Recently a pristine copy of the 1942 The Life of Forms in Art by Henri Focillon came across my desk. This is not a book much studied currently, a largely formalistic essay on art by an expatriate French art historian at Yale. Whatever its intellectual value–and it was still being mentioned when I went to graduate school in art history in the 1970s and ’80s–the volume in my hands struck me as a marvelous object, a memento of a politically dark time in the world, a memento mori of the life of academics, and as a piece of Duke history. Do books just have to be about the information they have inside?
I know the text of this book from the 1948 Wittenborn paperback edition which I read at The University of Chicago library. Wittenborn Books–that famous New York art book shop and publisher on East 57th Street and later 1018 Madison Avenue, updated the original Yale University Press design with kind of a Matisse-style layout by Paul Rand. Thus I was surprised to see the first English-translation issued in so staid a form. Green buckram, that characteristic covering reserved for academic imprints, and the gold spine lettering now largely gone from university-press titles. The book’s a vademecum, a synthesis of approaches to art without being a specific system.
I tried to imagine the publishing world of 1942 America. Focillon, in failing health, was on his yearly exchange from the Sorbonne’s Institut d’Art et du Moyen Age when the United States entered World War II. He was caught stateside, a rather better place to be all in all than occupation France. In the Lilly Library, if you want to get an idea of what it was to exist in the United States in 1942, simply look at the advertisements in the Vogue or National Geographic magazines for those years. Every advertisement, be it Palmolive soap or Philco air conditioners (below) had to related to the war effort.
It’s strange to think of the idea of ‘form in art’ and read this vulgar stereotype advertisement. The Axis in 1942 seemed to be winning everywhere. Country after country overrun, the Holocaust machine in full operation and, in this country, shortages of everything: rubber, sugar, paper and even the copper to make pennies (U. S. 1943 pennies were steel). Focillon’s original French text had been composed in 1933, the year of Hitler’s rise to power. It was translated into English by two New Haven scholars, Charles Beecher Hogan, a modest Yale English professor who had conveniently married of the wealthiest women in the country, and the other a student of Focillon, the eminent Yale art historian George Kubler. Kubler, would twenty years later exceed his master by writing his own short treatise, the still-brilliant Shape of Time: Remarks on the History of Things. All this publishing history is well-known.
Books, however, have locus. A colleague of mine in libraries worries that library collections will become indistinguishable from one another. Yet collections are shaped by the richness of their individual volumes as much as by their collection uniqueness. The copy in my hands was owned by an eminent Duke faculty member, the late Lawrence Richardson, jr (1920-2013). Richardson was a classics professor and author (of many books) but for me a treasured personal copy of his 1992 New Topical Dictionary of Ancient Rome. I looked at the fly-leaf signature.
The script is clear and the date precise, “October 13th, 1942”. He must have bought the book the day it was issued. It seemed initially odd for a classicist to have been so interested in what a French medievalist thought of form theory that he would have bought a copy “hot off the presses” as it were. Somehow, readership has a way of crashing into one another. Today we theorize how the traditional scholarly text is dead, how future publishing will rely on a series of socially-networked contributions to knowledge. In 1942 there was only the author and his budding reader. Richardson would go on to write his dissertation on the painters of Pompeii’s Casa dei Dioscuri (though through Yale’s classics department). It made sense he’d want to read what art historians thought about the analysis of form.
What a terrible time to be thinking about the monuments of European art, of culture and freedom. How did anything get published much less in green buckram and gold lettering? Focillon had earlier asserted boldly that “the hand controls the eye.” At that publication year, people everywhere were dying to fight an esthetic that only allowed for racial purity and the most stilted form of warmed-over Roman art (a la Albert Speer). If scholarship is challenged today, it’s nothing like the challenges of researching or publishing in 1942.
What I will miss most about holding the book-as-object is not so much the physical piece (online reading suits me just fine) but the absence of evidence of the tradition of scholarly reading. One can appreciate just as well in an electronic text as a printed book the hardships of publishing during World War II. But gone from us will be the notion of who might have read the text in another era:
What stranger’s feet may find the meadow,
And trespass there and go.
Nor ask amid the dews of morning,
If they are mine or no.