Recent library acquisitions: Bookplates by Helena Bochořáková-Dittrichová

Museum visitors may remember the recent exhibition in NMWA’s Betty Boyd Dettre Library and Research Center featuring wordless novels by the first woman graphic novelist, Czech artist Helena Bochořáková-Dittrichová. Her bold black-and-white woodcuts visually narrate her life experiences, religion, and history.

Ex-Libris_Title-Page

Shortly after the show closed, the library obtained a 1925 limited-edition portfolio of copperplate and woodcut bookplates that the artist personally designed for others. Although not complete—the library’s copy is missing two bookplates—the 13 prints nonetheless represent a likely commercial activity for the artist, a means of making a living. Additionally, the copperplate prints reveal her talent and skill with drawing, a very different medium from woodcuts. These works contrast nicely with the accomplished graphic work evident in her woodcuts. Much like her wordless novels and illustrated stories, her bookplates focus on quiet domestic scenes. Many feature a person reading in a library or in a pastoral setting.

Venice, Ex libris Ant. a Otmar Špička; Drypoint copperplate engraving (left), and Student, Ex libris Ant. a Otmar Špička; Drypoint copperplate engraving (right)

Venice, Ex libris Ant. a Otmar Špička; Drypoint copperplate engraving (left), and Student, Ex libris Ant. a Otmar Špička; Drypoint copperplate engraving (right)

Bookplates commonly contained the Latin words ex libris, which translates from Latin as “from the books of” or “from the library of.” These consist of labels that bear the name of a book owner and are pasted inside the front covers (endpapers) of books as an expression of ownership. This tradition became popular after printed books in the mid-15th century created a need for owners to distinguish between multiple copies of the same book. In the late 19th and early 20th century, collecting reached its peak as people began to view bookplates as miniature works of art. They were valued as much for the artwork as for what the plates portrayed about the book owners.

In Europe, wood and copper engravings, etchings, and serigraphs were popular among designers.  Eastern European artists produced especially distinctive book plate designs due to the region’s rich tradition of graphic arts, artistic experimentation, and dramatic social upheaval. The independence of Bochořáková-Dittrichová’s homeland, Czechoslovakia, after nearly 400 years of Austro-Hungarian rule, inspired artists and writers to create a national image influenced by Expressionist, Surrealist, Constructivist, Art Nouveau, Futurist, and Art Deco movements popular throughout Europe during that time.

Books for Young People, Ex libris Mor.zem. ústavu nevidomých v Brne; Woodcut engraving (left), and Birthplace, Ex libris Anka Součková; Woodcut engraving (right)

Books for Young People, Ex libris Mor.zem. ústavu nevidomých v Brne; Woodcut engraving (left), and Birthplace, Ex libris Anka Součková; Woodcut engraving (right)

Despite these trends, Bochořáková-Dittrichová’s work, at least in the material that the library currently owns, seems to focus on domestic scenes, life stories, religion, and history from abroad. Did she deliberately avoid creating darker works that expressed oppression and nationalistic ambitions? As the library continues to collect material on and by this important graphic artist, it will be interesting to find out.

All are welcome to look at these beautiful bookplates and the other materials by Bochořáková-Dittrichová. If you’re touring the museum, the library makes a great starting point on the 4th floor. Interesting exhibitions feature archival manuscripts, personal papers by women artists, rare books, and artist’s books. Reference Desk staff are always happy to answer questions and offer assistance. Open to the public weekdays 10 a.m.–12 p.m. and 1 p.m.–5 p.m.   

—Jennifer Page is the Library Assistant at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Images that Tell a Story: The First Woman Graphic Novelist

The Betty Boyd Dettre Library and Research Center (LRC) at NMWA currently features an exhibition of work showcasing a female voice in a field that many associate with men. Five novels created by Helena Bochořáková-Dittrichová are featured in the exhibition The First Woman Graphic Novelist: Helena Bochořáková-Dittrichová, on view through November 14.

Helena Bochořáková-Dittrichová, woodcut print from Z Mého Dětství (From My Childhood), Prague: Orbis, 1929; National Museum of Women in the Arts Betty Boyd Dettre Library and Research Center

Helena Bochořáková-Dittrichová, woodcut print from Z Mého Dětství (From My Childhood), Prague: Orbis, 1929; National Museum of Women in the Arts Betty Boyd Dettre Library and Research Center

The artist’s novel Z Mého Dětství (From My Childhood), published in 1929, is believed to be the first wordless novel written by a woman. The exhibition hopes to foster discussion about her important contributions to this under-explored genre.

Bochořáková-Dittrichová most likely encountered the popular wordless novels of Belgian artist Frans Masereel while in Paris, where she had received a grant to study printmaking. Masereel focused his novels on socialist themes, such as the working class and the downtrodden. By contrast, Bochořáková-Dittrichová’s wordless novel From My Childhood is about her middle-class upbringing, following her into her adult life. Similarly, other works focus on her life experiences. A 52-woodcut manuscript, which remains unpublished, called Malířka Na Cestách (The Artist on her Journey), features a woman who receives an award to study art in Paris, drawing on the artist’s experience in the city where she became familiar with wordless novels.

Though the novels of Masereel are better known, and are more numerous today, Bochořáková-Dittrichová’s less-polished woodcuts distinguish her. While Masereel’s style features stolid blocks of black and white space that sit against each other, Bochořáková-Dittrichová’s prints are richer in tone, line, and shade. Her figures emerge with a series of small white lines from the expanse of black ink on the page, relying more on hatching and texture to give the appearance of shadow and form. Areas of greater light tones—an open window, for example, or a blouse—seem luminous by comparison.

Helena Bochořáková-Dittrichová, untitled print from Malířka Na Cestách (The Artist on her Journey), n.d.; Woodcut, 4 1/4 x 3 1⁄8 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts Betty Boyd Dettre Library and Research Center

Helena Bochořáková-Dittrichová, untitled print from Malířka Na Cestách (The Artist on her Journey), n.d.; Woodcut, 4 1/4 x 3 1⁄8 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts Betty Boyd Dettre Library and Research Center

Helena Bochořáková-Dittrichová’s other works housed and on view in the LRC depict scenes that depart from her personal experiences. Her work explored religion, travel, and history. The library also houses novels by Bochořáková-Dittrichová that feature interplay of image and written narrative. Dojmy Z SSSR (Impressions from the USSR, 1934) features both text and illustration by the artist. However, even when the image is of a historical figure, or a cityscape, her style still features careful slivers of white paper through black ink.

Helena Bochořáková-Dittrichová’s legacy remains to be firmly cemented within our modern understanding of the woodcut. However, with this exhibition, her prints are presented as a tool to help viewers understand her distinct place in the history of the graphic novel.

—Caitlin Hoerr is the publications and marketing/communications intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.