Testament to The Humument

Picking up where the Gap left off, Penguin is partnering with the African AIDS relief fund (Product) RED on a new line of Penguin Classics. Designed along the same color-centric lines as the Great Ideas series, these eight reissues have been smartly redesigned. Three of the designers—Jim Stoddart, Stefanie Posavec, and Coralie Bickford-Smith—and marketing manager Natalie Ramm are interviewed in short spots at the Penguin blog, each offering up some insight as to the creative processes involved. You can watch any of them as a full screen pop-out, but if viewed right on the page the red-and-black cover of each book, held up by the interviewee, takes on a wonderful moiré effect. I could have sworn at first they were animated.

I was particularly taken with Coralie Bickford-Smith’s clip, in part because I’m taken with her in general, but the inspiration she cited for her cover of Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent stopped me short as well. I’d heard Tom Phillips’ The Humument mentioned in discussions of altered books, but I’d never taken the time for a close look before now. I’m really glad I did. It’s beautiful work, epic in scope—he began the project in 1966—but also with a certain odd mystique that goes way beyond its appeal as art.

Phillips first began experimenting with altered text on reading a Paris Review interview with William Burroughs in 1965. After working with poetry and journals, he decided for his next project he would use the first book he could find for threepence. That turned out to be an 1892 novel by one W.H. Mallock called A Human Document. Phillips morphed the title into A Humument, and it became the springboard for nearly half a century’s worth of mixed media artwork, found poetry, an accompaniment to a translation of Dante’s Inferno, a silkscreened limited edition book and other texts, and more:

In the end the work became an attempt to make a Gesamtkunstwerk in small work, since it includes poems, music scores, parodies, notes on aesthetics, autobiography, concrete texts, romance, mild erotica, as well as the undertext of Mallock’s original story of an upper-class cracker-barrel philosopher ex-poet and diplomat, who falls in love with a sexy prospective widow from Hampstead.

The characters gradually took on lives of their own. Mallock’s original heroine, Irma, inspired an opera. Another, Bill Toge, whose existence was extracted from the text by Phillips,

has his own recurrent iconography; his insignia include a carpet and a window looking out onto a forest and his amoeba-like, ever-changing shape is always constructed from the rivers in the type. His story, the Progress of Love, is a favourite neo-platonic topos and there are deliberate parallels with the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, the most beautiful of printed books, published in Venice in 1499.

The Hypnerotomachia Poliphili is worthy of its own post someday. But in the meantime there is a 370-page gallery up on the website, good for some real contemplation. Something about the iconographic quality brings to mind Jung’s Red Book (which also brings us full circle to the beginning of this post). I may be a heretic, but I think I prefer The Humument. (There are also a few editions for sale on Amazon. I’d like to try the paperback just to be able to flip back and forth through it, though I can’t imagine it does justice to the weird wonder of Phillips’ paintings.) But in case you’re tempted to lose part of your workday in the strange wonder conjured up and extruded from an obscure Victorian text, keep in mind that Phillips hedged his bets all along:

Virtually all the work on A Humument has been done in the evenings so that I might not, had the thing become a folly, regret the waste of days.

(Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent designed by Coralie Bickford-Smith for Penguin Classics; page 310 from The Humument courtesy of Tom Phillips.)

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