This year was something of a major milestone in the Most Beautiful Czech Book of the Year competition, which celebrated its 50th anniversary, marked as a matter of course by the main exhibition of the year at the Museum of Czech Literature (PNP), which co-organizes the competition together with the Ministry of Culture. The traditional exhibition of most beautiful Czech books did not just relate to the current year, but also reflected the entire last half century, giving rise to a large exhibition project entitled Book Report, which offered visitors an insight into the visual form of books in three parts: the past, the present and a section entitled The Book Above All, which made them consider the future viability of the medium – i.e. over the next fifty years.
The Most Beautiful Czech Books of the Year is a competition organized by the Museum of Czech Literature (PNP) in collaboration with the Ministry of Culture of the Czech Republic. An assessment is made of the graphics, illustrations and polygraphy in books brought out by Czech publishers and printed at Czech printers over the last calendar year. Although this year the competition celebrated its fiftieth anniversary, its roots actually go back somewhat further, to the first three decades of the last century, when a beautiful book competition was arranged for the first time as early as 1928 by the Association of Czech Bibliophiles. The prominent figure behind it was Arno Sáňka, a well-known collector and publisher of fine-press works, who launched a foreign-inspired competition here that year. To this day the prize awarded each year to secondary school pupils and art college students bears his name.
The Most Beautiful Czech Book of the Year competition has played a positive role in the history of Czech book design. It surely comes as no great surprise that for ideological reasons the competition could not be arranged regularly from 1928. It was first revived after the war in the mid-1950s. In the words of Iva Knobloch, curator of the modern book and graphics collection at the Museum of Applied Art and Chairwoman of the Most Beautiful Czech Book of the Year 2013 panel, this revival was also something of a rescue campaign in aid of the local polygraphic industry, which was at worse than a low ebb at that time. A decade later the competition was established as a nationwide event underpinned by central Czech and Slovak book culture and organized by the Museum of Czech Literature. Since that year, i.e. 1965, the most beautiful Czech books have been announced on a regular basis.
Until 1992 the organizers on the Czech side were the Ministry of Culture and the Museum of Czech Literature. On the Slovak side they were Slovenské ustredie knižnéj kultúry (Slovak Centre for Book Culture) and Matice slovenská (Slovak Foundation). These institutions regularly took turns to perform the organizational duties and to chair the panel. However, as of the following year the competition began its existence in the new political, economic and cultural circumstances, undergoing fairly complex development associated with changes in its statutes, procedural rules, categorization system, criteria for selecting the set of most beautiful books, as well as the type and number of prizes awarded. The competition category names and details have changed to a small extent over the years, with the fine-press category in particular alternately discontinued and then brought back into the competition regulations. The panel currently awards prizes in seven categories including specialist literature, belles-lettres, books for children and young adults, school textbooks at all levels and other didactic aids, artistic and pictorial publications, catalogues and not least, fine-press books together with special artists’ books. The award is made up of a diploma and a financial prize of 50,000 Kč for first place in each category. Other prizes are also awarded outside the above categories for associations and groups, whose representatives are members of special committees for a year. The Association of Commercial Printers awards a prize to Czech printers for their polygraphic work, while the TypoDesignClub assesses graphic work, the Hollar Association of Czech Graphic Artists focuses on illustration work in books, the Society of Czech Bibliophiles awards the Vojtěch Preissig Prize, and 2013 also saw the introduction of an Under-Thirties Prize awarded by the Museum of Applied Art together with the Museum of Czech Literature.
If we are to speak of beautiful and the most beautiful books then we also have to present the chief criterion used by the specialist competition panel to assess them, even though the words “most beautiful” are actually considered by many to be rather problematic. For example, Ondřej Chrobák, the head curator of the Moravian Gallery in Brno has come up against these contentious words in conversation with members of the panel for the Most Beautiful Czech Books of 2013 catalogue. Here he raises the question whether or not “beauty” is a relevant term to gauge the visual quality of contemporary books. Iva Knobloch considers the word to be appropriate enough within the context, referring to Dingeman Kuilman, who himself calls for consideration in terms of beauty to be brought back into the evaluation of similar competitions. He agrees with his definition of beauty as a transformative power and an expressive, spiritual value, rather than an aesthetic, formal one. Zdeněk Freisleben, Director and Directorate member at the Museum of Czech Literature is of a similar opinion, i.e. that the most beautiful book comprises a set of values primarily at the level of feelings.
However, it is also important to point out that a book should not just be beautiful for its own sake, as user accessibility should also be taken into account, particularly within the target group for which the book is created and the category that the topic of the publication comes under. Hence assessment places emphasis on the characteristic interconnections between form and content, which are involved not only in Czech books, but also in those from other European countries where the competition takes place, such as Switzerland, Germany, Austria, Slovakia and the Netherlands. Iva Knobloch adds that one basic criterion is the way the graphic work resonates with the content. By way of example he presents a series of poetry books that have been entered in the competition. Although they have been designed to a high standard, they do not always match the literary genre or subject, so unfortunately they cannot even be shortlisted. A beautiful book ought to be well thought out both in terms of design and overall concept.
A total of 262 books were entered for the 2014 competition, with over 50 of them being ranked. Whereas in some categories the panel decided not to make an award in just some of the sections, no prize at all was awarded in the belles-lettres category, while in the textbooks category only Volba povolání bez předsudků – Choosing a Profession without Prejudice (Gender Studies) was selected. On the other hand, in some categories the panel members struggled with the difficult task of choosing just three of the most successful titles, so the quality of other publications was at least reflected in the narrower selection. Over the last few years it has been possible to follow the remarkable output of books for children and young adults in particular. First place went to a book by Michal Bystrov Nech ten mech – Leave the Moss (Meander), second place to Před půlnocí 1 a 2 – Before Midnight, by Martin Kubát (Arbor vitae) and third place to Jak zvířata spí – How Animals Sleep by Jiří Dvořák (Baobab). Top of the specialist literature category was a publication by Martin Hejl 2x 100 mil. m² (Kolmo.eu), while the award for the most beautiful catalogue went to Kateřina Šedá for her Everything is perfect (Kateřina Šedá). Ranking top of the art book category was Mezera – Gap by Lenka Lindauerová (Společnost Jindřicha Chalupeckého, Yinachi) and first place in the fine-press and artists’ book category went to a book by Marek Ehrenberger and Zula Jura Pajzle no. 1 – Dive No. 1 (Žurek Publishing).
The spotlight should also fall on the efforts made by the students who won the Arno Sáňka Prize. The panel was particularly taken by Martin Pulicar’s author’s book Hic sunt leones, which charted some of the more inaccessible reaches of Brno, while being unofficially the first book in the Czech Republic to deal with the subject of urban exploring. In this case the panel appreciated the fact that Martin Pulicar not only wrote and designed the book, but also quite responsibly “crawled” through and photographed Brno. Hence this was not just a question of the form, but he also put effort into collecting the content, which earned him the first prize. Second place went to a comics book called Sofistikovaný had Arnold – Arnold the Sophisticated Snake by Andrea Jarošová and Zuzana Bramborová, while third place was shared by the Jaro – Spring comics by Marek Šindelka and Nikola Logosová and the Jeptiše comics by Lucie Lučanská.
The most beautiful Czech books, both the winners and the shortlisted publications, are displayed each year at several locations. For example, at the Moravian Gallery in Brno the award-winning books are on view until 6th March, and then until 29th May at the National Technical Museum in Prague, where they are on display to great effect at the Printing Exhibition, which documents the development of typeface production, primary printing techniques and bookbinding. Over the last two years the Museum of Czech Literature has also taken part in the international Designblok review of the most successful book output.
First and foremost, however, an exhibition is arranged every year in association with a grand ceremony on Museum of Czech Literature premises. As mentioned above, this year saw an exceptional exhibition project associated with the celebrations to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the competition, which was on display at the Star Summer Palace from 23rd April to 2nd September. The competition anniversary has now presented the Museum of Czech Literature with an opportunity to look back at previous years. As the exhibition title Book Report indicates, the main aim of the project was to present the public with new information on past and present book production, as well as a vision of the future of books.
The conceptual approach to the presentation of the most beautiful books selected by Petr Babák, Jakub Jansa and Lukáš Kijonka came to creative terms with the limits of traditional exhibition media, while going over and beyond normal conventions. More than a thousand books were freely displayed around the exhibition premises at the Star Summer Palace.
Visitors were allowed to touch the award-winning publications from over the last year of the competition, while the visual form of the books from previous years was presented in videos shown on the ceiling of the Star Summer Palace, as well as on the internet at bookreport.cz following the end of the exhibition. The exhibition designers chose an alternative presentation method, replacing classic display cases with a technology designed specially for this exhibition, which it is anticipated will also be used by other memory institutions. An example of a video used at the exhibition can be seen here:
At the bookreport.cz website you may also have a look at the third section of the exhibition entitled The Book Above All, which contains videos of people from the future talking to us and presenting a report on what they think books are and are not. Ideally, The Book Above All will raise questions over whether the rapid development of technology will not spell the end of books and whether it is appropriate to consider the future of this medium sceptically.
Hynek Alt, Director of the College of Applied Arts Photography Studio in Prague and founding member of Format 1, a platform for contemporary photography and art (together with Aleksandra Vajd), is of the opinion that in spite of the digital revolution we have not rejected books, because as readers we are unable to free ourselves from the physical experience associated with the physical book. A similar view is held by lithographer and graphic designer Robert V. Novák, who for example considers it a basic mistake to call e-books “books”, because books have a different structure and also interpret the actual subject in a particular way. An e-book is a different medium and thus a different way of considering and looking at things.
Hence we can only hope that books, including the most beautiful ones, will continue to be part of our lives for at least another fifty years. And I think that at least some of you will agree with me that the words of photographer Martin Polák are highly appropriate for such an optimistic conclusion: “I would like to say that one other thing is amazing about books, and that is libraries. That is almost the greatest pleasure that life can provide: having a library and seeing it. Looking at a book. Hard disks do not offer that so much.”
Translated by Melvyn Clarke
Lucie Faulerová is a production manager at the Museum of Czech Literature and secretary of the Most Beautiful Czech Book of the Year competition. She is also an editor of the Aluze literary journal and a literary theory doctoral student at Palacký University in Olomouc.