Revolutionising the written word

Alice Mottram 6 February 2015

Over 500 years in the history of written words separate the exhibitions currently held at the University Library and Kettle’s Yard. They are vastly different, the library displaying Medieval manuscripts notable for their marginalia, whilst the gallery explores 20th century concrete poetry in visual arts. However, these exhibitions are united in their ambition to revolutionise our understanding of written-word culture.

Private Lives of Print: The use and abuse of books 1450-1550 at the University Library is the culmination of a five year project to catalogue the University’s collection of incunabula, or Medieval printed manuscripts. The collection on display features marginalia, annotations and decorative details which reveal the “individual history of each individual copy”, says Ed Potten, Head of Rare Books. The differences between copies of the Guttenberg Bible and unique illuminations of many texts on display have been fundamental in the research of printing processes, and shed light on the status attached to owning such books. The exhibition covers not only the prestigious “books of kings and queens”, but also “the scribbles of school boys”, which prove not unlike the graffiti to be found in many modern volumes held at the library.

Kettle’s Yard is a curio of creativity, and the current exhibition Beauty and Revolution: The Poetry and Art of Ian Hamilton Finlay is no exception. Finlay, who died in 2006, was invited to exhibit his work at St. Catherine’s College in 1964 by postgraduate students Mike Weaver and Stephen Bann. It is Bann’s personal collection that forms the core of this retrospective. From the permanent collection of Kettle’s Yard is exhibited Finlay’s 1995 flat-stone carving, which reads “Kettle’s Yard Cambridge England is the Louvre of the Pebble”. 

This pebble perhaps captures the fundamental challenge of Finlay’s work. In the catalogue which accompanied his ‘Unnatural Pebbles’ exhibition, Finlay expressed his disillusionment with modern art: “a modern PEBBLE is prized as a sculpture, as it were, of a PEBBLE…too much has been made of the untutored PEBBLE.”  Yet, the pebble was not an insult to the gallery, but carved in admiration of it, and exemplifies Finlay's modern style.

The current exhibition challenges the perceived boundaries of poetry and modern art, as Finlay’s media range through ceramics, glass and metalwork. Prints dominate the exhibition, however, as a canvas to concrete poetry. The playful ‘Acrobats’ is a deconstruction of the word ‘acrobats’ into individual letters, the repeated pattern of which dances across the page like the performers the word defines. ‘Seams’ is a similarly amusing piece in which the word is printed as a vertical stack divided in two, as ‘SEA MS’. Its visual simplicity betrays its thematic discussion of The Odyssey – the lonely sailor on the vast sea, separated from the home. 

Cultures of communication and literature are constantly evolving, from Homer’s oral tradition, through the development of print, to the disestablishment of word from paper in the modern world. The juxtaposition of these exhibitions illustrates the course of the written word across time, on which it still journeys. 

Private Lives of Print: Use and Abuse of Books 1450-1550 at the University Library runs until 11 April 2015.

Beauty and Revolution: The Poetry and Art of Ian Hamilton Finlay at Kettle’s Yard runs until 1 March 2015.