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The rules of the First International Ex-Libris Competition, Ankara 2003: a model for other competitions

From time to time, some readers ask me about “FISAE Guidelines” that suggest how to write the rules of ex libris competitions.

Point is, as confirmed to me by FISAE President, prof. William Butler, there are no rules as such. In other words, FISAE does not have guidelines to set up rules for an ex libris competition.

I really asked the question around to a lot of people, until Mr. José Vicente de Bragança came with the answer.

What some people mistakenly think as “FISAE Guidelines”, is really Luc van den Briele’s article.

The article can be found here.

I also post it below. It was published in the catalogue of the First International Ex-libris Competition of Ankara, 2004

The rules of the First International Ex-Libris Competition, Ankara 2003: a model for other competitions.

by Luc van den Briele

Luc van den Briele is a Belgian playwright, editor of Graphia, well-known ex-libris specialist and member of numerous competition juries.

Having adopted a new listing of abbreviations for graphic techniques, the International Federation of Ex-libris Associations (FISAE) should tackle the problem of proposing standard rules that can be a model for all organisers of competitions. The need for standard rules has already long been felt amongst the organisers of serious bookplate competitions and only the advocates of pseudo-ex-libris will feel slightly uncomfortable should the FISAE develop such a model. It is mainly through various dubious competitions that this degeneration of ex-libris art was given the opportunity to spread like a harmful virus.

The success of the first international ex-libris competition organised by Hacettepe University and the Ankara Ex-libris Society is partly based on its excellent competition rules. These rules were prepared with great care and can certainly serve as a first step towards the drafting of FISAE standard rules.

In the introductory text of ex-libris competition rules, the purpose and background of the competition and the motives of the organisers must always be clearly stated. In the also serious rules of competitions organised by the International Exlibris Centre of Sint-Niklaas, the purpose reads as follows: to “stimulate the interest in ex-libris as small-size graphic art and propagate the artistic value of the bookplate used as a token of ownership in books”. The introductory text of the Ankara competition rules asks for “authentic ex-libris prints of the highest aesthetic, artistic and technical quality, created as marks of ownership for books”. It is important that the introduction always gives a clear definition of ex-libris and draws the attention of artists to the relation between book and bookplate.

Some bookplate competitions impose an obligatory theme. It is important for the participants that the imposed theme is very clearly defined and that background information is provided. A bibliography or a list of websites (that are linked with the proposed theme) can perhaps be added. But a few competitions – and this was the choice of the Ankara competition, stated in article 1 of its rules – do not propose an obligatory theme. Freedom of theme widens the scope for artists and reflects better the daily reality of relations between bibliophiles and graphic artists. A great variety of themes also offer more possibilities for an attractive and gripping exhibition.

Article 2 of the Ankara rules announces “there are no restrictions regarding printmaking techniques”, but it draws attention to the fact that: “original drawings or sketches are not accepted, nor are copies made by electrostatic process such as photocopy”. In some other competition rules, original photographic creations and computer designs are mentioned specifically as acceptable techniques, as some doubts as to these techniques still persists. An exact definition of what are accepted and refused graphic techniques is of course necessary.

The text of article 3 of the Ankara competition rules can be used as backbone for all serious bookplate competitions. It shuts the doors to nearly all possibilities of pseudo-ex-libris. It reads as follows: the participating bookplates “must be conceived as ex-libris, i. e. as small-format art graphics made to be pasted into books and to identify their owner. They should include, integrated with the image, the words ‘Ex libris …’ or an equivalent (for example ‘from the library of …’, ‘This book belongs to …’, etc.), together with the name of a living person or of a library of a currently existing institution by whom or by which it was commissioned, or to whom or to which the ex-libris is dedicated”. That article draws again attention to the relation between book and bookplate, by clearly stating that the exlibris must have a real owner – a living person or the library of a currently existing institution. If the owner is an institution, it can be important to mention that the institution has to have some relation to the theme. Also the reference to a library is important; the numerous ex-libris that have been sent to the competitions of the International Exlibris Centre in Sint-Niklaas with the sole mention “Ex libris Sint-Niklaas” are very close to the nonsense of the disreputable “Ex libris Lago Maggiore” in Italy.

Article 4 in the rules of the Ankara competition is an important extension of article 3; it highlights the need for artistic authenticity in the participating bookplates, by asking that “three prints of each ex-libris should be submitted” and that “each print should be signed or initialled by the artist”. The rest of the text in article 4 strengthens the efforts to refuse all possible forms of pseudo-ex-libris: “if the artist has not used Latin alphabet in the printed inscription, he is requested to write a translation into English on the back of the print. Also, if for reasons of design he/she has exceptionally chosen to integrate into the image only the owner’s initials, the artist is requested to write the owner’s full name on the back of the print”. Every owner has, of course, the right to prefer only initials on some of his bookplates. But in competitions, initials are sometimes used to disguise a fake owner. In 2003, the International Exlibris Centre of Sint-Niklaas not only asked for information about the name of the bookplate owner, but also a declaration containing his agreement: “in order to guarantee the authenticity of the bookplate, and to protect privacy, bookplates may only be submitted” with “the express permission of the person for whom they were made… The same applies for libraries of organisations”. That declaration also includes the agreement to use the bookplate in exhibitions and its reproduction in catalogues. It demonstrates the importance of authenticity, but goes perhaps a step too far, because the exchange of a written declaration between artist and owner (especially if they are living in different countries) is not always easy to organise.

Some competition rules ask specifically for a full owner’s name, for example in the French Butor competition the use of initials was not allowed. Other competitions impose not only an owner’s name, but also a thematic text. Such a text can be useful, but is not really necessary, especially if the illustration contains sufficient theme-related information.

Article 5 of the Ankara rules outlines that “the printed surface of the ex-libris should not exceed 130 mm x 130 mm, nor should the support (paper) be larger than 210 mm x 210 mm”. In the rules of the International Exlibris Centre of Sint-Niklaas, a same maximum printed surface is proposed on a maximum support of 200 mm x 150 mm, but more important, it requests that the participating ex-libris “must not be framed, nor mounted, nor fixed to another piece of paper, cardboard or any other material. In selecting the printing paper and the techniques to be used, the artist should bear in mind the purpose of a bookplate. The bookplates submitted should be delivered ready for use in the intended manner. They should be able to be glued, as they are, without the need for cutting, framing or any other intervention”. That text again underlines the relation between book and bookplate. It allows the jury once more to eliminate anything which cannot be used as a normal bookplate or that smells of pseudo-ex-libris. The words “ready for use in the intended matter” can of course also close the door on sometimes very attractive but too experimental work. A broad interpretation of  “intended matter” can be taken into serious consideration, but daring or provocative artistic experiments are only acceptable as far as they can be used as bookplates in a book.

Article 6 of the Ankara competition rules gives a deadline for the submission of the participating ex-libris: “the stamped postal date being decisive”. Such a deadline can only be used if the jury deliberates three or four weeks after the deadline. To avoid problems with slow working postal services, it is perhaps better to use the deadline proposition in the rules of the International Exlibris Centre of Sint-Niklaas: the exlibris must “arrive before” the deadline.

The address for correspondence can be given in the same or in the following article (7).

Article 8 of the Ankara competition rules gives the composition of the jury. The names of the jury members and their qualifications can sometimes guarantee the seriousness of the competition. A good mix of print artists, art critics and experienced bookplate collectors can bring the best possible balance in a jury.

Article 9 of the Ankara competition rules gives the list of prizes. Money can sometimes be an important incentive for artistic activity, but the mention of a prize is an important element in the biographical documentation of an artist.

A jury has of course the right to split some prizes or not to grant them for lack of artistic quality. In its article 10, the Ankara competition rules also mention these possibilities, but also explain that the decisions of the jury will be influenced by “the authenticity and originality” of the ex-libris, “by their artistic, technical and aesthetic merit and the quality of the relation between image and inscription in the composition”. The possibility to attribute honourable mentions was already announced in article 9. The number of potential prize-winners can be larger than the number of prizes and honourable mentions can then be an acceptable way out for the jury and an important encouragement for worthy losers, especially if they are young artists.

Some of the last articles in ex-libris competition rules usually give practical information as to the exhibition of the prize-winning and selected ex-libris and about the catalogue. Articles 11 and 12 of the Ankara rules announce two exhibitions, but also the possibility of more “if suitable venues are found”. And the catalogue “will be sent to each participant included in the catalogue. A contribution to postage fees may be requested from non-Turkish participants”. It can be assumed that the last sentence is only inspired by a fear of financial troubles. In one of its final articles, the rules of the ex-libris competitions in Sint-Niklaas leave no doubt: “all selected participants will receive a catalogue”. It must be the rule rather than the exception that each artist with a reproduction in the catalogue receives a free copy of that book.

In its article 13, the rules of the Ankara ex-libris competition state that “the safety of submissions during posting and delivery should be ensured, for example by registered post”. And: “submissions will not be returned”. Only a few artists have problems with the non-returning of the sent ex-libris. One of the three requested copies is nearly always integrated in the collection of a museum or ex-libris documentation centre, the two other copies are used for immediate or later exhibitions and for reproduction in the catalogue and eventually in later publications. Here again, some competitions for pseudo-ex-libris are the exception by asking more than three copies of each ex-libris (for the ‘Salone del Libro’ competition in Italy – and that is only one example – six prints had to be sent and the prize-winners had to send another fifty prints!) Nothing is mentioned as to happens to all these ex-libris, but it is not very difficult to imagine what will finally become of them.

A brief curriculum vitae is asked in article 14 of the Ankara competition rules. The artists who participate in the competitions of Sint-Niklaas are not only asked to provide extensive information about themselves but also about the owner and the theme of the ex-libris. All that information can be very useful for future research on the art history of contemporary ex-libris.

The final article 15 of the Ankara competition rules is obviously also the final article in most other ex-libris competitions. Participating artists are “considered to have accepted” the “terms and conditions” of the competition and to agree with “the decisions of the jury”. That article prevents the possibility of controversial and endless discussions.

Let us hope that FISAE will use the excellent rules of the “First international ex-libris competition – Ankara 2003” as a strong backbone in its drafting of standard rules for all ex-libris competitions.