Thursday, June 10, 2010

Lothar Meggendorfer Animates The Inanimate

Deep within a secret atelier in Munich, Germany, circa 1880-1900, a mad artist with a mechanical turn of mind was bringing life to the inanimate. A photo survives of his first success:

"It's alive! It's alive!"

People, however, were none too pleased about his experiments so, in a desperate attempt to avoid a torch and pitchfork-bearing posse of villagers seeking vengeance and on the prowl for his blood, he changed his name, underwent extensive cosmetic surgery, turned away from humans and began working on books. Books that had life, and were animated. Books that moved. But were no threat to families and children. Children could, indeed, delight in them. The burghermeister could sleep easily, the Prefect of Police, relax.

"The book is the life, Mr. Renfield." 
(Whoops. Sorry, wrong story).

If you want life in your books, look no further than Dr. Frankenstein, er, Lothar Meggendorfer's movable books. Specifically,  one of his rarest, a book that, according to ABPC, has not come to auction within the last thirty-five years, with no copies, per OCLC  and KVK, in institutional holdings worldwide.

"It's alive! It's All Alive!"
(First U.K. edition, scarce).

What's the big megillah with Meggendorfer?

"Quite simply, Meggendorfer turned the mechanical toy book into a work of art. He was the supreme master of animation: every gesture, both animal and human, is conveyed with uncanny precision via the primitive but - in his hands - versatile medium of moveable paper parts. but the pictures do more than move; they come passionately to life…Meggendorfer captures the essential gesture in his moving pictures and that is his genius..." (Maurice Sendak, The Genius of Lothar Meggendorfer. p. 1).

Lothar Meggendorfer (post-surgery).

"While Meggendorfer was an inventor, working with paper, he was also an artist of great talent," says modern master, Waldo H. Hunt, "who insisted upon handling most of the details required of multicolored lithography...But what really set Meggendorfer apart, and what has continued to fascinate collectors of his work, are the ingenious mechanizations that he achieved, not just for their own sake but to fulfill and enhance the comic or dramatic effect that he had in mind" (Introduction to The Genius of Lothar Megendorfer).

“There is little doubt that the most elaborate and ingenious movables ever produced were those of the German Lothar Meggendorfer (1847-1925) made during the 1880s and 1890s…the mechanisms and operations of Meggendorfer’s books—not to mention the originality of his figures—are far superior to any others published before or since.…'They were marvels of ingenuity…Usually several movements took place at the same time on the same page' (Eric Quayle)…The devices that operated the various figures in Meggendorfer’s books consisted of a series of inter-connecting cardboard levers sandwiched between the coloured illustration on the front of the oblong leaf and the dummy pasted behind it. The animated limbs and heads were cut-out models on the front of the picture, and moving the tab set the whole scene in motion…Needless to say, such was the delicacy of Meggendorfer's machinery that if a child pulled too hard the whole thing could be ruined beyond repair” (Haining, Movable Books, pp. 65-73).

Pull tab at bottom and the cows bob the trough.
From All Alive.

Despite Meggendorfer's charming admonition that "Men and creatures here you find/Are lively and amusing;/You fingers must be slow and kind/And treat them well while using," the books were routinely subjected to rough treatment by the enchanted children who enthusiastically played with them.

Given the circumstances, it's something of a miracle that any have survived in collectible condition.

MEGGENDORFER, Lothar. All Alive. A Movable Toybook by Lothar Meggendorfer. London: H. Grevel & Co., [n.d., ca. 1885-90].

First English edition of Lebener Tierbilder (1884). Large folio (12 15/16 x 9 5/16 inches; 329 x 235 mm.). [17], [1, blank] pp. Lithographed preface and eight full-page chromolithographed plates (included in pagination), each of which has a movable tab to set the scene in motion. Each plate with a leaf of text opposite.

Meggendorfer resources:

The Originality and Artistry of Lothar Meggendorfer, University of Virginia.

Aleph-Bet Books, the respected childrens lit. specialists, has as complete a bibliography of Meggendorfer as can be found in English, based upon books they have now, or have had in the past.

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