Altered book: “Shards of History” by Catherine Davis

CDavisFleursdumal1Before creating something new, it is often necessary to destroy something already existing. When an institution rooted in hundreds of years of tradition and convention is destroyed, what is left behind? Mere shards of the past? Damage? Ruins? Or does something of beauty emerge? Is it even appropriate or relevant to wonder?

 During my senior year of college, I was enrolled in “A Revolution in Fiction.” For my final creative project, I chose to make an altered book that addressed questions that had been running through my mind during the course of the semester. As a French and English major, I am most interested in poetry. I enjoy the manipulation of language, and how we can use it to discover what most troubles or fascinates us. Accordingly, I went to a used book store and bought a beautiful copy of Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal.

 I chose this book for two reasons. First, it was a book of Baudelaire’s poetry that I had already read and deeply enjoyed. Second, Les Fleurs du Mal is undoubtedly one of the most famous and well-loved works of French literature. And so, to take this book and alter it, perhaps even damage or ruin it, would be something shocking and provoking. I was aware that it could cause anger or disgust, but I hoped that I could turn it into a thing of beauty – a thing uniquely my own, but a thing that others could observe and think about. My main goal was to use this book to evoke emotions – whatever those emotions might be.

 My project’s title is Shards of History; its themes are chaos, change, and the consequences of change. I wanted to play with textures, colors, and shapes while combining images and elements of the French Revolution with the traditional poetry of Baudelaire. I cut, glued, tore, covered, added, and erased. I attempted to create at the same time that I was destroying. I used the poetry already in the book to accompany the images, by crossing out lines until each poem said what I wanted it to. Some of the materials that I used were colored tissue paper, embroidery thread, gold-colored foil, pieces of a shattered mirror, false flowers, dried flowers, and candle wax.

On the cover, I glued a small bunch of false flowers next to the title, and broken mirror bits to symbolize the destruction of tradition. Juxtaposed to that is an image of the executioner holding up the head of Louis XVI to the crowd to add a sense of shock and disgust.

 On the first pages, I glued black construction paper over both pages, but left five words uncovered – “c’est le cri de l’homme.” Those words seemed like the perfect opening for the project, and the appropriate phrase to summarize the French Revolution and its purpose as an outcry of an oppressed people as well as its resulting violence and bloodshed.

 I burned several pages to show the theme of destruction and ending. On some pages, I added images of the royal family, as well as materials that demonstrated their wealth and power. However, mixed in with those pages are others filled with violent images of the Revolution. One page has an image of Louis XVI cut up and pasted again all over it, to predict his fate at the guillotine. And throughout the pages, the words of Baudelaire accompany, and in some cases, provide a foil for, these provoking images.

 In the end, I grew very attached to my project. It became more than just a final project for a one-semester class. I had thought long and hard about my title, my themes, my procedures, and the questions that I wanted to invoke and process. It made the French Revolution come alive to me, and it gave me the opportunity to express what I learned through my own medium, so that it will continue to be important to me throughout my life. It remains a part of my learning experience and a part of myself, a work of creative art that won’t be forgotten with the many papers, exams, and homework assignments of college.

 By Catherine Davis, University of Notre Dame, B.A. 2009


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