Ex Libris: The Story of Polish Bookplates
#language & literature
default, Ex Libris:
The Story of Polish Bookplates, Ex Libris of Jan Krasicki, 1775-1799, designed by Jan Balzer, Prague, Czechia, photo: National Museum in Warsaw, center, ekslibris-krasickiego-mnw.jpg
‘For whosoever shalt stealeth this book shall findeth himself hung from a tree!’ So reads an admonition written on Polish bookplates. Did the spell really work? Let us trace the road of this literary decorative label from its beginnings as a clay tablet to its status as an independent work of art.
For the love of books
In his book on bookplates, the bibliophile Marian Jan Wojciechowski mentions a 76-year-old married man who, in response to an ad about establishing a correspondence with a bookplate artist of either sex, received an unequivocal offer from a young girl. The ‘romantic who loves jazz and motorcycle racing’ ended her letter with the question: ‘What kind of woman do you desire?’ To avoid an equally awkward situation, let’s sort out a few facts.
The Latin phrase ex-librīs literally means ‘from the books or library’. While Polish has another word denoting relatively the same meaning – księgoznak – its usage is not typical. Instead, it is more common to use the direct reference ex-librīs than to describe it as a personalised graphic miniature. According to Wojciechowski, it is:
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...the most appropriate and noble way to mark the ownership of a book, because as a miniature work of graphic art, it evokes the aesthetic senses, and at the same time, proves the sophistication of its owner.
For a graphic to be considered a bookplate it must contain the words ‘ex-librīs’ or its equivalent, as well as the name of the collection or book owner (or sometimes an institution) and a drawing – preferably reflecting the personality of the owner. In addition, the format should allow it to be pasted into the book, on the inside of the cover.
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Design of an ex libris for the Warsaw University Library, designed by Antoni Słonimski, photo: National Museum in Warsaw
In the past, these adorning book labels also served a more magical function. They contained admonitions and spells to protect the book against damage or theft. For example:
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Whoever dares to bend these pages, whether in the summer or the spring, let their ears grow as long as a donkey’s!
Whoever steals this book – your hand will be crooked! And for who hides it under their fur – you will be hung mercilessly tomorrow!
All such warnings, unfortunately, were useless, as the passion for rare books prevailed over ethics. Book lovers borrowed valuable works and did not return them, arguing that they had given them a safe haven in their own collections. Amongst the more famous ‘collectors’ were, reportedly: Józef Andrzej Załuski, Józef Maksymilian Ossoliński acting together with Samuel Bogumił Linde, Ignacy Potocki, and Tadeusz Czacki. In the end, they all donated their collections to the Polish people.
From a pharaoh to collectors
In their long career, bookplates have had their share of ups and downs and, on more than one occasion, have undergone an extraordinary metamorphosis. In the very beginning, pre-bookplates were made of faience plates attached to papyrus rolls. The oldest preserved – dating to around 1400 BCE – was azure in colour with a deep blue inscription. They belonged to the Egyptian pharaoh Amenhotep III (and today form part of the collection of the British Museum Library). In the Middle Ages, proto-bookplates bore the design of a coat of arms, most often painted on the bottom margin of the first page of the manuscript. In Gniezno, the Bogoria coat of arms of the provost of the Bologna Academy, Jarosław of Skotniki, has remained intact on the reverse side of the title page of a Bible from 1373.
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The revolution came with the invention of printing. Expanding book collections were decorated with supralibros – that is, an ex-librīs embossed on the outer side of a book’s leather front cover. Bookplates as we know them began to appear in the 16th century. They were engraved on wooden blocks (woodcuts) or on copperplates (copperplate engravings), then imprinted onto sheets of paper and glued to the inside of the binding. In Germany, Albrecht Dürer was a master in this respect. Poland did not lag behind – it was one of the first European countries to develop this graphic art. The oldest Polish example is the work of Hieronymus Vietor made in 1516 in Vienna for the bishop of Wrocław, Maciej Drzewicki, featuring the Ciołek coat of arms.
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While in the 16th century the heraldic bookplates of the szlachta – the nobility of Poland – dominated, in the 17th century, coats of arms of burghers and cities, as well as bookplates in the form of portraits satisfying the vanity of kings, began to appear. The merited woodcut slowly displaced the promising copperplate engraving; the first steps still included the rather inefficient etching technique and typography. Technique was developing, but quality was deteriorating. The fashion for graphic prints took over in the 18th century. The bookplate had become a product: a simple one, used to mark home libraries, and sometimes blindly, without knowledge for whom – in Western Europe (and in Poland a century later), mass graphics began to be produced with an empty space for the owner’s name.
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As a result, new themes appeared: vegetation, architectural details, landscapes, books, views of libraries. One of the most beautiful 18th-century bookplates is the etching of the Załuski Library by the Lviv etcher Jan Józef Filipowicz. The composition of the Junosza coat of arms consists of shelves filled to the brim with volumes. In the centre, a lamb rests on a pillow with an open book, which visually comes to the foreground – although it should be in the background – thanks to the use of foreshortening. Jan Fryderyk Mylius made a graphic print for the owner of the library a little earlier. However, his copperplate, a flat composition, does not make the same grand impression as the work of Filipowicz.
The desire to possess one’s own bookplate was no longer a privilege available only to the nobility or clergy, but also to secular institutions, scholars and writers. Although the period of the Partitions of Poland slowed down the artistic development of bookplates, collecting them became widespread in the 19th century. Deserving of our attention is Kajetan Wincenty Kielisiński, regarded as the first creator of bookplates for collectors. The artist – who was a librarian for many years – was influenced by Stefan Norblin, and this is visible in his work. Military and natural motifs are repeated in his etched markings, which are fashioned in the spirit of romanticism.
At the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, bookplates were decorative, romantic, and full of symbolism. They could finally be considered art. No wonder that they intrigued such artists as Wojciech Gerson, Stanisław Wyspiański, Józef Mehoffer or Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz.
Witkacy – the first discovery
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Let’s jump forward to May 2009. Hanna Długołęcka and Paweł Tanewski are conducting bibliographical research at the SGH Warsaw School of Economics in Warsaw. They open the Chambers’s Twentieth Century Dictionary of the English Language, published around 1900, edited by Thomas Davidson. The title page: signature in pencil, top right corner – ‘Ignacy Witkiewicz / 1918’ (repeated on page 104, top margin). Above – an illegible signature, at the bottom – ‘Petrograd 1916’. The inner part of the cover: a drawing that has been glued to the book, measuring 16.3 x 12.5 cm. At its bottom, an inscription: the upper line – ‘NEC HERCULES contra PLURes’ (from Latin, ‘Everyone is tempted to evil’ or freely translated ‘Even Hercules is a wimp, when he must fight against heaps of enemies’), and written on the lower line, in what could be described as mannerist penmanship – ‘Ex Libris Witkacy’.
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The drawing shows the head of a man in a checkered hat smoking a pipe. The expression on his face does not portend a gentle temper. In the background, an electric blue sky, some flowing and angular or messy blots of colour, meagre vegetation. The composition has a frame, painted with black ink. The entirety was drawn with a pencil and coloured inks, covered with a thin layer of glue to obtain a glossy look. A self-portrait? If so, it’s just more proof that Witkacy had a specific sense of humour.
How do we know it is his work? The eccentric lines and handwriting do not attest to anything. There are, however, some analogies to the artist’s other works. Witkiewicz made bookplates for Leon Reynel, Anna and Tadeusz Sinko and Zofia Stryjeńska, employing a similar composition and range of colours. In addition, the found book graphic shows a stylistic relationship with the unpreserved cover design of Kazimiera Iłłakowiczówna’s book entitled Bajeczna Opowieść o Królewiczu La-Fi-Czaniu, o Żołnierzu Soju i o Dziewczynce Kio (Fairytale about Prince La-Fi-Czan, the Soldier Soj and the Girl Kio). Witkacy’s bookplate was probably made after he returned from Russia in the second half of 1918.
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It is not entirely clear how a copy of this dictionary found its way into the library collections of the Warsaw School of Economics. It is possible that it ended up there together with the book collection of Jan Koszczyc Witkiewicz. The artist’s cousin designed the edifice of the university, then of the University of Economics. His stamps can be found on the pages of two tomes that once belonged to Witkacy – more about that in a moment.
A woman in the description, a man in the caption
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Ex Libris of Wojciech Biesiadecki, deisgned by Józef Mehoffer, photo: Małgorzata Kwiatkowska / National Museum in Warsaw
The 20th-century Polish bookplate quickly shook off the mediocrity of previous centuries. Wyspiański, who treated books as works of art, cared about the beauty of the typeface (he himself had a bookplate) and used floral motifs in his adornments. Mehoffer was very fond of Art Nouveau decorativeness, and his failure in a competition for the bookplate of the National Museum in Kraków (he received only a distinction) was considered the most inexpert verdict of the judges. In Chimera from 1902, for which the artist designed the graphic layout, people were delighted with:
We are talking about the splendid, large-style composition by Józef Mehoffer: ‘Vita Somnium Breve’ – which, in terms of depth and clarity of the concept, enormous, calm harmony in the arrangement, the subtly graded expressions in the characters, the broad, noble decorativeness in the treatment, and finally, the masterly individuality and power in drawing – can stand victoriously next to the best works of Anning Bell, Ospovat, B. Shaw (...) and other widely recognized ex-librīs masters, and it will stand the comparison even with the infamous (and other-worldly) ‘Ygdrasil’ by K. Ricketts.
A few years later, Mehoffer transformed his graphic from 1902 into a stained-glass window.
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Ex Libris of Emil Zegadłowicz, designed by Ludwik Misky, photo: Małgorzata Kwiatkowska / National Museum in Warsaw
Artists created for artists. The painter and graphic artist Ludwik Misky illustrated the poems of Emil Zegadłowicz, and at the same time, he made a colour lithography for him – a pegasus drinking water from the river. The bookplate of Michał Tarasiewicz was produced by Tadeusz Rychter – the actor and director smokes a cigar while reading, in the background, a mascaron-shaped library bookcase. Several bookplates were also designed by a graduate of the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw, better known as a poet and member of the Skamander group, Antoni Słonimski – including for the Library of the University of Warsaw.
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Ex Libris of Michał Tarasiewicz (smaller), designed by Tadeusz Rychter, 1903, photo: National Museum in Warsaw
And women? They were presented on bookplates, among others, by Stanisław Dębicki (a naked woman wearing only a ribbon girdle, standing between the pages of the tome), Jan Gwalbert Olszewski (a naked woman in front of a painting palette), and Aleksander Brzostek (a clothed woman reading a book).
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Ex Libris, of Jan Gwalbert Olszewski, designed by Jan Gwalbert Olszewski, 1905, photo: National Museum in Warsaw
It’s easier to spot a woman’s surname on the miniature (e.g. Mehoffer made a bookplate for Aniela Wrzeszczowa) than to find a bookplate designed by a woman herself. The graphic imprint which the painter Wanda Korzeniowska made for Franciszek Biesiadecki dates to the last years of World War I. Unfortunately, it was made according to Rychter’s design. It is known, however, that the artist, who graduated from art schools in Lviv and Munich, worked for the geographer Eugeniusz Romer and the bibliophile Tadeusz Solski. She showed the latter as a sage immersed in reading, who is being bothered by imps. In later years, the art of creating bookplates was taken up by Zofia Fijałkowska, Krystyna Wróblewska, Stefania Dretler-Flin, Alina Kalczyńska, Maria Spanish-Neumann, Małgorzata Korolko, Halina Pawlikowska and Janina Mendyka.
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Ex Libris of Franciszek Biesadecki, 1918, designed by Wanda Korzeniowska, photo: National Museum in Warsaw
Polish bookplates became among some of the best in Europe. They drew from expressionism, cubism and formalism. They were distinguished by a rich variety of techniques (etching, copperplate engraving, linocut, woodcut) and themes (musical, theatrical, medical, sports, landscape, sacred, etc.). The designs determined not only the nature of the book collection, but also expressed the passions of their owners.
Witkacy – the second discovery
March 2010. Długołęcka and Tanewski continue their work in the academic library. This time, they come across a German publication on astrophysics from 1912, which also comes with a surprise. Witkacy’s second bookplate is smaller (10.6 cm high and 11.5 cm wide), poorer in terms of colour (black ink, white gouache, blue coloured pencil), and it’s also older than the previously found graphic. The author dates it to 1914 to 1918 and gives the title – written on the bookplate with a red coloured pencil – ‘Algorab w Kruku’ (Algorab in the Raven). Sounds familiar? The artist gives one of his astronomical compositions the same title, which he finishes in 1918. The bookplate appears to be a sketch for the later work.
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Both images are a painterly vision of the Delta star in the constellation Corvus, also known as Raven. Algorab is depicted as a grey-bearded old man in a turban, while the constellation takes on the appearance of a blackbird with spread wings. Additionally, the miniature version shows a barely noticeable female figure. The celestial background is dotted with white star-like points and spiral nebulae.
Celestial bodies fascinated Witkacy from childhood. His father wrote about him, as a six-year-old: ‘Astronomy is the favourite topic of conversation. He is ready to talk and listen for hours about the relationship between planets and the sun’. Traces of this passion can be easily found in the artist’s letters, novels, or dramas. The most spectacular, undoubtedly, are Witkacy’s astral pastels created between 1917 and 1918. A dozen or so compositions have survived to this day.
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The book Populäre Astrophysik (Popular Astrophysics) by Julius Scheiner, which has preserved the graphic work, contains some other clues about the artist’s life. There is an annotation on the first page: ‘Total eclipse / without all hope of day / 27 / IV / 1914’ and below: ‘You want to be honest, but then you’ll be stupid / you want to be rational – but then you’ll become evil / 1/V/1914’. These pessimistic notes, especially the first one – talking about a total eclipse and hopelessness, were written during the period of Witkacy’s depression, which he suffered after his fiancée’s suicide. In letters to his friend Bronisław Malinowski, he wrote: ‘Death is in me wherever I am (...). Not to exist any longer, that is my strongest wish’.
The bookplates made by Witkacy discovered in 2011 found their way to the Cabinet of Contemporary Graphics and Drawings of the National Museum in Warsaw.
An art form in itself
Despite the fact that World War II significantly limited cultural activity, Polish bookplate makers were active underground. They portrayed suffering and destruction (amongst others, Stanisław Cieślewski); graphic miniatures included symbols of a Fighting Poland (the Kotwica), the Home Army, scouting crosses, and the Warsaw Mermaid dressed in armour. The bookplate began to play a pro-social role, enlivening artistic and collectors circles. Often, it was the collectors who provided the artists with a minimal living.
After the war, Bookplate Lovers’ Clubs and similar organizations were very active, especially in Warsaw, Kraków, Lublin, Toruń and Silesia. Personalised bookplates were ordered for public institutions, editorial offices of magazines and publishers, state offices, or for friends as a gift. Today, exhibitions and graphic arts competitions are held in many Polish cities. The bookplate has become ‘unglued’ from the book and in turn has become an independent, full-fledged work of art.
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Originally written in Polish by Agnieszka Warnke, Apr 2019, translated by Agnes Dudek, Jul 2020
applied graphic design
polish graphic design
polish graphic designers
Sources: Marian Jan Wojciechowski, "Ekslibris: godło bibliofila", Wrocław 1978 (do książki, z której korzystałam, wklejono ekslibris Feliksa Przypkowskiego, kolekcjonera zegarów słonecznych); Anna Żakiewicz, "Witkacowskie odkrycia w bibliotece warszawskiej SGH" oraz "Kompozycje astronomiczne Witkacego"; Anna Mielczarek, "O ekslibrisie w zarysie", Forum Bibliotek Medycznych 2011 R.4 nr 1 (7); "Chimera" 1905, t.9; and ekslibrispolski.pl