Ex libris: a thriving art... ...in Russia

William E. Butler, an American by birth and professor of comparative law at the University of London, was secretary of the Bookplate Society in England for seven years. This selection of Russian bookplates, all designed between 1979 and 1982, will be part of an exhibition at University College in London in August.

DURING the summer of 1973 I was strolling along the Nevsky Prospekt in Leningrad. High above, stretching from one side of the boulevard to the other, was a banner announcing an exhibition of bookplates, or ex libris, in an adjacent book-shop - all wood engraved by ``Anatoly I. Kalashnikov, Muscovite.''

Like many other book collectors, I had pondered having a personal bookplate designed, and like the overwhelming majority, I had no idea as to precisely what I wanted or where to seek a designer.

That walk on the Nevsky Prospekt led in due course to my contacting Kalashnikov directly about commissioning a bookplate.

Upon returning to London I had found a new volume published by the Private Libraries Association on modern European ex libris 1950 to 1970, which reproduced examples by the leading designers. Kalashnikov's powerful wood engravings impressed even more in this august company, and when I made his acquaintance in 1976, I was introduced not merely to the full range of his masterly engravings but also to a long tradition of similar endeavor by literally hundreds of artists working in all graphic mediums.

I quickly learned that one may collect bookplates in one's own right; that one acquires them principally through exchanges with other collectors, artists, or institutions (yet another reason to commission one's own bookplate); and that membership in several of the 26 national bookplate societies in the world is invaluable. One may collect, as most do, purely as a hobby on a variety of levels of sophistication, or one may treat, as I increasingly do, bookplates as an auxiliary historical science. In artistic terms, bookplates designed by noted artists (D"urer, Chagall, Kokoschka, Rockwell Kent, Hogarth) are worthy in their own right as significant original works of art. Thematically, the bookplate may constitute part of the larger world of artistic symbolism or iconography.

In the world of book studies, the bookplate is a document of provenance that enables personal and institutional libraries to be reconstructed, patterns of the early book trade to be traced, and fashions in design and printing to be verified. The designers, processes, styles, and motifs take on meaning only when viewed against the collection as a whole, and the serious bookplate collector will also acquire collateral reference sources as assiduously as possible.

After more than half a century of desuetude, the Bookplate Society revived in England in late 1972, became independent in 1983, and publishes a fine journal, a quarterly newsletter, and an annual book. In 1974, after years of lobbying, the bibliophiles and bookplate collectors in the Soviet Union persuaded the authorities to support the founding of the All-Union Voluntary Society for Devotees of the Book.

No one can say with confidence what the initial expectations were; perhaps a few thousand members. The results, achieved without campaigns, have left all concerned awestruck: 18 million members to date and still expanding rapidly.

The great majority of members of the Soviet book society simply enjoy owning and reading books, and through an impressive scheme of programs and exhibitions organized around bookshops and places of work and study this is strongly encouraged. Who can doubt that readers will be encouraged when once or twice a month authors or poets are invited to speak about their work and sign copies of their books.

Kalashnikov has since 1984 headed up the Section on Book Graphics and the Bookplate. (In March 1987 his bookplate design for Dickinson College was awarded first prize in a design competition sponsored by the college.) That even 5 percent of members of the Soviet book society might wish to commission a bookplate for their personal libraries is a daunting but wholly realistic prospect - the rest may be content to purchase ``universal'' bookplates and write in their own name on the blank space, rather like a stationery item in the West. On the other hand, more than a thousand Soviet artists actively design bookplates, and to a very high standard. Under Kalashnikov's aegis, some 300 of the very best designers are included in a recent ``directory'' of those available to accept commissions.

My own collecting interests initially concentrated on Anglo-American and Soviet bookplates, and in the course of six years and attendance at two international ex-libris congresses I had some 20,000 bookplates - a small collection in bookplate circles. The acquisition of a very large collection at auction in 1982 perforce made my collection a general one, and I also succeeded in engaging the interest of my wife in the subject. (Soviet collectors are fond of the true anecdote about an Estonian collector who married late in life and was summarily informed shortly after the nuptials that it was either she or the bookplates. He kept the wife, to the pleasure of his fellow collectors, who acquired the bookplates.)

Following one-man shows of Kalash-nikov's graphics at the University of London and an exhibition of 89 modern Soviet bookplate designers at the Flaxman Gallery in University College London, the first exhibition of modern English bookplates opened at Moscow in September 1986 under the auspices of the Soviet book society; it has since been touring the country. In October 1986 two British wood engravers - Reg Boulton and George Tute - visited Moscow and Tashkent to open their two-man show and lecture on their work (standing room only). The August show in London will be the first glimpse of a fine, rising school of Leningrad bookplate design, together with artists as far removed as the Baltic and the Caucasus. Although bookplates are deemed to perform a social purpose, and that purpose is especially manifest in institutional bookplates, the great majority are commissioned by private individuals. The technical virtuosity and imaginative use of design and color are, in bookplate design, often well in front of what has been publicly acclaimed in the other art mediums, and how impressive they can be against the national traditions of design in the various Soviet republics.

Bookplates in the United States these days are not what they used to be. From 1890 to 1940, however, American bookplate collecting and design were of the highest world standard. The fine collections at Yale University, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Dartmouth College, and the New York Historical Society owe almost everything to the generosity of dedicated American collectors before World War II.

From 1925 to '36 the only venue in the world for annual juried bookplate exhibitions was Los Angeles, arranged by a California group known as the Bookplate Association International. In those days Soviet bookplate artists regularly took part in the exhibitions and were honored for their designs.

This long-forgotten chapter in Soviet-American cultural relations has left its trace, however; some 106 Soviet artists exhibited more than 500 ex libris during the 12 exhibitions - a figure that modern Soviet collectors find unbelievable - and investigations have disclosed that more than 100 of the Soviet bookplates from 1927 through 1929 repose in the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History.

In 1982 Yale acquired the Ballard Collection of some 500 Russian bookplates. Harvard acquired some 3,000 Russian and Soviet bookplates in 1986 and the Boston Public Library purchased about 2,000 Hungarian ex libris from the inter-war era in 1987. Bookplate collectors insist a renewed interest in collecting is under way.

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