Ex libris

Ex libris means bookplate, a small multiplied graphic work pasted into the book, on the inside front cover, identifying the book owner. Typically, it contains the owner’s name or a symbol that refers to them or their gratifications. According to its original function, it identified the library where the book belonged to. Lots of graphic artists undertake creating bookplates even today, so the art-historical significance of ex libris labels is indisputable. The first bookplates decorated the books of Cardinal Thomas Wolsey and those of Willibald Pirckheimer. Pirckheimer’s bookplate was etched by Albrecht Dürer himself, who excelled both in wood-cutting and copperplate engraving techniques. Not surprisingly, ex libris – as a tiny work of art- became the object of collections in the course of time. Some proportion of them never gets into books, but remains stock of barter for collectors.

The history of ex lbiris

In the Middle Ages, owners of codices used to tie their treasured books to the bookshelves for fear that they might be stolen. This might be regarded as the origin of bookplates. The original function of ex librises was to identify the certain library where the book belonged to and to protect the book as well.
If one opens a handwritten codex and looks into its decorating page, typically, the coat of arms of the owner is painted on it. Owners wrote their names in codices and even later on, after the invention of book printing they did the same. Often, they also added a sentence or a poem beside the name.  But most of these texts was a polite request for their friends, asking them not to forget to give the book back to the owner.
Today’s bookplates are made by multiplier graphic processes like: woodcut, lino-cut and copperplate engraving.

Hungarian ex librises

Dr. Lustig István ügyvéd - 	Balatoni Múzeum, CC BY-NC-ND
The oldest Hungarian ex libris is from the 16th century and belonged to János Teilnkes, a book collector from Pressburg (Pozsony). Until the end of the 18th century, a bookplate usually had a coat of arms. Excellent examples are the Corvinas of King Matthias, on which the king’s coat of arms can be seen embossed. Owners were mainly clericals, patrons of literature and book admiring aristocrats. Marking the era, the Hungarian ex libris texts of that century were mostly in Latin, or rarely in German, but never in Hungarian.
By the 19th century ex libris had gone out of fashion almost completely. A significant recovery and the boom of collecting activities restarted only later.

Ex libris collections

Librarians recognized the book historical importance of bookplates, thus they started their scientific process. There was a change during the 19th and 20th centuries regarding the history of real ex librises that functioned as bookplates. Emancipated from being tied to books, they became quasi ex librises, thus they were created just for collectors and in order to enrich the graphic collections of owners. The first ex libris collecting associations were formed and professional magazines were launched. Associations were formed mostly in big cities, where the vivid culture life made collectors possible to meet, exchange and make bookplates to themselves. Not surprisingly, ex libris collecting was the popular activity of the middle-class intellectuals primarily.
Owing to the first Hungarian ex libris exhibition in the Museum of Applied Arts in 1903, a more serious collecting life began. The collection of the Museum of Applied Arts contains almost seventy thousand bookplates, which is one of the biggest collections in the world, thus it is a rich thesaurus of relics from famous graphic artists and illustrious book collectors in this genre.
The majority of the collection came from three famous collectors: Kálmán Rozsnyay (also known as a graphic artist), Viktor Kühnemann and world-famous biology professor Dr. Rezső Soó.

"Ex Libris Dr. Soós Imre, Vincent van Gogh 1853-1890." - Balatoni Múzeum, CC BY-NC-ND
You can see a selection – from the Soó collection – from the works of the following graphic artists: Lajos Kozma, József Menyhárt, Márton Wenczel, Kálmán Gáborjáni Szabó, Béla Stettner, contemporary graphic artist Miklós Bodor. Imre Soós, who is attached to ex librises enthusiastically. He joined the Kisgrafika Barátok Köre (Small Graphics Friends Club) in 1960. Then he specialized in collecting small graphics in the theme of Van Gogh, studied the artist’s work and his Hungarian reception for many years.
The bookplates in our gallery have their own sybolics: the book and the owl means knowledge and information obviously.
These are very popular motifs in ex librises. But a beloved topic of the art nouveau also appears: the question of life and death. People realised soon that ex librises are very suitable for expressing intimacy and daring topics like eroticism. 


Translated by Zita Aknai


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