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Long before film or video, books transported readers to new worlds with words on the page. But what if the pages became miniature worlds for readers? In Medium and Message: The Book Art of Colette Fu and Lothar Meggendorfer, the Rosenbach examines moveable books of the 19th and 21st centuries.
Comparing creative impulses, a century apart
The compact exhibit, curated by Rosenbach director of collections Judith M. Guston, permits visitors to do more than marvel at the technical skill and artistry of Meggendorfer (1847-1925) and Fu (1969- ). It encourages viewers to consider each artist in the context of his or her time, comparing influences, inspirations, and what they express through their work.
Meggendorfer is considered the modern originator of the moveable book, though the concept predates him. A German publisher and satirical illustrator, Meggendorfer’s moveable books were intended to delight and educate children, but also appealed to adults for their nimble wordplay and social commentary. In the City Park (Im Stadtpark, 1887-1890), a fold-out book of 14 double-sided panels, could be arranged on a tabletop in almost infinite patterns to create an elegant Victorian park filled with well-dressed patrons. Meggendorfer added a dose of reality in the form of a beggar. He accosts an affluent gentleman, who fingers his vest pocket for a coin.
Fu, based in Philadelphia, became fascinated with pop-up books as a girl growing up in New Jersey. Her practice includes award-winning stop-motion animation and fine photography, the latter of which is evident in her book art, which is motivated in part by curiosity about her Chinese heritage. In 2018, the Moveable Book Society presented Fu its Meggendorfer Prize for paper engineering for Tao Hua Juan Ji (Source of the Peach Blossoms, 2017), a huge pop-up measuring 14 by 21 feet.
“Constructing pop-ups allows me to combine intuitive design and technical acuity with my love of traveling as I try to understand the world around me,” Fu has written. “With pop-up books I want to eliminate the boundaries between book, installation, photography, craft, and sculpture.”
The way they move
Each artist’s works move differently. In many Meggendorfer books, characters are activated when readers pull a tab. A hungry fish leaps toward a dragonfly, or a violinist points a toe in glee as he plays.
Fu’s books, imbued with color and technical intricacy, are strictly pop-ups, but take a range of forms. Ugyhur Music (2020) expands into a three-dimensional lute workshop. For the Ancestors (2017) blooms like a rose, and Cham (2019) opens into a carousel of images that, viewed from above, form a five-point star. “Although Fu’s books are motionless, their exuberant shapes, intense colors, and closely interwoven pop-up pages give the impression of being alive,” said Krystyna Wasserman of the National Museum of Women in the Arts, which exhibited Fu’s work in 2016.
Sendak: admirer and donor
“Lothar Meggendorfer’s moveable books are remarkable not just for their ingenuity and craft, but for the ersatz cartoonist’s bright, colorful, often humorous style,” Sara Davis observed in 2017 on the Rosenbach blog. “Maurice Sendak, an admirer and collector of Meggendorfer’s works, wrote about how these creations appeal to children without condescending to them.” Sendak, who died in 2012, bequeathed many rare books to the Rosenbach, including the Meggendorfers on view.
Meggendorfer’s Living Pictures (Lebinde Bilder, 1878) features characters with verses describing their occupations, such as The Maiden Cook (Jungfer Köchen), who holds a sharp, two-handled mezzaluna over fresh spinach on a cutting board. When activated with a pull tab, her arms and head move side to side as the blade rocks and chops. Rhyming text says the cook will “never tire” of cutting spinach, Meggendorfer’s gentle jibe toward upper-middle-class employers of the servant class.
Meggendorfer’s most enchanting mobile characters are musicians. In Always Jolly! A Moveable Toybook (c. 1881), a happy cellist draws his bow across the strings as his supporting hand slides along the cello’s neck.
Music and message
By contrast, Fu’s Uyghur musicians are still; Their surroundings move. Slide the ornate doors of the book’s cover apart, and the lute workroom takes shape.
The Uyghur people live in Eastern Turkestan, a region under dispute by China, which claims it, and Turkestan’s government-in-exile. Twenty-five million inhabitants in the area, most of them Uyghur, are the focus of worldwide human rights groups who’ve charged China with abuse and genocide.
Fu became acquainted with Uyghur culture traveling in China in 2014, and her book art shines a light on its ethnic minorities. The exploration is personal: Fu’s mother was born in China’s far southwest, in Yunnan province. Like Turkestan, it’s a rich cultural crossroad.
After college, Fu taught English in the region, and found her purpose: “I discovered that my great-grandfather had not only helped establish the university where I was teaching but was … governor and general of Yunnan during the transitional years of WWII,” she wrote. “… it was these experiences that helped me find a new sense of pride and identity and encouraged me to pursue a profession as a photographer and artist.”
Fu acknowledges her heritage in For the Ancestors (2017). It opens like a flower to reveal at center, a shaman or priest in a broad-brimmed hat. He’s surrounded by symbolic items—eggs, figs, and sticks—arranged like petals around him, which lead the eye in a circle, back to the religious figure, at the heart of everything.
Due to the fragility of the works, the books are encased in protective vitrines and can’t be tested directly. However, a clever interactive station enables visitors to virtually open and close works, make Meggendorfer characters move, and see short videos of Uyghur musicians playing and Fu talking about her parents and career. As the exhibition continues, the Rosenbach will also hold in-person events related to Medium and Message.
What, When, Where
Medium and Message: The Book Art of Colette Fu and Lothar Meggendorfer. Through March 27, 2022, at the Rosenbach, 2008-2010 Delancey Place, Philadelphia. $10. (215) 732-1600 or rosenbach.org.
The Rosenbach requires visitors to show proof of vaccination and photo identification at the front desk. Masks are not required, but are encouraged. Hand sanitizer is available at stations located throughout the museum. Timed tickets are encouraged.
An accessible entrance, which accommodates wheelchairs, is available on Panama Street, at the back of the Rosenbach. Visitors requiring this entrance should call before arrival, and a staff member will provide information and meet them at that entrance.
The Rosenbach admits at no charge government-funded personal care assistants for visitors who require them; requests should be made when tickets are purchased.
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