Internationally Bound Runic Tradition
Juta Kivimäe
Art scientist, KUMU Art Museum, Estonia

International Exhibition of Artistic Bookbinding “Scripta Manent IV” September 28, 2010 – January 9, 2011, Estonian Museum of Applied Art and Design Organizing committee: Sirje Kriisa, Rene Haljasmäe, Lennart Mänd and Tulvi-Hanneli Turo

Initiated by a small group of Estonian bookbinders in 1995, the 4th “Scripta manent” continues the tradition of international exhibitions of artistic bookibinding in Tallinn. Compared to other European countries, the history of Estonian bookbinding is not too long – its evolution began in the first decade of the 20th century and was connected with Eduard Taska, the grand old man of Estonian bookbinding whose 120th birthday we celebrated in 2010. That year we also celebrated the anniversary of the first book printed in Estonian language 485 years ago. In its early days, Estonian bookbinding denoted artistically high quality binding of ready-made books into leather. In Soviet times, the Estonian leather artists became famous for their bookbinding skills all over the Soviet empire. However, according to contemporary standards, bookbinders did not not technically bind the books at those times, they only artistically designed the covers. The covers were beautifully modelled in embossing and colouring techniques and then attached to the ready-bound sheets.

All the “Scripta manent” exhibitions, except for the 1st one, have been focused on specific topics from Estonian culture: the 2nd one was dedicated to the poetry of renowned Estonian poets Jaan Kaplinski and Doris Kareva, the 3rd one to the creative writings of Estonian children and the 4th one to the music of the famous Estonian composer Veljo Tormis. With every exchibition, the number of participants and visitors has increased and the techincal and artistic level of bookbindings has risen.

Hundreds of years of bookbinding, runic songs by Veljo Tormis

The International Exhibition of Artistic Bookbinding “Scripta Manent IV”, the largest of its kind that has ever taken place in Estonia, has been built up on the collection of texts “The Word Was Sung” by the Estonian composer Veljo Tormis and the music researcher Urve Lippus. The current exhibition is dedicated to the famous Estonian composer Veljo Tormis whose music has been inspired by the rich folklore and nature of the Fenno-Ugric peoples and their runic songs and who celebrated his 80th birthday in 2010.

Composer Veljo Tormis was chosen by the organizers to be the topic of the exhibition because he mediates the narrative of Estonian folk music to the contemporary world. The collections of texts to be bound consisted of 4 lectures where Veljo Tormis speaks about his creative work and Estonian folk music. The texts in Estonian and English are exemplified with musical notes. The 300 numbered bibliophile sets of sheets accompanied by a CD that contained excerpts of folk songs interpreted by Veljo Tormis were delivered to bookbinders all over the world: Ireland, Spain, the Netherlands, Iceland, Italy, Japan, United Kingdom, Finland, Sweden, France, Switzerland, Canada, Latvia, Lithuania, USA, Germany, Australia, Denmark, Poland, Hungary, Russia and Estonia.

Though the exhibition and the concurrent competition was open to everyone accepting its terms and looking for free expression in the field of bookbinding, the artists who had paid the participation fee and obtained the sets of sheets had to solve an intricate task: they had to interpret the music based on ancient traditional Fenno-Ugric folk music - that used to be orally passed on from one generation to another in times when written words were yet unknown - into the form of bookbinding or book as an art object. The way each bookbinder has interpreted the music of Veljo Tormis reflects the designer’s own cultural background.

In the exhibition halls the visitor can hear the audio recordings of Veljo Tormis – him speaking and his music. It creates the atmospehere of a rehearsal, where the composer lively speaks about his music and its history, accompanied by excerpts from pieces of famous Estonian choir music. This audio background has a great effect upon the exhibition. The design of the two exhibition halls – the triangular glass boxes filled with bookbindings is a wonderful visual achievement. The combination of music and the books spellbind the visitor.

Estonian bookbinders

The two bookbindings created in co-operation by Rene Haljasmäe and Tarrvi Laamann are truly surprising – traditional coptic bindings rustically join together the masculinely ornamented wood-cut covers. Illu Erma delights the viewer with her interpretation of old-time netting in author’s technique and wins an incentive prize for that. Several artists have found inspiration in Estonian national clothes. I would like to mention here Eve Hintsov, Pille Kivihall with her modern laser-cutting technique, Urve Kolde, Rutt Maantoa with her book that has a folded back and Tiina Piisang whose book reminds of a black woollen national long-coat with buttons on the spine. I have always curiously observed the elaborate, thematically sound and impressive bookbindings by Tulvi-Hanneli Turo. This time there is a pleasant harmony between the flexible vegetable tanned leather and the author’s illustrations that the exhibition visitor can see only partially. Several mature artists have excelled in mastery of traditional embossing techniques, painting and cliché print - Luule Maar, Esta Voss, Inara Õun and Ruuda Maarand should be mentioned here. The romantic bookbinding of Lennart Mänd, herbalized with forget-me-not flowers evokes associations with the very first song festivals in Estonia. The soft half-leatherbinding of non-coloured vegetable tanned leather and the woollen fabric of Estonian national clothes by Sirje Kriisa is very modern and utterly national at the same time.

The whole creation of Estonian artists and art students makes me very proud. Though in the contemporary multicultural world one might view bookbinding as a rare “glass bead game”, we definately belong to the high art arena.

Japanese bookbinders

Japanese bookbinders have been represented at exhibitions in Estonia for years already. Their ability to understand, adapt and grow accustomed to a foreign culture is spectacular. Just to bring an example, it is admirable how Japanese bookbinding has effortlessly conformed to the rules of the European tradition and now opens up for browsing from the front of the book.

The music of Veljo Tormis seems to be an understandable source of inspiration for a representative of the Japanese culture, saturated with ritualism. The characteristics of most Japanese bookbindings are traditional open spines, using various papers and original paintings. The gilded and painted decorations of Miyuki Abe, the mosaic binding of Keiko Fujii, the Bradel binding made of calf leather and gauze of silk by Keiko Suzuki, the paper binding with soul birds by Chuzuko Kuga and the Bradel binding with onlays by Yoko Shimosakai beautifully render the artists’ intentions and have a highly aesthetical influence upon the viewer.

There is a certain closensess between us and them. Let me remind you how unconditially Estonian applied art accepted Japanese minimalism that arrived here via Finland in the 1950s.

Great traditions of bookbinding

Artists from traditional, historical countries of bookbinding like United Kingdom, France and Germany have frequently found their way to Estonia. Hans-Peter Frölich and his son Michel Frölich have interpreted the topic of the exhibition in the form of respectable, traditional bookbindings, one of them bearing the arch of the Tallin Song Festival Ground in the blue, black and white colours of the Estonian national flag. The walnut wood bookbinding with walnut veneer slipcase made by Alain Taral is a fine example of French exquisity connected with Nordic rusticality. The bookbinding with onlays made of African ostrich skin by Clive Farmer (UK) surprises with its ornaments that remind of bone engravings.

Readiness to integrate into a foreign culture, to distinguish the important and to interpret it into contemporary comprehensible language characterizes all of the best works.

Treasure wrapped in newspapers

Einike Leppik, a student of the Antwerp Royal Academy of Fine Arts, has not bound the sets of sheets but opted for a conceptual way of expressing herself – she has wrapped the printed pages in newspapers and hid them as a treasure into an old tin box. This an approach has such an imminent and intimate effect upon the viewer that the gloves added to the installation for opening the box seem quite redundant. Such a treasure can belong only to the devoted owner, anyway.

This tin box revived in me one of my repetitious childhood memories, dating back to the 1960s. I used to follow with my eyes an old short gentleman wearing his best suit and a peaked cap, hastily walking away from our house. It was my grandfather who, after visiting his daughter’s family on Saturday mornings, always hurried on to a Jewish synagogue. He used to carry in his hands a veneer suitcase and a treasure – Jewish prayer books carefully wrapped in newspapers – that he had inherited from his father Jankel-Meishe Grassmann, teacher of Tartu Jewish Elementary School.

Translation: Silja Oja