An introduction by Joke van Leeuwen & information to accompany the exhibition
Exhibition from 9 June through 19 August 2012
In April 2012 I received the Golden Quill Award. It really is made of gold, which is more than you can say for some prizes called ‘Golden’. The award includes an invitation to organise an exhibition at Museum Meermanno, an invitation I was pleased to accept. Because I write books for both adults and children, I wanted to find a theme that would appeal to museum visitors of all ages.
The result is DRAWING WORDS, an exhibition about the close relationship between words and pictures. To narrow down this topic, we have concentrated on the Meermanno collection and my own work. And to make the focus even sharper, we have devoted the most attention to the letters of the alphabet.
I remember how I learned to read when I was a child at school in Amsterdam many years ago. I had to write the letter A over and over again in my notebook until I had a full row from left to right. Since I was left-handed, my writing hand kept dragging across the letter I’d just written before the ink had time to dry completely. Maybe that’s why one of my children's books, Magnus's Metro, includes an alphabet of smudges.
I thought about the fascinating photo book ‘The Family of Man’, published in the 1950s, and remembered the image of an old person’s hand shaking as it practiced writing the letter A. I once made a painting in which the A lights up like fireworks in the night. A small child who hasn't yet learned to read can understand that the symbols in a picture book, which aren't easy to recognise like the pictures, conjure up the sounds of the story that is read aloud. When that first became clear to me, at a very early age, I opened up a Golden Book and copied out those symbols until my sheet of paper was full. I thought my mother would be able to read me part of the story I knew from the copy that I had made. But I had started too early in the book. What I had written down was the name of the publisher and ‘All Rights Reserved’. Once I became familiar with the letters and their sounds, I was surprised to find out that not everyone made the same sounds for the same letters. In English, you see the letter A and say ‘eh’. But in Dutch, we say ‘ah’.
We learn what it’s like to be illiterate when we’re in a country with an unfamiliar writing system. All the notices and statements around us tell us nothing. Maybe we forget how fascinating it is to learn the mysteries of the alphabet as soon as they start to seem obvious to us. But sometimes I’m reminded of those mysteries. Recently, I spoke to a young boy about what it's like to be a writer. He asked me, ‘Do you use question marks too?’ Yes, I do. More than I put in my books.
ABC books are not just for those of us who are learning to read and write. Artists also take inspiration from them for original work. Museum Meermanno has beautiful blind-embossed books and pop-ups. There is also an ABC book in the spirit of the 1970s for marijuana lovers, as well as some playful ones, like one in which the letter ‘h’ transforms into a horse. And there are ABC prints by contemporary artists like Wim Hofman and Sieb Posthuma.
Alongside beautiful old miniatures in which capital letters sometimes almost vanish into the rich detail of the illustration, there are pictures and letters that literally merge: a man and a snake that form a B together, or a woman praying, with her arms outstretched, who makes the letter Z. I tracked down a photograph from the 1930s in which my father and other boys at his boarding school are forming the name of the school (Ruimzicht) with their bodies. When I was a child, this transformation always impressed me. Now that I've scanned and enlarged the photo, I can see that it’s a montage. Here and there, the bodies don’t quite make sense. I can’t find my father in the picture. Maybe he was the huddled figure who was supposed to be the period.
Especially for this exhibition, I've made a new ABC with a mixture of drawings and collages of old engravings. I once walked around with a camera for a year, searching for forms that just happened to look like letters, like two reed stems plus their reflection, which made a K, a lost handle on the beach that made a C, and two cranes accidentally making an F.
We have also included examples of longer texts and images that are closely interrelated, including both originals from my books and attractive examples from the Meermanno collection, from centuries-old manuscripts to visual poetry and the famous cover of Paul van Ostaijen’s epic poem Bezette Stad (Occupied City).
This is not a static exhibition. The designer Bob Takes uses a lot of screens, and not just to give background information about the works on display, but also for installations, such as a selection of European alphabet reciters. There are also interactive features for visitors who need a little action. DRAWING WORDS is an exhibition for all ages, ranging from the impressive to the lighthearted, from the surprising to the familiar – in short, from A to Z.
Joke van Leeuwen