by block printing, embedding decorative elements into the sheets, and embossing. But the premiere decorative technique is marbling, with its centuries-old history, its endless range of patterns, and its ultimate beauty. Part of the appeal is its having been produced by hand. And the marblers and paste paper makers contributing to this exhibit are some of the best paper decorators in the world.
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A few more words on marbling are in order. As I have indicated, there are basically three kinds, random, patterned, and figurative. Random marbling results when the pigments are dropped stochastically onto the surfaced of the size and then, with no further manipulation, transferred to the sheet. Though there is no combing or manipulation of the pigments, a few different named styles are distinguishable: stone, Stormont, Gloucester, vein, Italian vein, and tiger eye. They can be quite beautiful, depending partly on the colors used, and partly on the way the drops fall, form, and configure themselves. In tiger eye, for instance, many of the drops have a chemical reaction that produces a circular drop with a black (or other colored) center, looking like an eye.
In patterned marbling, we see combing of the droplets into such named configurations as nonpareil, bouquet, zigzag, snail, chevron, and many others. Sometimes combed patterns are combined, sometimes they are combined with the random patterns, from which they are originally combed. And a further decorative element exists when two patterns are used on a sheet, one marbled over another. These double marbles can be quite beautiful. Karli Frigge has even mastered multi-layered marbled, doing as many a ten layers of marbling on a single sheet, producing absolutely mystical papers.
In the realm of figurative marbling, however, we see some of the most remarkable sheets of all. Patterns representing flowers, animals, fish, and so forth can be painstakingly pulled out of the droplets. On top of this, some marblers mask off sections of a sheet and marble through the mask, as with a stencil. Then they cover the holes in the mask and open other holes, marbling a second time onto the sheet. A third, fourth, fifth, and subsequent “opening” of the mask can produce several other marbled sections onto the sheet. And each of the applications will be different—either in the marbled pattern or the colors used. With superb registration, the artist can practically paint a picture in marbling.
A perfectly shaped pattern can be lovely, but it can be ruined by the use of garish or non-complementary colors. The manual dexterity of the artists should be matched with a fine color sense for them to produce the most beautiful marbled sheets. This is so, as well, for paste papers. And the present exhibit is a testament to the best of the best.
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Marbled backgrounds and borders were secondary elements in some old Persian manuscripts. When the marbling appeared in an album amicorum, there too the decoration was a secondary element, the central focus being on the inscriptions and the art within the album. Eventually marbling—especially from the latter part of the 19th century on—became the central work of art. Today, many marbling artists produce sheets to be framed, as one would a painting or fine art photograph.
Such is the case with the marbled and paste papers in the exhibition in the Governor’s Gallery. Yet another congratulations goes to Tom Leech for his vision and efforts for pulling this exciting exhibition together.