As to ‘functional’ ex-libris

Report on an AFCEL symposium, Metz , 29.09.02


Benoît Junod


The annual General Assembly of the French ex-libris society AFCEL took place in Metz in September 2002. Beyond an exhibition of the 140-odd bookplates made by the local artist Albert Haefeli (1907-1987), and a selection of contemporary Czech bookplates in the nearby museum of Gorzes , one of the main events was a panel presentation and debate on the theme “l’ex-libris utile”. The French term ‘utile’ must here be understood not in its most obvious meaning, ‘ useful’, but rather as ‘utilitarian’ or ‘functional’.


Participants in the round table were Germaine Meyer-Noirel (Honorary President of AFCEL), Jean-François Chassaing (President of AFCEL), Dr Claude Muon (Vice-President), Philippe Hoch (Director of the multi-media library of Pontifroy), and the authalior of this article. The subject of discussion was chosen as a follow-up to a competition organised by AFCEL at Chamalières, last year, on the subject of “l’ex-libris utile”, and a steadily growing feeling amongst many members of the society, in recent years, that the gap between what Braungart termed in the 1920s “Gebrauchsexlibris” or bookplates to be used in books, and “Luxusexlibris” or collectors’ bookplates, was becoming difficult to handle.


In AFCEL, as in the Bookplate Society and some other collectors’ associations, a majority of members have but a limited interest in contemporary “luxury” plates, usually original etchings or engravings signed and numbered by the artists which are but rarely – if ever – pasted into books. The source of interest is rather the bookplate in itself as a mark identifying the owner of books – this person’s interests and finding out who he was, why he chose such a motif for his ex-libris. Identifying the artist is a plus, and a substantial one if he was famous.


Mme Meyer-Noirel, a foremost authority on the history of ex-libris and French ones in particular (she has just published letter G of her general repertory of French bookplates and is finishing volume I-K) made a strong case to support the statement by Baron Jéhan in a publication of 1904, in which he wrote that “a book without an ex-libris is like a body without a soul, a noble without a parchment, a building without a deed of property, a shop without a sign”. Deviations to the concept that a bookplate is exclusively made to be pasted into books were practically unheard of until the twentieth century. In some detail, Mme Meyer-Noirel took the example of the eighteenth century, often termed the ‘Golden Age’ of French bookplates. During that period, there were countless abuses of correct heraldry and good heraldic style. Hundreds of examples could be given of ex-libris bearing fanciful, self-attributed arms, often a play on the name of the owner. But they were for real libraries, because the library – or collection of books, as it was termed in French at the time – was considered not only an accumulation of physical objects, but an intellectual construction having merit in itself and reflecting the mind of its owner. He usually wanted to perpetuate his own intellectual construction by means of his bookplate. At the same time, if some of the creators of bookplates were virtuoso artists, such as Boucher, Louise Le Daulceur, Moreau le Jeune or Gravelot, most were craftsmen-engravers who faithfully placed an armorial in the stylistic context of the time. Thus ex-libris were always made to be used – and the only case where there is real doubt (perhaps proving the rule!) is a rare bookplate in which the coat-of-arms has an erotic design and the fanciful name of the owner is “La Moureux de la Borde” (Fig. 1).



                     Fig. 1




Although the last presentation, the talk given by Philippe Hoch fits in better here as by profession he is a librarian - like Mme Meyer-Noirel - and as such his point of view was not dissimilar to hers. Mr. Hoch reminded the audience that Pierre Séjournant, until recently Vice-President of AFCEL, differentiates four possible functions (rather than types) of bookplates. The first is to identify the owner of a book and ensure (hopefully) its return to the owner if lent or lost. The second is its function as a creative discipline for artists and printmakers who receive commissions for such works. The third is its function as an object of exchange in the process of constituting or enlarging a collection of this category of ‘small prints’. The last function is to enable the study by librarians of the history of the book and of libraries. Mr. Hoch examined the positive aspects of these four functions, but reminded us that not all librarians and book experts approve of using bookplates. Specialists in rare and precious books consider them an inadmissible and often damaging ‘graft’ on bibliophile treasures. However, on the whole, the possibility of tracing a line of ownership on a rare book is more valuable to the librarian than the risk of damage. But to that same librarian, the bookplate outside a book makes little or no sense.


Jean-François Chassaing , in his delicate position as president of AFCEL but also an enthusiast of contemporary “Luxusexlibris”, limited himself to going through the substantial list of bookplates by Haefeli and concluded that although some items seem to have been done as “exercises in style” for three Popes (Pius XII, John-Paul I and John-Paul II) and three churches and an association which never used them (no prints were found despite thorough research), all the artist’s other bookplates were made to be used. A curious case is the ex-libris for Robert Schuman, the founding father of Europe (Fig. 2). The artist knew Schuman, who was a lawyer in Metz before knowing national and international fame. Haefeli gave Schuman the plate, but it was never used, the statesman modestly marking his books “RS’ by hand in blue ink. This could give rise to a legitimate doubt as to whether this item can be considered a bookplate or not.


                                     Fig. 2





Claude Muon made a short but very substantial presentation in which he stated that to talk about a ‘functional’ ex-libris is tautology. By its very name and definition, an ex-libris exists as a mark of ownership of books. Whether it is used or not can be contested. The other problem raised is that by categorising different types of bookplates, one runs the risk of creating hierarchies which might have negative consequences. Even Braungart’s categorisation did not really lead anywhere, and Claude Muon evoked moreover ‘competiton bookplates’ and ‘bibliophiles’ bookplates’ – the former being made for competitions and the latter being both pasted and exchanged. Even as simple criteria for the classification of a collection, such concepts are quite impractical, as was already mentioned by Urbain Wermaers in his dialogue with Lucien Noel published in the 1928 issue (No. 220) of l’Ex-libris Français. Muon’s conclusion is that what Braungart artificially terms ‘luxury bookplates’ are in fact simply small-sized free graphics subjected to certain constraints in their creation and ordered (or not) by a client from an artist. He doesn’t praise them or condemn them, but considers them an interesting laboratory for printmaking exercises, though certainly not ex-libris. For Claude Muon, an ex-libris is a small print which is pasted into books and which identifies their owner, by definition, and if it is not pasted into books it is not a bookplate…


In contributing to the debate, I started by noting that if such a discussion was considered necessary within AFCEL, it is because the “Golden Age” of artistic bookplates in Germany in the 1910 - 1920s did not occur in France, nor in Britain. At the time, the appearance of the huge plates of Bastanier or Wilm drew criticism and debate as to whether the object of our collection was being perverted. Clearly size is not what excludes a print from being defined as an ex-libris (the Cranach plate for Christof Scheurl von Degensdorf measures 232 x 144 mm, and the Dürer for Hector Pömer – Fig. 3, 298 x 198 mm), nor a lack of inscription – at least during the long period when heraldry had an identification function. At the other end of the scale, there are some ex-libris which cannot function as such if they are not within a book, such as recently devised pop-up bookplates.


Fig. 3




If one remembers Gordon Craig’s well-known phrase of nearly a century ago, that “a bookplate is to a book what a collar is to a dog”, even though the obvious place for a collar is around a dog’s neck, it might also be mounted on boards and collected. If someone were to take such a curious, unnatural step, then perhaps to add pretty collars with a few diamond studs, rarely worn by dogs, I would consider the latter step only mildly sinful – insofar as the pretty collars actually could be worn by dogs if their owners wanted so to employ them.


Perhaps another angle must also be examined. The single common characteristic of all ex-libris collectors pivots on the definition of the object of their collection, by which I mean that their hierarchies of value, their systems of classification, their thematic interests and practically everything else related to their collections are infinitely variable. But they all collect ex-libris – or else they would join different collectors’ societies. Although I accept Claude Muon’s reasoning that an ex-libris is by definition a small-format print made to identify the owner of a book, and I think it is obviously much better to paste at least part of an edition of bookplates in one’s books (just as dog collars look better on dogs than in an exhibition case), I fall short of pushing his argument to the end, and – after some hesitation - do not agree that if it is not pasted in a book it is not an ex-libris. I tried to point this out by giving him a print which I received recently from the artist Yuri Nozdrin (Fig. 4): an ex-libris made for my then 22-month old son. The inscription reads “ex libris”, “Nicolas Marcel Milija Junod”, “3.150” (his weight at birth), “48” (his size at birth), “17.12.2000” and “18.55” (his date and time of birth). It is quite large, hand-coloured and beautiful. There is absolutely no doubt that in a book it can identify my son as its owner. Hence a question: if I paste it into a book when I get home, does it then magically turn into an ex-libris?


   Fig. 4



I would defend the concept that an ex-libris is what its name purports it to be as long as it was created with the intention of being placed in a book and of identifying its owner and is materially able to do so. Returning to the example of Robert Schuman’s plate, Haefeli made it with the intention of its being used as a bookplate and gave it to the statesman, expecting him to use it: it is a bookplate. If Schuman decided not to use it, it does not mean that it is not an ex-libris. Could one say that an ex-libris made for Frenchman in 1750 who died just before the edition arrived in the post and which was never stuck in his books is not an ex-libris?


In my opinion, the bottom line in defining the object of our collection is to constantly remind artists that we are not collecting free graphics, but ex-libris, and that if they want to see their creations admired and exchanged by bookplate collectors they had better make sure that they correspond to the specific criteria of this form of applied arts. Thus the definition of a bookplate as a small-format print specifically made to be pasted into a book to identify its owner must be repeated as often and as constantly as possible. In this way, not only can one largely avoid the creation of pseudo-exlibris, but can actively foster the creation of real bookplates. This mild proselytism is necessary with regard to artists, but even more so in respect of certain collectors. Too often one encounters in congresses persons who propose to exchange bookplates and present you with a folder of free graphics. They should be politely asked whether they have come to the wrong place. Not to do so is a betrayal of the very concept of our pursuit. I have no objection to others collecting milk tops, postage stamps, football cards or polynesian masks, but I collect ex-libris. If I go to a FISAE congress or a national society congress, I expect to exchange bookplates – beautiful, extravagant, splendid, ravishing ex-libris, but ex-libris…

Back to basics: an evident step is to use in books, as widely as possible, the bookplates one has commissioned – if we hadn’t had books, we wouldn’t have had bookplates! One must also remember that there is no way of better conserving a bookplate than in a book, away from light, nor a more exciting way of discovering an ex-libris at arm’s length on opening a book. Another important step is to promote the design of bookplates for real use by public libraries and collections – with competitions such as for example the one recently organised by the French Cultural Centre in Belgrade, of which the prize-winning ex-libris was reproduced in offset and pasted into 12’000 volumes (Fig. 5).



Fig. 5


Many collectors not especially attracted to contemporary “Luxusexlibris” feel that the world of bookplates is being somehow appropriated by persons with interests diametrically opposed to their own. They should stick to their guns and their collecting interests: in the early 1930s, the craze for luxury artists’ bookplates in Germany already began to wane, and the present wave would not have had a chance of success if it had not rested on the economic and political gap between East and West during the Cold War and the difference in cost of living between Eastern and Western Europe today. Eastern artists have been commissioned to do bigger and better ex-libris, more colourful and with more virtuoso techniques. Accepting the challenge and tempted by the rewards, they have vied with each other to produce more beautiful and extravagant plates – often closer to free graphics, and further from ex-libris conceived for practical use in books. But as living standards slowly level out over the next decade, in particular with EU enlargement and the integration of East European economies, there is every reason to believe that the present wave will subside. The splendid ex-libris they have made will stay as jewels of our time – like the Ritter, Klinger, Nägele, Vogeler, Budzinski, Phillip, Schenke, Rehn, etc. plates of the ‘20s - but will in no way obliterate or diminish the interest of the bookplates more specifically and realistically made for use in books.




1. Anonymous , France late 18th Century. Ex-libris La Moureux de la Borde

2. Dürer workshop (sometimes attributed to E. Schön). Ex-libris Hector Pömer

3. Yuri Nozdrin. Ex-libris Nicolas Junod

4. Albert Haefeli. Ex-libris Robert Schuman

5. Bogdan Krsic. Ex-libris French Cultural Centre, Belgrade