Francis Bacon, 'Detritus', 2006
Among the hierarchy of art and design, the book - not as a mere secondary container of text or imagery but as an object in itself - doesn't feature prominently, more often a thing of utilitarian function than anything worthy of meaningful aesthetic contemplation. Yet just as a chair or a vase or a shoe can become a work of art in the hands of Marc Newson, or Arik Levy, or Manolo Blahnik, so too a book in the hands of Picasso or Matisse becomes a thing of art quite unlike its usual self.
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'Blood on Paper', a new exhibition opening this month at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, showcases 'bookwork' by some of the world's most influential contemporary artists - from Miro, Lichtenstein and Rauschenberg, to Bourgeois, Hirst and Kapoor - revealing an aspect of the medium, and equally of the artists, rarely ever seen or examined.
The formal idea of 'livre d'artiste' (literally 'artist's book') dates back to the turn of the 20th century - things like Bonnard's lithographic illustrations of Verlain's poetry in 1900 - but as the V&A exhibition reveals, the notion has expanded markedly in the time since to encapsulate a much broader interaction between artist and medium.
The relevance of the book to an extraordinary breadth of artists more readily associated with vastly different media, over the last century, becomes fascinatingly apparent: from the genre-defining 1947 books by Picasso ('Deux Contes') and Matisse ('Jazz'), to Edward Ruscha's bound photographic chronicle 'Twenty Six Gasoline Stations' (1962); from Jeff Koons' self-referential 'The Jeff Koons Handbook' (1992), to the stainless steel and bronze book-like sculptures of Anthony Caro (2004); in the detail of Anselem Kiefer's larger-than-life lead and cardboard creation, 'The Secret Life of Plants' (2008), and through the torn pages of Anish Kapoor's four-part 2006 series, 'Wound'.
For us as viewers, it is an opportunity to challenge our idea of what constitutes art and to re-examine the cultural significance of books, but perhaps more interestingly, and more simply, it is a chance to view a wonderfully eclectic range of lesser-known work by some of the most important artists of the 20th and 21st centuries.