Alphabets as Ornament in the Making of Decorated Paper and Objects
Editorial by John Fleming and Marian Bradshaw
In this issue we choose among a multiplicity of examples in which the graphic and the decorative arts intersect, overlap and combine in surprising ways. The graphic arts are centred upon writing and drawing, most commonly in the sense of linguistic sign systems, ranging from the hieroglyphics of early Egypt through calligraphic Chinese characters in the East, to the predominantly alphabetical systems of Europe and the Middle East. Alexander Pope suggested in “An Essay on Criticism” in 1711 that “the sound must seem an echo to the sense,” thus assigning primacy, from our modern textually based point of view, to speech and its meaning in a binary system of alphabetical representation. Nowhere is this logocentric perspective more basic than in the graphic arts, often in ornamented and decorative displays that “objectify” both the word and its meaning, the signifier and the signified.
Many British and colonial Canadian readers of the nineteenth century delighted in the multi-font title pages of contemporary publications, lingering over the remnants of a classical education expressed through the aesthetic eclecticism of Victorian taste for ornamented type faces: Egyptian, Tuscan, Italic, black letter, foliate, fat face, etc. A century later in the psychedelic glow of LSD and the 1960s, mind-bending drugs and letter-bending alphabets drew on the sinuous lines of Art Nouveau and the irrational images of surrealist experimentation to represent the spirit of a new age. Our cool contributors show but a few of the ways in which these aesthetic avatars of the graphic past have been reconfigured or redirected through letterpress, paper money, icons of fraternity, quilts, pots, posters and punctuation.