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How to learn art history through typography

Artist Arvind Sundar's new book re-imagines famous artists as typeface designers

Art History Typography
Art History Typography (Courtesy Arvind Sundar)

Arvind Sundar says his first glimpse of Jackson Pollock’s One: Number 31, 1950 at The Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 2015 changed his life. Till then, he hadn’t even heard of the abstract expressionist. But seeing that painting, one of Pollock’s largest experiments with his “drip” technique, made the Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu-based artist and designer realise he wanted to be a painter. “It was a turning point for me,” says the 27-year-old, who has a master’s in fine arts (painting) from the University of Cincinnati, US.

Unsurprisingly, then, the letter P in Sundar’s latest project, a book featuring typefaces inspired by artists he loves, stands for Pollock. The letter, executed in Pollock’s drip technique, has been created by hand, scanned and edited, says Sundar, adding that every letter in the book, Art History Typography, reflects the aesthetic and practice of the artist it represents. So the letter O, after American artist Georgia O’Keeffe, is simply a close-up of a magnified flower, a recurring motif in her work. Pop artist Andy Warhol is represented by the letter W, through stacked Campbell’s soup cans. A monkey peeps from behind the letter K for Frida Kahlo—the artist kept the animals as pets and often included them in her self-portraits.

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The book, now available on Curio by the Floating Canvas Company, contains a range of artists from the 14th-21st centuries, covering a wide span of history from the Renaissance to post-modernism. For Sundar, the starting point was: What if famous artists were typeface designers? “I designed the typefaces putting myself in the shoes of great artists who have been the inspiration for my art practice,” he says.

Arvind Sundar
Arvind Sundar

The idea first came when he decided to participate last year in 36 Days of Type, an annual initiative that “invites designers, illustrators and graphic artists to express their particular interpretation of the letters and numbers of the Latin alphabet”. Sundar, who says typefaces were easy for him since he also has a background in design, chose art history as a theme. “I knew nothing about art history when I went to the US.... Everyone else in the class had studied it at the undergraduate level,” he says wryly. He had to teach himself in six months, so he started visiting all the major museums in the US. It not only allowed him to learn but gave him a different perspective on art history.

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Earlier this year, he decided to put together the typefaces he had designed into a book, one that reflects his own experience of learning about the history of art through paintings. Art History Typography is structured almost like a children’s alphabet book, with a letter on one side and a picture of the artwork that inspired the typeface on the other. So, for example, the double-spread representing the letter A opens with a close-up of Milanese painter Giuseppe Arcimboldo’s Vertumnus on the left, with a stylistic letter A, entwined with the fruits and vegetables the artist is so famous for, on the right. This helps build context for the typography and acquaints readers with the artist, believes Sundar. “I designed this book as an educational tool for both adults and children,” he says.

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