Livre d'Artiste

Vitaly Mishin

Magazine issue: 
#2 2012 (35)

The Spanish Collection -
Picasso, Dali, Miró, Gris, Clavé, Tàpies,
at the Pushkin Fine Arts Museum

The collections of artists' books amassed by Boris Friedman and George Gens are probably the fullest of their kind in Russia. There comes a point in the life of many collectors when they feel the urge to make the riches at their disposal available to the public. Such were the motives of Friedman, when he approached the Pushkin Fine Arts Museum with a suggestion for cooperation. The museum was pleased to accept: the material on offer was of extremely high quality, and such projects have undoubted educational value. On show from February to the end of March 2012, it was the first an exhibition of its kind in Russia.

Taking up ten rooms in the private collections department of the museum, the exhibition showcased more than 30 books by six leading 20th-century Spanish artists: Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali, Joan Miro, Juan Gris, Antoni Clave and Antoni Tapies. Most artists were allocated two rooms, with Gris and Clave sharing a room. 2011 marked the "year of Spain in Russia", and although the exhibition did not formally open in that year, it was nevertheless planned as one of the special Spanish-themed events. Hence the choice of Spanish masters, although the organizers did not attempt specifically to examine national traits in the works on display. The concept of the livre d'artiste was, of course, born in France. The aim of the project was to draw the attention of the broad Russian art-loving public to this special phenomenon, which occupies a unique place in 20th-century art.

Although the Russian term kniga khudozhnika, like the English "artist's book" is, it seems, a calque from the French livre d'artiste, there are differences in usage. The livre d'artiste is always a kniga khudozhnika, yet an artist's book in the Russian sense is not always a livre d'artiste. In Russian and English, the term indicates the primary importance of the artist's imaginative view, of his or her conception of the interaction between images and text. The French term livre d'artiste possesses the same connotations, whilst also implying a particular approach in the realization of the artist's concept — certain traits, typical of so-called editions de luxe, or fine printing. In order more clearly to define the object of this exhibition, its name, and in all supplementary material the double Russian-French term is used.

A trait typical of livres d'artistes is the use of original printing techniques such as engraving, etching, drypoint, aquatint, xylography and lithography. Occasionally, photography is used. These methods can be supplemented with stamping, stenciling, collage and other techniques emphasizing the book's uniqueness. Livres d'artistes are usually published in small editions of several hundred or, in many cases, several dozen copies. Rather than being stitched, they are most often made up of separate sheets stacked in a case or box. Particular attention is given to the quality of the paper and printing, with different parts often printed on different types of paper. Handmade paper with uneven edges is often used. The typeface is also crucial in setting the style: sometimes, hand-written texts by the author or artist are reproduced, highlighting the "handmade" impression. How much space the text occupies on a page, the general view of each double-page spread, the aesthetic balance between light and dark patches, the proportion of images to text, and the relationships between text, image and background — all are given the most careful consideration.

The artist was most often responsible not only for the illustrations, but for the overall aesthetic image. The artists working on such projects were not in fact illustrators per se; their aim was not so much to interpret the text, producing artistic images to reflect the words, but to create a special object of art.

A project's success, however, depended on the degree of understanding between all of its participants. Besides the artist, these included the author of the text (provided he or she was living, and involved in the work), the publisher and the printer. The roles of each party would differ depending on the project. Sometimes, the same person might take on several functions: artists, for instance, might work with texts they themselves had written. In the best examples of such books, all elements are born of a single artistic vision, and together produce a single synthetic work of art. A particular type of artist's book — that created entirely by one person — became common in the late 20th century.

In principle, a livre d'artiste can be created around any text, be it a famous literary masterpiece, a work by a little-known author, or something written by the artist. Yet in the first few decades of the 20th century, the most interesting examples of livres d'artistes were perhaps those combining text by contemporary writers and poets (such as Guillaume Apollinaire, Andre Breton or Paul Eluard), with images by artists from the same avant-garde circles. In this Parisian literary and artistic milieu, the aesthetics of the livre d'artiste took shape.

The publisher placing the order for any such livre d'artiste, could also exert an important influence on the end product. In many cases, publishers determined the edition's design and main characteristics, deciding on the general structure, style and subjects of the decoration and illustrations, the typeface and other such matters. Indeed, most books were signed by the publisher, as well as the artist. An interesting and significant detail in the history of the livre d'artiste is that the first such books appeared thanks to art dealers with an interest in publishing, not professional publishers. The most notable figures in this regard are Ambroise Vollard and Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler. As art dealers, they strove to create new opportunities for the painters whose works they sold, in order to make them better-known. Vollard had in the past favoured artists studying printing over professional printmakers to commission plates. He later approached painters with ideas for producing original books, similarly bypassing the "specialists" — graphic artists and illustrators, thus flaunting accepted practice for bibliophile editions. Vollard's publishing career began in 1900 with Paul Verlaine's "Parallelement", which contained lithographs by Pierre Bonnard. Published in an edition of just over 200 copies, the book in many ways set the standards for the genre.

Livres d'artistes are precious things, to be handled with care. Readers would pick them up lovingly, slowly perusing page after page, fingering the texture of the paper. (Though in museums, visitors were given special gloves so as not to damage the books.) Certain fortunate owners of livres d'artistes chose, however, to violate the very nature of these unique publications by having them bound, albeit by skilled bookbinders. That said, did we ourselves not break up the natural state of the livres d'artistes by displaying their pages separately on the walls of an exhibition space? It could certainly be argued that we did. At the same time, this method of display has the undeniable advantage of simultaneously offering the viewer all of the book's contents. The story, previously encased in compact form, suddenly unfolds with striking clarity and impact.

In referring to the livre d'artiste as a synthetic work of art, we perhaps implied an ideal model — the perfect execution of such a project. In reality, the degree of harmony and integration between the different elements of such books varied enormously. In many cases, one is aware of the illustrations' "genetic" link to non-illustrative easel art — frequently, this link is deliberately accentuated. This is, of course, the case with editions, in which prints are present in two forms: within the book as decoration, and as an extra appended set. Such sets would not be available with all copies of a book; thus, those boasting them became even more exclusive. The supplement could be published as a separate folder with fewer copies, as was the case with Picasso's hors-texte etchings for Aristophanes' "Lysistrata" (1934). In the exhibition, these signed etchings with untrimmed edges were displayed on the wall in one of the rooms, the book itself shown alongside in a display case.

The 1946 edition of a French translation of Pushkin's "La Dame de Pique" (The Queen of Spades) includes a set of separate sepia lithographs by Clave (those within the text are black and white), as well as variations on some of the plates. The hors-texte plates also contain sketches made beside the main images, rendering the edition even rarer. The original drawing by Clave in Merimee's "Carmen" (1946) has the same effect. The organizers of the exhibition attempted to display the boxes, cases and covers alongside the livres d'artistes themselves, to remind visitors that they are admiring books — not merely separate works of art.

Clave's 1955 edition of "Gargantua" by Frangois Rabelais is perhaps an example of a livre d'artiste in which the work of the "illustrator" and that of the designer can scarcely be distinguished from each other. The single- and double-page colour lithographs, as well as those within the text; the large xylographic initial capitals and tailpieces; the typeface — all come together as one to create a single effect, orchestrated by a single person — the artist. Another example of a livre d'artiste, in which the artist had overall control, is Picasso's "Poemes et Lithographies" (1954) published by the Galerie Louise Leiris. Picasso was responsible for all the book's components: the author of the texts, which are presented handwritten, he also produced the accompanying images and set out the pages, finding for each its own unique relationship between image and text.

Another such example is Miro's "Le Lezard aux Plumes d'Or" (1971). Here, the artist's colour lithographs alternate with pages filled with text. Written by Miro himself, the text is an outstanding piece of calligraphy: a work of art in itself, it is strikingly expressive.

Many artists preferred working with handwritten text, even if it belonged to a different author. Thus, in "Le Chant des Morts" (1948), Picasso offers Pierre Reverdy's poetry hand-written; in Joseph Brodsky's "Romische Elegien" (1993) Tapies reproduces the poet's autograph; and Miro does the same in Jacques Prevert's "Adonides" (1975).

Although the books were displayed by artist, one could have viewed the exhibition in different ways, for instance, by publisher. The display brought up the names of outstanding figures such as Ambroise Vollard, Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, Ilya Zdanevich, Teriade, Aime Maeght and Albert Skira. Balzac's "Le Chef-d'Oeuvre Inconnu" (1931), one of the books on display, is largely the product of its publisher's decisions, for instance. To go with the text, Vollard chose 1920s drawings by Picasso, which initially had nothing to do with the work: the images were selected from Picasso's old albums and portfolio.

For Russian visitors, the books published by Zdanevich, also known as "Iliazd", were of particular interest. Artist, art critic, poet and proponent of Russian Futurism, in 1921 Zdanevich moved to France, where he continued his publishing activity. The exhibition includes six books published by Iliazd with etchings made especially by Picasso, and one with illustrations by Miro. Zdanevich took great interest in seeking out and choosing the texts for his books. For his first livre d'artiste he used his own, approaching Picasso, whom he had met in 1922, with a suggestion that the artist create a series of etchings to accompany his sonnets. Thus, "Afat" (1940) was born. On other occasions, Iliazd chose works by little-known authors, such as Adrien de Monluc's "La Maigre" (1952) or Marcos Jimenes de la Espada's "Le Frere Mendiant" (1959), as if to underline that a book may become a work of art by dint of its artistic appearance and high-quality typography Certain projects undertaken by Iliazd offer particularly striking examples of the publisher's active creative role in designing the books and putting them together. Helene, Baronne d'Oettingen's "Chevaux de Minuit" (1956) is one such example. The typeface chosen for this edition develops its own rhythmic relationship with Picasso's illustrations. The publisher, who is also the designer, shapes the project just as much as does the artist. Zdanevich paid particular attention to the typeface and distances between lines and letters, through which a page could "breathe", creating an impression of airiness and space. At times, Zdanevich's "Constructivist" and aesthetic experiments with typesetting could be quite extreme. In Adrian de Monluc's "Le Courtisan Grotesque" (1974), illustrated with etchings by Miro, Iliazd places some letters on their sides. While making the text a little harder to read, this does make the reader superbly aware of the artistic potential of print.

The exhibition allowed visitors to appreciate the remarkably diverse range of technical and artistic methods employed by the artists. The display itself was planned to maximum effect: in the first room, containing the books created by Picasso with Zdanevich, one was met with striking black and white graphic art: etching and drypoint combine to create a light, airy effect. The room next door, to the right of the entrance, also contained works by Picasso, but the prevailing colour here was red. Displayed in the centre of the main wall, pages from Pierre Reverdy's "Le Chant des Morts" burned with an intense sanguine. The abstract forms created by Picasso with a wide brush are like hieroglyphs, floating freely over the handwritten text.

Those who chose to continue straight on out of the first room without turning right, found themselves in the fantastic world of Miro. Like the glowing red of the Reverdy, the brilliant colour here contrasts dramatically with the reserved black and white of the first space. Vivid prints by Miro stand out from the white walls like stained glass windows. In Jacques Prevert's "Adonides" (1975), Miro uses the technique of stamping, which has the effect of creating an extra dimension to the images.

Perhaps the most complex textural effects, however, are to be found in the books by Antoni Tapies. Although the artist did not pursue these as an aim in themselves, they serve to create a unique, bewitching surface, conducive to contemplation and deep thought. Certain pages are reminiscent of Far-Eastern art.

Salvador Dali used a range of diverse techniques to put across his Surrealist vision, frequently combining them with startling effect. In putting together his livres d'artiste, he displayed particular inventiveness. Besides its extravagant case, his "Dix Recettes d'Immortalite" (1973), for instance, boasts two etchings that can be set up as "objects", or unfolding paper constructions. The subsequent development of the livre d'artiste showed that this was, in fact, the future of the genre: becoming more like "objects", such books would increasingly lose their resemblance to Gutenberg's prototype.

Joseph Brodsky's "Romische Elegien" with illustrations by Antoni Tapies, for instance, acquired the extra dimension of sound: the edition was accompanied by a CD of the poet reading his poems. Visitors entering the room where the book was on display could hear the recording.

On 15 March 2012, a roundtable discussion on livres d'artistes was held at the museum, titled "The Artist's Book: Boundaries of the Phenomenon". The event brought together well-known artists working with this genre, as well as art historians, philologists, publishers, librarians, collectors, museum workers and gallery owners.

In discussing boundaries, one inevitably turns also to discussing terms. The debate showed that Russian terminology in this area remains in flux. Naturally, one roundtable discussion could not radically alter the situation, and yet the very fact that the problem was raised should go some way to bringing about change.

The standards expected of a livre d'artiste in the first half of the 20th century had largely been abandoned before its end, participants noted. Yet the artist's book as a broad genre is still developing today — a creative experiment, a bold gesture by authors refusing to be bound by any rules.

Many speakers expressed regret that in Russia, artists' books as an art form do not receive the attention they merit, and indeed, in many countries, receive. State museums and libraries do not make enough effort to secure material of this kind or, at worst, ignore it altogether. Artists' books are of interest to few private collectors, with Boris Friedman and George Gens undoubtedly the exception rather than the rule. And time is, sadly, not on our side, as the resources offered by the art market are dwindling fast. Despite such a pessimistic general evaluation of the situation, however, hopes remain that the call of the conference's participants will be heard. The very fact that such an event took place should be seen as a positive sign, proving that the exhibition at the Pushkin Fine Arts Museum did trigger a public response.





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