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Book review | A Mysterious Accord: 65 Maximiliana, or the Illegal Practice of Astronomy

19 March 2014 | By Rosie Rockel

p. 6,Maximiliana, Guillaume Tempel. Iliazd (Paris: 1964)

Mostly we experience art in public. Aside from those few with art collections of their own, most people know art only in a room that is not their own, in the company of strangers. In this regard, the art book is different from any other form of visual art. It is necessarily exclusive, offering each consumer a private experience. It invites you to feel its weight, to slip away to a private place and pore over it in indulgent solitude. The art book is an intimate affair. The Georgian Ilia Zdanevich (1894-1975), who called himself Iliazd, was the master of the art book, and '65 Maximiliana, or the Illegal Practice of Astronomy' is perhaps the most indulgent art book of all.

Based on the writings of almost-forgotten 19th-century astronomer Guillaume Ernst Albrecht Tempel, Maximiliana was dreamt up nearly twenty years before it was realised. It was a late-career collaboration between Iliazd and Max Ernst: both men were in their seventies by the time it was published in Paris in 1964. Best known for his surrealist paintings, Ernst learnt lithography late in his career, and the medium forms a bond across a century to book's author, Tempel, who was himself a lithographer by trade. Tempel's true passion, however, was astronomy and his life's achievement was the discovery of a distant planet he christened 'Maximiliana'. Sadly Tempel was not a eligible to be a member of the National Society of Astronomers, who cruelly refused to credit him and renamed his cherished planet 'Cybille'.

   Title page, page 34

Maximiliana is a collection of his bitter ramblings. The text is composed of individual sentences in French, Italian and German that Iliazd extracted from Tempel’s notebooks. He rearranged them, clipped them, emended them and painstakingly arranged their individual letters across the page. Throughout the book, letters resemble stars in the night sky, at once random and again not random, goading you to see patterns where there are none. In a calligram visually playing out the astronomer's words, letters descend the page as if charting the course of a shooting star falling to earth.

Page 34, page 13

Maximiliana's rarity – a single edition of 65 was printed – coupled with its exquisite quality make it one of the most luxurious books ever made. You are conscious of dark ink clinging to fine paper, of weighty binding and thick board, and the lingering ghosts of metal typeset, press and lithographic blocks. Iliazd takes pains to make us aware of the book’s production, to show that no corners were cut or expense spared. If the paperback - simple vector for a writer’s missive - sits at one end of the spectrum, Maximiliana lies at the very opposite end, where a book is a covetous art-object of beauty, a homage to the traditional skills of printing, lithography and paper making.

He understood that the book is the only medium in which both text and image function as substantive entities embedded within a complete object, and that this object is capable of a sophistication and complexity of concept far beyond that of either text or image alone. The mimetic relationship of text and image is demonstrated on the title page, where the text’s formation mirrors the enlarged silhouette figure of one of Ernst’s lithographs. These blow-ups are scattered throughout the book, the enlargement overlaying the original, creating an impression not only of perspective but, significantly, of shadows projected across vast areas of space. If Maximiliana is about one thing, it is distance, not only in the sense of physical space and time but also social distance, obscurity and ostracision.

Page 7, page 41

Iliazd rejoiced in a coincidence of names and arranged the author’s full name – Guillaume Ernst Albrecht Tempel – and the name of the planet – Maximiliana – so that a constellation of letters reading ‘Max Ernst’ appears on the page, forming another bond between the two men, and implying that Ernst himself is a mere creation, dreamt up as a pseudonym for an anonymous illustrator. Such tenebrous coherences and fleeting coincidences are carefully woven into the architecture of the book so that the reader-viewer is never quite sure of what he sees. You are at the mercy of Iliazd’s careful constructions of implication and half-chance and left to wonder what is real, and who is the real author: Tempel, Ernst or the inscrutable Iliazd? Their identities become mingled; each man’s contribution made uncertain by the others'.

On the face of it, Maximiliana is not a literary work; it is a publication of the correspondence and journals of a real individual, Tempel, and edited by Iliazd. But by extracting, truncating, rearranging and displaying Tempel’s words according to his own design and illuminating them with Ernst’s lithography, Iliazd becomes the author of the book, he is its creator and its vision is entirely his.

Maximiliana can be enjoyed by anyone (with proof of address and a valid ID) at the Kandinsky Libraryin Paris.