The Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh boasts a fine permanent collection as well as two imposing linked premises above the Water of Leith. It also houses a library which “consists of around 50,000 items, including monographs, catalogues raisonnés, exhibition catalogues, periodicals, auction sales catalogues, audio-visual material, and ephemera.” Within this is the Archive, “a world-class resource of material relating to Dada and Surrealism, the largest part being the archive and book collections of Roland Penrose and Gabrielle Keiller. The Archive is also particularly rich in papers relating to art and artists in Scotland. The Special Books Collection consists of over 2,500 artist books and limited-edition livres d’artiste covering the period from 1897 to the present day.”
Gabrielle Keiller herself according to her obituary was “one of the most talented women golfers of her generation,” and later owner of “one of the finest collections of Surrealist art.” On her death in December 1996, she willed her collection to the Gallery. Although it contained many art works, the collection was especially strong in fine art books, now housed in the Gabrielle Keiller Library. At the time, the Keeper of the Gallery, Richard Calvocoressi, said: “It is rare to find a collector who treats books as works of art. But she knew that one couldn’t understand Surrealism without understanding its literary side.” Her holdings were added to the private collection and archive of Roland Penrose, gifted in 1996,which already contained many more superb art books, including works by Picasso and Kandinsky, to the collection.
One perfect example of Keiller’s double literary and artistic appreciation is the huge Prose on the TransSiberian Express on show in the Library, a literally immense collaboration between Surrealist poet Blaise Cendrars and painter Sonia Delaunay. The book is a single folded sheet, which unfolds over great length, juxtaposing verse and design side by side.
”All books are three-dimensional objects, but some examples of artists’ books are even more than this,” says the Gallery’s introduction to the Library collection. “They are sculptural forms, demanding interaction: they fold out, unravel, occupy space.”
Short of self-assembling nanite automata, it’s hard to imagine any ebook aspiring to that status. For now, these works stand as testament to the artistic potential of the book, in physical as well as verbal form.