The Bibliotheca Wittockiana’s collection of bookbindings is and remains the personal collection of a bibliophile, and as such reflects his own tastes, so it is not surprising that it does not represent an exhaustive history of bookbinding.
In the art world, the difference between a private collection and a public museum collection frequently lies in the differing criteria adopted by the simple lover of beauty and the rigorous scientist. The collection of decorative bindings that Michel Wittock assembled over some forty years makes no claim to represent the entire history of decorative bookbinding through the ages or throughout the world. More drawn to Latin than Germanic culture, he was naturally more interested in the development of styles first in Italy, then in France. He did not set great store by conventional scientific selection criteria but instead, having chosen to acquire objects which he himself appreciated for their beauty alone, he became attracted to the gold,and sometimes silver, decoration of the Renaissance.
Having had a chance to research Italian bookbindings of the first half of the 16th century, still soberly decorated, he came to realise that the art of binding and decorating a book could, like any other decorative art, be legitimately considered as an art in its own right, just like architecture, painting or sculpture, which until the 19th century had wrongly been regarded as the only major arts. Enthused by this new passion for books, he very soon extended the scope of his interest to French bookbindings of the High Renaissance, the exuberantly diverse decoration of which provide an insight into the fascinating intellectual life of well-to-do book collectors. After becoming acquainted with the different styles of bookbinding in France over the centuries, one day he discovered a new passion – contemporary bookbinding.
The collection of bindings held in the Bibliotheca Wittockiana thus gives an extensive overview of the development of decorative bookbinding, from the gilded bindings of the Renaissance to the avant-garde creations of today, with a special emphasis on the work of modern and contemporary decorative bookbinders in France and Belgium.
After the introduction of floral ornamentation much used at the time of art nouveau, bindings created by artists (also known as “original” bindings) were in turn influenced by art deco and other artistic, aesthetic and literary movements then in vogue such as cubism, futurism, dadaism, constructivism and surrealism.
Nowadays the emphasis is on abstract art, sometimes a reflection of the opportunity for expression offered by the many materials used (box calf, reptile skins, precious woods, metal, rubber, plastic, polycarbonate etc.), sometimes seen in the internal structure which is visible, thus becoming part of the decoration itself. There are really no limits to inventiveness, the choice is vast. A decorated bookbinding can now claim a status which it was rarely accorded in the past, that of an original work of art.