A book is a book…

Living Iron is in production. My bookbinder’s heart is excited: ten years after A Resistible Force I am going from the printing press to the binder’s workshop. The scale and speed of industrial book manufacture cannot be compared to the craft I once learned, yet the basic principles remain the same and so does the entire atmosphere: the scent of ink, the weight and crispness of good paper, and the pride of the people at work here.

Large sheets of paper are printed on both sides with pages whose order, at first glance, looks odd. The typographer has placed these pages in such a position that their numbers will follow one another once the sheets have been folded several times in half to form sections. The printer in turn has made sure the pages superpose exactly on both sides of the paper. After folding, these ‘signatures’ will be pressed and sewn together to constitute the book block; small marks printed along their outer folds must be aligned in descending order to make sure no section is missing.

Although we were taught to do this laborious task by hand in front of a good light with a bone folder, the machine here quits itself of the job faster than the eye can see, and the lines of text and images fit from one page to the next as if it were the most natural thing in the world.

All the sections are now ordered, ready to be sewn,

the little printed marks are well aligned on the folds.

And even in this incredibly mechanised environment I still encounter familiar material, bobbins of thread, colourful linens, ribbon bookmarks, and in a corner, for one-off assignments, heavy cast iron presses and board shears.

 

I cannot wait to pick up my own equipment again.

 

 

 

Indian summer in the woods

One of my most trusted sources of inspiration: a walk in the park. Today it was even more special with the golden light accompanying the end of a balmy autumn day.

The trees are getting old. After a recent storm a centuries-old beech almost fell apart and needed surgery.

Tree bark draws me ever closer, abstract painting on the small scale.

And then my eye catches the first of what soon becomes a series of related shapes, reminding me to pick up a favourite exercise from art school.

Lychen

Mushroom in a tree trunk

Another mushroom

And in the contrast of the evening sunlight…

…I suddenly see a face in the tree bark looking at me:

Magic

What do we see in certain things?

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One of my favourite objects in my studio is just a piece of crushed wrapping paper. It came to me as the padding around a book sent by mail in a box, recycled material with enough ‘body’ to give it quite naturally the character of a sculpture. In my eyes that is just what it is, an object in its own right, halfway between a dress and an armour. All it needed was a metal stand, another piece of recycled material, and as if by magic it got its name: the samurai. Don’t ask me why.

 

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There is another treasure nearby: my ‘power plant.’

 

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It measures not more than ten centimetres, a world in miniature. I received it from a friend who found an old television on the pavement, thought of me, and dismantled the thing there and then.

And then there are my tin cans, a growing collection. People throw them away, cars crush them on the road, they rust and from my point of view become more and more interesting.

 

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The wonder of such discoveries is proof of what Picasso used to say, ‘Je ne cherche pas, je trouve.’ (I do not search, I find)

 

 

Autumn

Constructions of the mind

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Could it be that ‘it’ was in the air? That we walk around with themes that unconsciously develop in our head until they are ‘ripe’ to be triggered?

This morning my eye was caught in the garden by extraordinary cobwebs in the dewy morning sunshine. They looked like solid buildings, and I wish I had seen the spider at work because I cannot imagine how she did it.

 

spider web

 

spider web

 

I found the spider’s name: it is the sheet weaver spider or Linyphiidae, poetically called baldaquin spider in German. And this afternoon, as I was reading about eighteenth scientists and steel in the Age of Enlightenment, I discovered that one of them, Réaumur, also wrote a report on the possibilities of breeding spiders to make a silky cloth out of their threads…

Weavings of unusual material began to catch my attention weeks ago when I found that El Anatsui‘s soft metal ‘blankets’ were the best pieces in an open air sculptures exhibition in Amsterdam. His work is inspired by the traditional African kente cloth and from a distance has a definite textile quality until one realises that it is assembled of endless amounts of discarded bits of metal.

 

El Anatsui

 

El Anatsui

 

But my associations (or would they be baldaquin cobwebs in my head?) go further. Close to the place in Paris where I saw El’s work for the first time,…

 

Anatsui IMG_0082

 

… a huge rusty surface now on display on New York’ High Line, my eye was caught last week by a piece of concealing material and the unexpected elegance of its patterns, its play with light and shadows and, yet again, a kind of weave.

 

Paris, Galliera, iron, Anatsui

 

Paris, Galliera, iron, Anatsui

 

It reminded me of tree barks I had seen recently:

 

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Then I found the image of a lamp that is another type of spider web whose angles, says the accompanying caption, are individually made by hand:

 

hanglamp copySource: Nathalie Dewez, Prism, at the Conran Shop

 

True to my favourite art school exercise, which has all to do with associations and sharpening our perception to anything related to the shape and feel of an object, by observing what touches us we see the themes within us, and the harvest of images this brings about then feeds our inspiration.

 

Bricks and iron

Building blocks

 

No time to write long blog posts: I am in the process of giving birth to a book! But my eye continues to travel and this is what I have collected rcently.

The brick walls of a small countryside church on Walcheren, in the south-west of the Netherlands:

 

 

 

 

and the wall of the French chateau of Saint Germain en Laye, a formidable archaeology museum whose site, sadly, seems to exist only in French although I found some information in English.

 

France juillet 2013

 

There are more bricks in previous posts.

 

Bricks often were the best building solution for regions that have no natural stone but only sand and clay like the Netherlands. Elsewhere, as in Brittany, one may find a centuries-old beam head and ditto nails among sandstone and granite:

 

 

or horseshoes for luck on a sandstone wall in the Gers:

 

 

But I’m still mainly busy with iron and this is what I found this morning on a building site:

 

 

 

 

and near a crumbling hay barn I’ve mentioned before:

 

 

A journey

On a journey

While I’m plunged in the preparations of Living Iron these days, my blog has seemingly come to a standstill so this is more an update for friends who may find me a little unfaithful. When this book project began I had not realised how vast my subject would become, and the adventure continues while the chapters are taking shape.

Imagine the excitement at hearing about a recently discovered mollusc that lives in the deep ocean and uses iron from inside the Earth to build its coat.

 

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It is equally thrilling to be in touch with a manufacturer of needles that can still be made to order for special purposes.

 

Photograph © Bruno Suet, WoI December 2012

There was a time when pins and needles were hand-forged one by one and had to be constantly replaced because they rusted. I have a couple of minute fourteenth century pins recuperated from the metal scrap that came out of an ancient Dutch harbour.

 

 

 

 

In the meantime I am inspired by other photographers and read the biography of Margaret Bourke-White. I find her sitting with her heavy camera on top of the Empire State Building in 1934, taking pictures of plough blades in a factory, and standing near the ship The Bremen at a shipyard in Germany in 1930.

 

Photograph by Oscar Graubner, © Estate of Margaret Bourke-White

 

All three photos in the book Margaret Bourke-White Photographer, Bulfinch Press 1998

The last image takes me to the gigantic steam sailing vessel Great Eastern designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel to transport thousands of passengers and launched in 1858. Its hull was riveted in a similar way.

 

 

And so go my thoughts sometimes as they jump from one idea to the next…

 

Ferns

Ferns

 

Karl Blossfeldt, Adiantum Pedatum (maidenhair fern)

My walk today was meant to be a break from nineteenth century steel. It led me unexpectedly to early twentieth century wrought iron.

After a long winter the ferns are unfurling from a sea of dead leaves. The picture I’ve taken is poor but the ferns made me think of a German photographer and sculptor.

 

 

Back home I searched for my book with Karl Blossfeldt‘s 1920’s photographs of what he called Urformen der Kunst. The translation, Art forms in nature, does not cover Blossfeldt’s idea of the original and archetypal.

 

 

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Organic forms have inspired many artists, particularly at the turn of the nineteenth century, and I realise now how the Art Nouveau that was so lavishly present around me when I was growing up in Brussels must have formed me somehow.

There is Victor Horta, of course, whose love of natural materials even made him create a matching palette of colours for painting walls and woodwork. The Horta museum on itself is worth a trip, to follow Michelin’s guide books. And the façades on the streets of Brussels will do the rest. Here is a banister:

 

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and a sofa:

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All artisans of the period were inspired by nature, and I repeatedly find ferns, from Emile Gallé‘s plate design

 

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and Gallé’s pâte de verre vases that may need some time to be appreciated but deserve the effort

 

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to René Lalique‘s vases and jewellery

 

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The sinewy shapes of ferns, honeysuckle or clematis fit the hand of the ironsmith. Iron gates became an art centuries ago. For example in the Place Stanislas in Nancy:

 

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Ironwork again in the Saint-Cyr house that Victor Horta’s student Gustave Strauven built on the Square Ambiorix in Brussels around 1900:

 

 

 

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One more ‘vegetal’ ironwork gate, forged by Emile Robert for Jean Prouvé in 1902:

 

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And so I’m back at wrought iron today and the contemporary work of a Dutch master blacksmith, Michiel Faber

 

Michiel Faber

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Meditation

Two and a half trees… a meditation

 

Today I realised once more how any walk clears my head and how little one needs to feel fed. I went out with my faithful companion, the eye of my mobile phone, and before I knew it I had spent almost an hour just watching the bark of a few trees from close by.

 

 

 

The line details would be sufficient inspiration for a couple of designs, textile or otherwise, endless pen drawings or experiments with creased and hand-coloured paper.

 

 

And although the colours may look repetitive, their subtle variations offer enough challenge for a sampler of water colours.

 

 

 

As my imagination takes a flight I think of William Morris‘s fabrics, whose colours fit my scheme but the designs do not, and then of Mariano Fortuny‘s crinkled silk Delphos dresses and velvet coats that are so much part of my idea of Venice.

 

 

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And here I am, back at iron and classical architecture! I am returning to my work with fresh energy.

 

 

 

 

Bricks

 

 Brickwork… and the use of iron in architecture

 

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These days I’m reading about the use of iron in early architecture, especially since a group of researchers has found a way to reveal the DNA of ancient pieces of iron, so to speak, in fact a digital identity, by analysing their inner, grainy structure. This has given them the material to show that iron was used as an essential component in the construction of the gothic cathedrals and, with the progress of their results, they can even trace a piece of iron back to its ores and their location.

Gothic churches are famous for their daring fineness and for the amount of light streaming in through huge windows, some of whom cover more than a hundred square metres. Tons of iron brace the otherwise fragile architecture with all kinds of hooks and bars and linked elements, and long iron bars reinforce the stained glass against wind and rain. They have been doing so since the twelfth century. Iron plays many roles in these constructions, and blacksmiths therefore belonged to the most important artisans on the building sites.

 

Le Mans deambulatoire-sud

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How does this bring me to brickwork? After all, those cathedrals were built of stone. There was plenty supply of stone in the region. Even farmhouses had easy access to natural stone for their walls.

 

Hadrian's_wall_at_Greenhead_Lough

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stone wall

 

The Netherlands, on the contrary, are built on sand. They have limited raw building materials except clay, and there is a long tradition of building with bricks. Large as they may be, even the Dutch churches are mostly built of bricks.

 

Grote Kerk, Veere. Copyright © Remco Bron

The bricks in our old house in Zeeland are hand-moulded and their high sand and silt content led those that were closest to the fire to become glazed. Hence their green shine. I’ve always had a special affinity with them.

 

 

I have even got one of these glazed bricks in my studio.

 

 

In less affluent regions walls may show the creative results of material recycling like the one I once came across in Greece. It includes bits of broken bricks.

 

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Brickwork was elevated to an art in the twentieth century. The French artist Germaine Richier used a chunk of brick rubble for the sculpture of a skull.

 

 

Amsterdam abounds in highly detailed early twentieth century brick buildings, among which the Scheepvaarthuis or Shipping House is one of the most spectacular.

 

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Amsterdam’s art-déco architecture leads me back inevitably to iron because whichever way one looks there, in bridges as much as in buildings, the brickwork is accompanied by the playful lines of wrought iron. One may like it more or less, but if only the level of craftsmanship deserves our utmost respect.

 

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Inspiration

 

 …. once more

 

‘The more diverse the life of the mind, the better the chances are that your inspiration will be protected’ writes Rainer Maria Rilke to Elisabeth Ephrussi in The Hare with the Amber Eyes.

I think about this as I return from my daily tour of what I’m beginning to call my daily park: how often have I not taken a quick picture of its ‘Monet bridge‘? Always the same yet not at all. The so essential diversity to feed our mind has less to do with frequent changes of scenery than one would think. The most familiar views are offering us constant change. A dear Indian friend, who has never experienced the seasons before being outposted in the Netherlands for a while, is coping well with the rain and cold because she willfully observes the variations around her.

 

 

 

 

 

These thoughts remind me of a poem by Paul Verlaine about his dream of a woman he loves and who loves him, who is never exactly the same and never exactly different:

Je fais souvent ce rêve étrange et pénétrant

D’une femme inconnue, et que j’aime, et qui m’aime

Et qui n’est chaque fois ni tout à fait la même

Ni tout à fait une autre …

 

‘The best experiences are not when you find what you were looking for, but when something quite different finds you, takes you by surprise, shifts your taste to new territory… ‘ Tim Parks in Teach us to sit still

Try this small exercise, once again from my most inspiring art teacher: tear away a few bits of newspaper and make it into a small collage the size of a postcard, then ‘frame’ it with four strips of plain paper to isolate the image and ‘transcribe’ it, using only a pen and Indian ink. We couldn’t stop making new ones, I remember. It was a long time ago and the paper has become yellow but I guess the idea could be the beginning of a good series of doodles.

 

1403 petit collage journal