Category Archives: Research

Exhibition – Monochrome

Visiting this exhibition at the National Gallery yesterday, I have to admit that I was disappointed. I left not quite sure what the purpose of the exhibition was. On one hand it seemed to be emphasising the technical and cultural place of painting in black and white within the history of art, and on another, considering the power of monochrome to deliver impact.

The first three rooms of the exhibition explained the use of monochrome in religious imaginary of the Renaissance to show the material world in comparison to the richly jewelled colours of the spiritual scenes. We were shown how monochrome paintings were used for studies to explore tonal balances and modelling, how monochrome paint was used to draft out a large work and to under-paint the tonal areas. Multicoloured paintings would also be copied in monochrome which was then used as the basis for creating an etching for the mass distribution of an image.

Some of the most striking paintings were those produced to refute the idea that sculpture offered more to the viewer than painting by allowing observation from all sides and enhanced and changing modelling with light. This debate had resulted in paintings which were so indistinguishable from carved relief that you really wanted to reach out and stroke them to break the illusion.

This was all fairly interesting but very dry and there were only a couple of paintings in this section of the exhibition which really made my heart beat faster, firstly a  Rembrandt, ‘Ecco Homo’ 1635, actually a grisaille study for an etching. Rembrandt’s blobs of clay faces are masterful in their minimal, effortless evocation of character and the resulting etching had smoothed them out to idealised blandness. The other work was an enormous painting by Giandomenico Tiepolo, almost 3m by 2m, painted on a gold ground, the fourth of the images here. The effect of the gold in the sky and the gold under-painting was to make the work glow with an inner warmth. To stand  before it felt like standing in sunlight pouring through a stained glass window. It had the most astonishing physical presence. I know that copper is used as a support for this kind of glowing effect, but I can’t imagine the cost of a gold ground applied over this areas of six panels, never mind the technical difficulties. I have used gold tissue in printmaking as chine colle under ink and that is very effective, if by it’s nature not very gold.  I must try gold ink or gouache as an under layer. I had little success with gold leaf when I tried it as it floats off the plate or doesn’t hold the ink.

The next three rooms really puzzled me. These showed modern (well, mostly 20th century) monochrome works but I felt that many of them had been chosen almost randomly just because they happened not to use colour, not because they were using monochrome as a statement or to achieve a particular effect. There were paintings by Richter and Close which were reproductions of monochrome photographs, but I didn’t feel that the fact that they were monochrome added particular significance. It felt more that the curators were saying, ‘Look, monochrome painting can be as worthy as painting in colour’. I think it would have been much more powerful to have included a monochrome painting by Rothko, say, where the colour, or lack of it, has an emotional charge. Similarly, the works  included by Twomby, Kelly and Johns felt like they had just pulled out any old thing in black and white. The one work which I felt really made a point through its monochrome palette was one of  Vija Celmin’s ‘Night Sky’  etchings (this illustration is actually a drawing in the series). The black background creates an emptiness that the tiny white stars emphasise rather than fill and although her works are quite small (A3ish) they generate a much greater space. This is not just dependant on the subject, she achieves this when drawing waves or deserts, all in monochrome. The lack of colour is another component in her act of paring an image down to create vastness within it. 

That was my problem with the modern works; they happened to be black and white, but did it matter that they were? For one or two, yes, for instance Malevich’s ‘Black Square’, but for the most part, no. I think that they could have chosen much better.

I also felt that the exhibition confined itself too narrowly. It is called ‘Monochrome: Painting in Black and White’ but included quite a few etchings and one light installation. Only a couple of works had been made within the last 50 years. I think that, with profit, they could have included some of the amazing monochrome works being created now, especially drawings such as those by Julie Mehrethu or Anita Taylor, after all, the curators had already strayed beyond painting. Given that they included a room filled with orange light, the definition of monochrome could have been pushed beyond black and white. I do see however, that a red on red painting would have pushed the predominantly grey works back, and the orange room was navigated as you left the exhibition.

It was a good exhibition, and I am glad I went, but I think it could have been so much better. My work for Investigating Drawing is largely monochrome because I feel that it has a power and directness that colour does not, particularly in the context of my parallel project. All colours carry their own cultural significance and often, prettiness. In my increasingly non-iconographic work, I want to avoid these. I think that this exhibition made the point that monochrome work historically had a specific technical place, and even a cultural place in the Renaissance, but did not really drill down to the significance of the choice of monochrome in the work of contemporary artists.

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Frank Auerbach Portraits and the Passage of Time

I have been lucky enough to go to two study visits at the British Museum Prints and Drawings Room. Each time, an Auerbach drawing has been included for us to study, and, for me, they were the highlight of the visit. I have to admit that I much prefer his drawings to his paintings. This is partly an inherent preference on my part for drawings. I enjoy seeing how the artist has worked things out, rather than some ‘finished’, polished final piece. Often it is also about the media, a directness of physical response expressed through the physicality of charcoal or graphite. I also like seeing the process, the erasures, restatements etc. Auerbach’s drawings demonstrate his dogged pursuit of a truth which seems to constantly elude him. He draws like a man panning for gold; an obsessive, hungry search. In his famous self-portrait of 1958, he has torn out areas of the drawing in order to restate and find what he was looking for. He calls this a ‘private quest’ (Tusa, 2002). He works with ‘a sense of resolve: Auerbach is battling toward a determinate goal, even though it is one that he can’t evoke verbally.’ (Schwabsky, 2016)

He is dedicated to the process of drawing and this process is both fast and slow. His sketches are clearly brisk and intuitive, each executed relatively quickly but the process of drawing a person or a place is repeated over and over again for decades.

His paintings are completed in a single sitting. The paintings are often rejected, scrapped back and the painting process restarted the next day: ‘there is just no alternative at all’ (Tusa). Days of painting and scrapping off can happen before a painting is finally realised. And what is this quest? What truth is he seeking? The portraits are representational but they are not realistic. The faces are pummelled and pushed into some sort of form. He records his debt to his tutor Bomberg who ‘allowed one to go for the essence, to adumbrate a figure, to redo it, to find different terms in which to restate it until one got something which, however unlike a poster of a figure or a photograph, that seemed to contain the mind’s grasp of the understanding of the subject’ (Tusa).

The parameter of time applies not just to the process. Robinson quotes Lyotard:

‘..between the time it takes the painter to paint the picture (time of ‘production’), the time required to look at it and understand it (time of ‘consumption’), the time to which the work refers (a moment, a scene, a situation, a sequence of events: the time of the diergetic referent, of the story told by the picture), the time it takes to reach the viewer once it has been ‘created’ (the time of circulation) and finally, perhaps, the time the painting is.’

(Robinson 2018:210, Lyotard 1991:78)

Robinson’s contention is that a painting by Auerbach (she is specifically discussing his landscapes but I think the proposition would hold for his portraits which can be viewed as landscapes of the face), is an accumulation of all the times spent drawing his subject, embodying many moments and that these layers of time can be perceived by the patient viewer as a ‘temporal unfolding’.

The Tate introduction to Auerbach says that he draws everyday but this is an historical statement. I suspect it is still true. The most recent work I have been able to find is ‘Reclining Head of Julia II’, 2016 (when he was 84 or 85). Comparing this with an earlier painting ‘Reclining Head of Julia III‘, 1995, this process of drawing over time has allowed him to become more economic, more focused on recording only the necessary and sufficient information to say what he needs to say. No more and no less.

Revisiting my preference for Auerbach’s drawings, I am forced to reconsider. His paintings (the 2016 work being an excellent example) have more in common with drawings than most artists’. The hand of its creator is very evident and the physical manipulation of the materials clearly displayed, and as so often observed, almost sculptural. I need to go and sit in front of his painting and absorb it in the same way that I did with his drawings in the British Museum although he says, ‘I feel very strongly that if a painting is going to work, it has to work before you have a chance to read it.’ (Tate).

Our course notes talk about the need for ‘courage and perseverance’ and these two attributes sum up the work of Frank Auerbach for me.

References

LYOTARD, J.F. 1991. ‘The Inhuman: Reflections on Time’, Cambridge: Polity Press

ROBINSON, A. 2018.  ‘The viscosity of duration: Painterly surface and the phenomenology of time in the London paintings of Frank Auerbach’, Journal of Contemporary Painting, Volume 4, Issue 1 pp.199-217.

SCHWABSKY, B., 2016. ‘Frank Auerbach’,  Artforum international., 54(6), pp. 247-248.

Tate. 2017. Who is Frank Auerbach?. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-britain/exhibition/frank-auerbach/auerbach-introduction. [Accessed 18 October 2017].

TUSA, J. 2002 [radio]. ‘The John Tusa Interviews’, BBC Radio 3,14 August 2002 21:15

Basquiat – Boom for Real

The Barbican is hosting a large scale exhibition of works by Jean-Michel Basquiat. I became interested in his work when I was studying sculpture and in particular, the contemporary take on African masks by artists such as Romauld Hazoume. It is not easy to access the work of artists who work outside the European tradition of art (although Australian aboriginal art is now well documented). Basquiat was self-taught using graffiti as his early means of expression and his Haitian Afro-Caribbean heritage gave him both subject matter and a cultural otherness in 1970s America. This is outsider art.

Basquiat’s works ranged from street art, through postcards to huge canvases. Through them all, text is an intrinsic element. He used text and symbols from all sorts of books and mass media and also wrote fragments of poetry or social commentary. All of these were mixed in a melting pot with his own or appropriated images, photocopied and collaged, painted, written and drawn.

Having begun as a graffiti artist, Basquiat devised postcards as a way of earning some money. He and his girlfriend would draw four on a page, photocopy it several times, cut them up, mount them on card and then sell them in the street, an early example of artists’ multiples. The postcards are both simple in execution and sophisticated in concept. They include many elements; drawing, painting, photography, collage, text, spatter etc and this might be all on the same, small postcard. It was when Basquiat plucked up the courage to approach his hero, Warhol, to sell a card, that his commercial career really took off.

His work often used the same motifs, especially skulls and skull-like self-portraits. In this work from 1982, he combines a skull headed figure with squiggles, possibly symbols and fragments of text. Typically, the work is in layers with original detail being obliterated or highlighted by overpainting. Often his writing and symbols are in oilstick, resisting the paint and further linear marks are scratched through the wet paint.

Sadly, as he became successful, his work seems to have lost some intensity of energy. This work from 1986 feels like a search for something lost. Music was an inspiration in his work, but the certainty, the crash of many things desperate to be said, seems to have disappeared. Perhaps this is inevitable when creating for a commercial appetite rather than being hungry with your own. He went from struggling to feted artist so quickly that it must have been very difficult to resist the temptations of this new world and drugs and alcohol claimed him in the end. His was a rock and roll story with a rock and roll end.

What I admire most about Basquiat is his fearless mark making. He was unconcerned (at least in his early works) with painterliness or sophistication. I am always concerned about how crude a mark might look and never, if I can avoid it, use handwriting because mine is so poor. He shows so clearly that this is a ridiculous preoccupation. It is the message that counts.

5.3 A Finer Focus – Research

The objective of this project is to produce a drawing which requires focused effort and attention to detail. The subject should have ‘a substantial number of detailed parts’.

Attention to detail and accumulation of detail are two different approaches to this project. The first requires minute observational skills and the draughtsmanship to convert he observation in to a detailed representational drawing. The ultimate example of this is hyper-realism. Why you would want to made a drawing look like a photograph? One reason might be that you are drawing something which could not be photographed, say a fantastical beast. Alternatively, it may be a mere demonstration of technical skill. I feel that, for this approach to be valid, the drawing has to say more than a photograph would, and given that many hyper-realistic drawings use a photograph as a reference, it is not always obvious what that might be.

A couple of years ago, I was lucky to see Peter Blake’s illustrations to Dylan Thomas’s ‘Under Milk Wood’. Blake has had a life long fascination with the poem and has created, over many years, illustrations using collage, painting and drawing. In the context of this project, his painstaking drawings of the characters come to mind. These delicate drawings done with 2H pencil look like old photographs and are either from imagination or based on friends. He shows examples of the drawings and talks about them here. The drawings are not photo-realistic; they are of a small intimate size. Most hyper-realistic drawings which I have seen in the flesh, have been very large so that imperfections of drawing are smoothed through scale.

I have seen work by Eric Manigaud in which he reproduces photographs of Jewish victims of Nazi mental asylums. These images are important and cast a long shadow, but what does he bring to them by translating them on a large scale with pencil and graphite powder? It seems to me that the final reproduced image is less important than the respect that he has given it through extended labour.

Vija Celmins makes works which are apparently photographic but are rather drawings of the photograph as physical artifact, rather than its subject. Her work, ‘Bikini’ 1968, selects and presents a torn image which has already been selected and extracted from a magazine.  Straine (Straine, 2010) points out Celmins’ affinity to, and admiration for, Georgio Morani, and describes her practice, like his, as ‘prolonged and intensive study’. Her work ‘Ocean’,1975 typifies this approach. This is less about photographic representation than minute observation and understanding. She talks about her work here, and I get a great understanding of it when she says that these works suck you in and then push you back out. You lean in to absorb the detail, then stand back to appreciate the wider image. Her drawings are not only very detailed but the detail is undifferentiated. They rarely have a focal point or depth. 

Artists like Chuck Close and Ron Muerk produce intense, forensic investigations of the human form. It is as if, by examining every pore and hair, they might identify some inner truth. The truth revealed by Ron Muerk is perhaps more about ourselves and our reactions to the realities of human flesh, Close’s is more akin to traditional portraiture, seeking a deeper knowledge of the sitter.

A second approach to the project is through the piling up of small drawn details to create a narrative, rather than a realistic interpretation. Stephen Walker’s maps are a personal representation of place, detailing visual, historical or personally significant landmarks. His map of London is different to my map of London because our experiences of London are different. Grayson Perry’s maps are even more personal, representing life’s challenges, disasters and triumphs. The Art Fund describes Perry’s ‘Map of Days’ 2012-2013, as a self-portrait (Art Fund,

Looking at these sort of maps, I found a delightful example by Patricia Marx, an illustrator of the New Yorker, mapping her lost gloves, and other possessions. Her map is not only a record of place, but timeline and personal testament.

These map drawings remind me of the sort I made as a child, and with my children, when they were young, of imagined countries and adventures, with layers of meaning in the made-up town and country names.

References

Art Fund, 2014. ‘Grayson Perry interview: Map of Days’, Art Fund https://www.artfund.org/news/2014/10/31/grayson-perry-interview-map-of-days ,accessed 18 September 2017

Straine S, ‘Dust and Doubt: The Deserts and Galaxies of Vija Celmins’, Tate Papers, no.14, Autumn 2010, http://www.tate.org.uk/research/publications/tate-papers/14/dust-and-doubt-the-deserts-and-galaxies-of-vija-celmins, accessed 18 September 2017.

Research Using the UCA Online Library – Initial Trial

Yesterday, OCA students were able, for the first time, to access the UCA online library. Eager to explore how it might help me, I did some initial searches. Logging in was very straight forward. The portal is very bare, just offering a search bar, and I entered ‘artist’s book’. This yielded many results, most relevant to my enquiry, but, on closer examination, they included abstracts, book reviews and other references, rather than actual articles. However, to the right of the search box is an ‘advanced search’ tab which allowed me to select ‘full text online’ and deselect ‘abstracts’, ‘book reviews’, select discipline ‘visual arts’ and thus get a much more focused result set.

Searching down the list of offerings, I came across ‘From Democratic Multiple to Artist Publishing: The (R)evolutionary Artist’s Book’ (White, 2012: 45-46). Clicking on the title took me to another portal (EBSCOhost) with the search already completed and showing me the abstract for the journal article. I was able to click on ‘PDF full text’ and read the article which discussed how initially artists’ books (multiples rather than one-off objects) had been produced as part of a relationship with a gallery, rather than a subverting step outside the gallery system. Subsequently they evolved away from that dependence as technological developments provided increased opportunities for self publishing in small runs at a reasonable price. This creative arc is still continuing, with access to internet publishing and online book producers such as blurb.

This was an interesting and relevant read. It has left me with a slight dilemma as to how to reference the article. The OCA referencing guidelines have changed as the college has abandoned its own guidelines and adopted the UCA format, which is subtlety different.  The EBSCOhost portal offers a downloadable reference but not in a format I can use. I used to use a Harvard referencing generator into which I could just paste a weblink or even scan a ISBN with my phone in a library, to create references as, being dyslexic, I get into a muddle with lists of letters and numbers. This has now been discontinued as a free resource and is too expensive for my level of use. In any case, is it of any use to give an online reference for a journal when that reference is via a portal which cannot necessarily be accessed by the reader? It seems to me to be more useful to reference the original journal, and that is what I have done here.

Continuing to explore, I entered the wide term ‘drawing’. This yielded an interesting list of articles which I shall have to explore over time. One which caught my eye is tangentially relevant to the current projects looking work evolving over time. This journal article, ‘Drawing Time’ (Lajer-Burcharth, 2015 pp.3-42) is presented via a different portal, this time MIT, and it is necessary to scan around the screen to discover how to view the text, in this case via a ‘download options’ tab on the right. The article looks at drawings by Watteau in which he has drawn the same model from different angles. Not only has he rotated the model but his own angle of view changes. The article describes how he used these studies and how he used a sticky, oily sanguine stick to draw so that he could transfer the drawings by offset-printing them, a useful idea for monoprinting. I had not realised how prolific his drawing was, nor how young he died.

I tried restricting this search to ‘ebooks’ hoping to find less specialist publications. I was pleased to see that the search returned ‘Drawing Now: Between the Lines of Contemporary Art’ (Downs et al. 2007), essential reading for Drawing 2. This was available via yet another portal which initially offered me a virtually blank page with just  the book details repeated on the right. However, below this was a tab ‘open content in new tab’ which rewarded me with a further page (yet another portal) where I could view the contents, read limited sections online or download the complete book for a limited time.

I am excited that the online library will be useful, not only for more detailed essay writing but also for wider ranging surveys.

As I have explored the new library access, I have also looked a new referencing software and have discovered EasyBib. This offers limited, but good enough, free referencing on ipad, iphone and online. It can scan bar codes and search online for books, so you don’t have to type in all the details. You can select the referencing preferred by individual institutions from a very long list which includes UCA. I shall give this one an extended trial.

References

Downes, S. Marshall, R. Sawden P. and Selby, A., (2007) London: I.B.Tauris

Lajer-Burcharth, E. (2015) ‘Drawing Time’ In October Magazine,  Massachusetts Institute of Technology Winter 2015 pp.3-42

White, T (2012) ‘From Democratic Multiple to Artist Publishing: The (R)evolutionary Artist’s Book’ In Art Documentation: Journal of the Art Libraries Society of North AmericaUniversity of Chicago Press 31(1) pp.45-56

5.2 Artist’s Book – Parallel Project

Following my recent miniature book making workshop, I have been experimenting with making small books as research for the upcoming artist’s book project. I want to see how different book forms might be exploited and also look at how I might bind together work produced outside the book form.

The simplest book form which we learnt on the course was the concertina book. This is constructed by joining two or more long pieces of paper and folding them. The trick is to decide on an overlap, let’s say 1.5cm, and cut that length off the end of one strip. The next strip is then marked at 1.5cm and the first strip glued butted up to that mark giving the 1.5cm overlap. The paper is folded at that mark and then successively in half. If a longer strip is wanted, the second sheet is butted and glued again at 1.5cm but no further cuts are made. With careful folding, it all works out beautifully. Beyond the simplicity, the form has other assets. You can glue one or both end to covers which may or may not be hinged together. The pages can be triangular, hexagonal or rectangular but the paper needs to be thin enough to be easily folded. You can use both sides of the paper, cut into the hinge and reverse it. It is flexible enough to accommodate uneven enclosures. No wonder so many book artists use it. In fact, I started one at the beginning of the course to make notes of media experiments (it isn’t well made) and I have filled it in one direction, turned it over and am gradually filling the back.

A book allows you to condense images and relate them in a new way. Here, I have taken a drawing from a recent workshop, cut it up and reformed it into a concertina book. Although originally drawn as a response to music, it also represents my continuing investigations into how I can use media to represent presence/absence or boundaries between states. This use of gouache captures a transitional moment when fluid becomes non-fluid.

A3, gouache on 160gm cartridge.

I did not like the lower, fractured line but there were really interesting small elements in the rest. I have extracted these and mounted them on foldable black paper, selecting their order and orientation to suggest flow without absolute continuity; an act of curation. I like the idea of making a book as curation.

The concertina design allows the viewer to juxtaposition the images in different ways.

At this stage, I considered what, if any, text should be added, in particular a title. I think that text would be an intrusion on the images, but perhaps a title on the front cover?

I considered printing a title and sticking it on, rather than writing, but I think that the personal voice (and hand) of the artist is important. However, my writing is so horrid that this looks really unprofessional. This is going to be covered up with end-boards which will also make the book more stable, stronger and look better finished.

As part of my material research, I have been experimenting with different supports, including mount board. I used a window cut in paper to select suitable areas of one experiment and then cut the board up into possible covers.

Having selected two and trimmed them to the right size, I considered that the others would make a good slip case which would give the book added presence and substance in the hand. Combining two boards with more black paper and a black ribbon to help extract the book created a sturdy little slip case. The original images are 10cm sq but mounting them on paper and allowing for hinges and depth means that my slip case is 12cm by 11cm, just not square, just not rectangular.

I have also considered adding folded insert pages in a translucent paper, with windows cut through, so that portions of the designs can be seen directly, others through the paper.

The shapes would then pile up as the pages were turned.

Windows echoing the shapes of the flow on the main pages were also considered.

I find the curved shapes contrived. The rectangular apertures work better, but when you set the book up in a sculptural format, I think the translucent pages distract.

Ultimately, I think the original format is better.

The final book form:

I like the way that this book works in the hand, stood up as a small sculpture or even hung, folded out on a wall. Extracting details from a drawing allows focus at a different scale and combining them into book form creates an artefact which is pleasurable to open and discover. Creating a book requires close attention to detail. If I was starting this again I would wish to pay more attention to the relationship between the final size and the initial image size, working backwards. This started out as research into how I could use a simple book form and has evolved into an object with a good level of finish and significance.

5.2 Artist’s Book Research

What constitutes an artist’s book?  It seems that almost anything can.

Those produced by  by Ed Ruscha, Sol De Witt and Wolfgang Tillmans, for example, can be viewed as self-curated collections of works, presented in permanent form. The book format allows an accumulation of themed work, presented as the artist wishes and available indefinitely (as opposed to an exhibition). The book might be published in an edition, or a one-off, containing original work or a combination such as ‘Home Manoeuvres’ (1987) by Bruce McLean. The power of these books is in the piling up of images and information to create a strong theme.

A book can allow the artist to bring together disparate media, possibly in different scales. Photographs can be combined with prints, images of large scale works of art with small drawings.

From designing content, artists have moved to playing with the book form itself (Vamacuk, 2017). There is the binding to be reconsidered and the pages to be reshaped, or reordered. Books are associated with words, but many artists choose to include few or no words.

Some books are barely books at all. Rather they are small, intimate sculptures which might reference the shape or scale of a book but also reference the book form through some narrative or illustrative function, such as Brian Catling’s ‘Moon Book’ (1994). The V&A terms these ‘book objects’ (Vamacuk, 2017).

The artist might retain the book covers and general form but enclose within the 3d space other objects. Sergei Yakunin has created a series of internal spaces with this tribute to the life and works of Daniil Kharms.

An alternative approach is to reconsider what it takes to make a book and then play about with these parameters. Books typically are made up of covers, pages and binding, all of which can be subverted. Ana Paula Cordeiro is a contemporary artist and book binder who envisages books in new forms. Her ‘Lightweight’ book has a traditional binding but the covers and pages have become three dimensional through folding. In ‘Notions’, the cover and the pages open to form boxes.

Pages can be re-imaged by the addition of sculptural pop-ups, windows cut through, stitching and departure from the right-angle. The binding can become a work of art in its own right, using decorative stitching or materials.

Rather than make a new book, some artists repurpose an old book, treating it as a sculptor might a block of wood, carving into it, drawing or painting on it, selectively retaining or obliterating. A good example of this approach is the work of Brian Dettmer who has discussed this reuse of books in a TED talk.

Creation of an artist’s book seems to allow its creator a licence to be playful, even funny; witness John Cage and Lois Long’s ‘Mud Book’ (1988). Cornelia Parker’s ‘Lost Volume: A Catalogue of Disasters’ (1994) teases the viewer, as well as taking the mickey out of the book form.

So many of the books I have looked at have been fun, unexpected little treasures. It seems important that the book should be a delight and a surprise to open, a tactile and personal experience. Collections of artist’s books in museums and institutions are almost a contradiction in terms; a book is made to be handled.

References

Vamacuk. 2017. Vamacuk. [Online]. [21 August 2017]. Available from: http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/a/books-artists/