Friday, March 02, 2007

Typographic notes from all over I: Monet in Normandy

Last weekend I visited the Cleveland Museum of Art, where “Monet in Normandy” is currently on view. Learned a lot, enjoyed the show. Yada yada. I’m not an art critic. I’m a typographer.

As with many traveling exhibits of this sort, the curators provided paragraphs of background information on the gallery walls. Sometimes the lettering is applied using laser-cut vinyl. In this instance, although I did not rub my fingers against it to check, I think the text was silk-screened onto the walls.

The graphic artist who executed the wall panels chose a font based on Claude Monet’s handwriting to use for the titles. Going from memory, I suspect it was this one:

P22 Monet Regular
This is a considerably more graceful and legible handwriting font than the actual hand it was based on, although I suspect Monet’s handwriting as a young man may have been closer to what the font represents than this autograph suggests.

Anyway, that was a nice touch, but the text font the designer chose is anachronistic. It was a font designed by Hermann Zapf in the mid-twentieth century, probably this one (still going from memory):

Palatino Linotype
This seems inappropriate in the context of nineteenth century France. It is more evocative of sixteenth century Italy and was never the sort of letterform popular in France. In any case, it is anachronistic as it did not exist in its modern incarnation during Monet’s life I found it jarring. While I grant that not many museum visitors are as consciously aware of such subtleties as a working typographer is, nonetheless the whole point of font choice is to evoke a subconscious sensibility of period, place, and mood.

I think that had I been consulted, I would have chosen something very French and very formal, such as this:

Didot LP
It would have contrasted nicely with the soft, diffuse paintings, and it would have been a font very much part of Monet’s physical environs.

Such an extreme, rationalist font, though, can present legibility problems and that’s something I’d have wanted to test. As a fallback, if it turned out not to be a workable solution, I might have chosen something we associate with an earlier period in France, like this:

Stempel Garamond
Inappropriate, anachronistic typography is all around. See if you notice.

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