First biennial for exlibris and small graphics organized by the Collegium Europaeum in Gniezno (Poland)
…remarkable experiences on the crooked paths of an exlibris competition

by Luc Van den Briele

        Early 2005, Luc Van den Briele was invited to cooperate as a member of the jury at the competition Europe in Signs, organized by the Collegium Europaeum in Gniezno (Poland). Although showing a lot of positive elements, the regulations were not very clear. Entries for both exlibris and small graphic work were welcomed, but a prize was foreseen for a pseudo-exlibris (with the intention of a congress in September). Convinced about the positive influence of (good) exlibris competitions and their impact on the future of the exlibris art in general, Luc Van den Briele was interested in cooperation with the Polish organisers. However, he would not participate unless the prize foreseen for the pseudo-exlibris was eliminated. The organizers recognized the misunderstanding and agreed to cancel that prize. They invited him to act as chairman of the jury, which he accepted. The Turkish professor Hasip Pektas and a professor of the Academy of fine arts of Poznan, were appointed as jury members.

        When the session started it appeared that, in addition to the two foreign jury members, not just one but four Polish jury members would be part of the jury. These Polish jury members had already made a pre-selection of the submitted works. On May 21st, the two foreign jury members proceeded to examine the selection - the four Polish jury members (see photo on p.162) were to join the committee later.

        The selected works did not provoke much enthusiasm. A surprisingly small number of works of internationally well-known exlibris artists were found in the pre-selection. After a while, the foreign jury members discovered the works of these well-known artists in the pile of prints already eliminated. They were brought back into the selection. When the Polish jury members joined the committee, the selection procedures were discussed. Hasip Pektas indicated that five or seven jury members should take part rather than six. His suggestion to give two votes to the chairman was accepted.

        Before starting the selection, the chairman of the jury read some elements of the regulations of the competition to underline more specifically which type of texts must figure on an exlibris. To start the search for awards, the jury members looked for the best ex-libris created for the Collegium Europaeum Gnesnense and for the Adam Mickiewicz University; only about 10 entries of each of these library bookplates had been selected in the first round. In the first group, the entry of Juri Borovitsky was highly esteemed and unanimously the jury granted him the corresponding prize. In the second group, the choice converged on an impressive composition, based on an old bookbinding, by Martin R. Baeyens.

        Then the search focussed on candidates for the general prizes. From the selection of the Polish jury members, it was clear that their preference would go to small free graphics. Their selection of exlibris in the first  round was solely based on a general graphics standpoint, without any regard to the specificity of ex-libris. Were the three prizes to go to small prints or to exlibris? At this point, fortunately, the organizers arrived in the meeting room, and indicated that, initially, the idea of the competition was developed for ex-libris entries and that small prints should not dominate. It was decided to grant two prizes to ex-libris and one prize to a small free graphic i.e. the first and third prizes to ex-libris, the second to a free print.  Each jury member could justify his choice and with a majority the first prize was awarded to the Polish artist Marek Basiul. He is not unknown in the exlibris field and had previously been selected in the Ankara competition. Also, at the last competition of the International Exlibris Centre in Sint-Niklaas, he received an honorary mention. His prize-winning exlibris - a fine combination of linocut and text in blind embossing, illustrated “David peering at Batseba” . 

        During the discussions it was apparent that the Polish jury members especially focussed on the graphic art aspects and showed no interest in the contents of the ex-libris illustration and in the so important relation between image and text. Eventually, it was agreed to grant the third prize to the Belorussian artist Anna Tikhonova (recently a prize winner in Sint Niklaas). The illustration of the prize-winning exlibris  is based on the poem Switezianka of the Polish poet Adam Mickiewicz.        

        In the discussion for the second prize it appeared that the academy of Poznan took a stance of championing a type of minimalist art, at the same time dismissing the important illustrative symbolism of bookplates as old-fashioned and obsolete. Our discussion about the pros and cons of this type of contemporary art had a positive effect. Realizing that their selection of small prints perhaps would look like poor cousins compared to the illustrative opulence of the ex-libris, a small print by Vladimir Zuev was closely looked at. Already highly prized by international ex-libris circles, his style finally convinced some Polish jury members and a majority agreed to grant the second prize to Zuev's engraving. - Next, a discussion followed on the honorary mentions. In particular the work of the Swiss artist Carla Neis was discussed. She submits variations of only one ex-libris to several competitions. The work is a triptych with texts by the Swiss author and philosopher Heidegger. Her "ex-libris" has a sympathetic content and is well engraved, but is also full of doubts and unanswered questions. The Polish jury members saw in that work a possible renaissance of ex-libris art. Other honorary mentions went to the Bulgarian Julian Jordanov and to three Polish participants: Thomas Barczyk (with fine work in linocut), Celina Kirchner (with abstract, but very rhythmic and fascinating small prints in lino) and Karolina Kucharska (with geometric cool structures, balancing between two- and three-dimensional spaces).

        Evidently, superficial and rashly edited regulations caused many questions to be raised during this first Gniezno competition. Disagreement between the members of the jury was caused especially by the submission of closely related but quite different art genres: ex-libris and small free graphics. We tend not to confront these two sorts of graphic works on a competition level but at the same time realize that small print and exlibris can be a source of inspiration for each other. The intentions of the organizers were commendable but the difficulties which were faced indicate that different award categories must be applied to small prints and exlibris. The Ankara regulations as well as those of the International Exlibris Centre in Sint-Niklaas are excellent guidelines to successfully organize an exlibris competition. This first confrontation between small print and ex-libris should be continued.

        At a next selection of an ex-libris theme, the Gniezno committee should certainly consider the Polish author Adam Mickiewicz (1798-1855). His life and work are a great source of illustrative possibilities. His work associates well with the pedagogic purposes of the Collegium Europaeum. In that work, he defends the freedom of all nations and universal cultural values.