Kislak exhibit shows traditional books as works of art

Most books today are produced by major publishing companies, but private presses still print books in a more traditional manner that has evolved to include the use of technology to create digital images.

A new Penn Libraries exhibit, “Across the Spectrum: Color in American Fine and Private Press Books, 1890-2015,” explores the work of these presses.

Lynne Farrington, senior curator in the Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts at Penn Libraries, says in the late 19th century, there was a revival of interest in the traditional manner of printing books in North America.

“Some of the people who were printing these books thought that it would be easier to market them to an American audience if there were some color in them,” says Farrington.

Vibrantly colored artwork in books visually enhanced the reader’s experience of the work. 

Using techniques such as hand-coloring printed outlines, and colored woodcuts and engravings, fine and private presses created books that people would want to buy and collect. Some of the books were produced in small numbers, but others were printed in runs of several hundred copies.

“The number of hours that went into creating these works and the expense involved is just amazing,” says Farrington.

Included in the exhibit are books in which each copy has original paintings. Other images are produced through silk-screening or by using stencils and then applying color in a process called pochoir. In some contemporary books, the images are digitally produced artwork. David Esslemont, an artist and publisher, uses images of leaves and petals to create digitally produced flowers and then prints them using an inkjet printer.

“A lot of these works are works of art in themselves, even if there are multiples of them,” says Farrington.

Books in the exhibit are all part of Penn Libraries’ Jean-Francois Vilain and Roger S. Wieck Collection of Private Presses, Ephermera and Related References.

The exhibit is on display in the Kislak Center’s Goldstein Gallery, located on the sixth floor of Van Pelt-Dietrich Library Center, through May 18. The Gallery hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday, and 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Wednesday.

The exhibit is free and open to the public. A photo ID is required to enter Van Pelt.

Across the Spectrum