Is the best art book of the year one that is not only impossible for me to review, but one that is probably equally impossible for you to understand?
This reissue of Codex Seraphinianus is a book so obscure, so cryptic, that there is no real context for it, but the fascination arises from staring at it until patterns emerge. Maybe. If you can make them emerge. Or is it all a mind game.
The work of Italian artist Serafini, created in a stretch between 1976 and 1978, and originally published in 1981.
Encyclopedic in nature, the book seems to be partitioned according to basic thematic designations, the beginning most definitely has something to do with plants, though at some point, some root vegetable appears with a spigot going through it. There is also a diagram of a tree losing all its leaves from something that looks like a cross between an apple and a comet.
There are tables of content that are useless unless you understand the language, charts of specimens of little colorful rainbow squiggles, diagrams of underground mazes, examples of peculiar fish and birds, low tech human/machine hybrids, examples of the transformation of fornicating humans into a single alligator, bizarre native costumes and matching shacks, examples of unusual and fairly useless looking helmets and gauntlets and cloaks, and much, more that borders on the indescribable.
The point, it seems, is to ask what the point of all this is. It reminds me of the science encyclopedias from my childhood, like the type that Golden Books would put out, mixed with more historical texts, such as those by Pliny the Elder, with a dash of wunderkammer thrown in. But like the encyclopedias that pop up now and then of imaginary lands and things like that, this is a reference book for things that don’t exist – or, more properly, only exist inside the brain of Serafini who has mixed the whimsical drawing with equally playful madeup typeface to create something that is either fun or confounding, or the best parts of both. It’s a handsome, hilarious and enduring puzzle that not only features wonderful art in it, but in its entirety captures another kind of human creativity – the encyclopedia, the result of compiling and collecting, and an unlikely medium for artists.