The Wittockiana’s collection of book bindings is and remains the personal collection of a bibliophile, and as such reflects first and foremost his own tastes. It thus comes as no surprise that the collection does not represent an exhaustive history of bookbinding.
In the world of art, the difference between a private collection and a public museum’s collection frequently lies in the differing criteria adopted by a simple lover of beauty compared to a rigorous historian. The collection of ornamental book bindings that Michel Wittock assembled over some forty years makes no claim to represent the entire history of bookbinding through the ages or throughout the world. More drawn to Latin culture than Germanic, Wittock was naturally more interested in the development of artistic styles in Italy, at first, and then in France. He did not set great store by the conventional selection criteria coming from museums, but instead, having chosen to acquire objects which he appreciated for their beauty alone, he developed an interest in the gold, and sometimes silver, ornamentation of the Renaissance.
Having had a chance to research Italian book bindings of the first half of the 16th century, still soberly decorated, he came to realise that the art of binding and ornating 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 “real” 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, Wittock eventually discovered a new passion – contemporary bookbinding.
The collection of book bindings held in the Wittockiana thus provides an extensive overview of the development of ornamental 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.
As such, it is possible to follow the evolution of bindings created by artistic bookbinders (also known as “original” bindings), from the introduction of floral ornamentation during the Art Nouveau movement, through to influences from 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 this is evidenced by the use of many materials (box calf, reptile skins, precious woods, metal, rubber, plastic, polycarbonate etc.) in order to capitalise on new forms of expression, sometimes seen in the internal structure, made visible, and thus becoming part of the decoration itself. The artist’s creativity is limitless, the possibilities are so vast. An ornamental book binding can now claim its status, so rarely accorded in the past, that of an original work of art.