Behind Art on the Page

Toward a modern illustrated book

When Parisian art dealer Ambroise Vollard issued his first publication, Parallèlement, in 1900, a collection of poems by Paul Verlaine illustrated with lithographs by Impressionist painter Pierre Bonnard, he ushered in a new form of illustrated book to mark the new century. In the following decades, he and other entrepreneurial art publishers such as Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler and Albert Skira would take advantage of a widening pool of book collectors interested in modern art by producing deluxe books that featured original prints by artists such as Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Georges Rouault, André Derain and others. These books are generally referred to as livres des artistes and, unlike the fine press publications produced by the Kelmscott Press, the Doves Press or Ashendene Press, the earliest examples were distinguished by their modernity.

Breon Mitchell, in his introduction to Beyond illustration, argues that the livre d’artiste can be differentiated from the traditional book in several respects:

The illustrations are, in each case, original works of art (woodcuts, lithographs, etchings, engravings) executed by the artist himself and printed under his supervision. The book thus contains original graphics of the kind which find their place on museum walls ... The livre d’artiste is also defined by the stature of the artist. Virtually every major painter and sculptor of the twentieth century—Picasso, Braque, Ernst, Matisse, Kokoschka, Barlach, Miró, to name a few—has collaborated in the creation of one or more such works. In many cases, book illustration has occupied such an important place in the total oeuvre of the artist that no student of art history can safely ignore it. (p. 5)

This livre d’artiste tradition carried over into the production of deluxe art magazines, such as Verve and Derrière le Miroir, showcasing original work by many of these same artists. Publisher Efstratios Tériade, who had worked as artistic director on the Surrealist magazine Minotaure, and who later published Matisse’s outstanding work of paper cut-outs, Jazz, began issuing Verve magazine in 1937. The cover of the first issue featured an original design by Matisse, and during its long run, until 1960, the magazine featured original graphic work by artists such as Marc Chagall, Georges Braque, Pablo Picasso, Fernand Léger, André Masson and Man Ray, and text by James Joyce, Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre and others.

Another key aspect of livres des artistes was the opportunities afforded to poets to collaborate with artists, many of whom they counted as friends. Guillaume Apollinaire, Blaise Cendrars, Vladimir Mayakovsky, Paul Eluard and many others eagerly took part in this modernist adventure. The idea of a modern illustrated book that gave equal primacy to text

and image was an evolving concept: ‘[A]vant-garde poetry, with its paucity of anecdotal and descriptive passages, could hardly be illustrated in the usual manner. This situation forced the painter to discover or, rather, to invent new relationships between text and image while relying on the principle of representation he had already made his own.’ (Hubert, p. 4)

This exhibition is intended to showcase a number of the significant European livres des artistes held in the Rare Books Collection of the University, and equally touches upon how this tradition has influenced Australian artists producing books in recent decades. There is a wealth of talent and creativity to be found in the collaborative ventures between artists and writers in Australia, and the examples on display are just a handful from a much larger array.

Art dealers and publishers

The first half of the 20th century saw a range of innovations and experiments played out in the modern illustrated book in Europe. These innovations were, in part, fostered by a number of key individuals—art dealers and publishers—who actively promoted artists through the medium of the book.

Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, a German-born art dealer based in Paris, championed those artists associated with avant-garde art movements. He encouraged and nurtured their work, often pairing their prints with the work of poets such as Max Jacob, Apollinaire and Gertrude Stein. Such ‘personal relationships underlie many successes among livre d’artiste projects, successes judged as outstanding end products, irrespective of ultimate commercial returns’ (Strachan, p. 51) This ideal of groups of artists and writers socialising together, as well as collaborating professionally, is a critical one—such intimate relationships fuelled both creativity and experimentation.

For his first publication, Swiss publisher Albert Skira, who had established Editions Skira in Lausanne in 1928, approached Picasso to illustrate Ovid’s Les metamorphoses. For his first major illustrated book, Picasso, drawn to its classical themes, produced 30 etchings. Despite the book selling only one copy upon publication, Skira remained undaunted, going on to publish numerous limited edition works.

Aimé Maeght, the founder of Galerie Maeght, became one of the most powerful and respected art dealers in Paris after World War II. He started his professional career as a printer-lithographer, but went on to represent many of the leading artists in Europe, encouraging them to produce lithographs in his printing atelier. His stable of artists included Joan Miró, Antoni Tàpies, Eduardo Chillida, Alberto Giacometti and Pierre Alechinsky. The work of these artists was often combined with sympathetic texts by key writers of the day, including René Char, Yves Bonnefoy and Jacques Dupin. As Riva Castleman notes, ‘Each issue of Maeght’s elegant journal, Derriére le Miroir, was devoted to one artist, who created lithographs for the covers and the pages in between the articles, which were written by some of the most prominent authors of the time.’ (p. 34)

Collaboration, contemporaries and commissions

The 1936 exhibition held at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, entitled ‘Modern Painters and Sculptors as Illustrators’, featured over 200 books, providing visitors with a rare opportunity to view works seldom on display in a gallery. Curator Monroe Wheeler stated in the catalogue to the exhibition that:

...the highest type of illustrated book is the joint work of author and artist who are contemporaries, working as in equal collaboration; inspired by similar feeling; approaching the same subject-matter from opposite directions; ... Neither should seem to take precedence. Of course, one does precede the other, in practice; but our impression in the ideal instance is of simultaneity, as if in free enthusiasm author and painter had each created alone, and the results had just happened to coincide: an impression of spiritual unity. (p. 14)

This equality in collaboration is exemplified in works such as Jean Dubuffet and Max Loreau’s Cerceaux ’sorcellent. Loreau, a Belgian philosopher, poet and art critic first met artist Jean Dubuffet in the early 1960s, the two men discovering a shared belief in unconventional ideas, free from preconceived art and words. Together, they created work that exhibited haphazard, disjointed and utterly original forms. In 1962, Dubuffet, whilst doodling on the telephone, created an unconscious art that became known as ‘L’Hourloupe’. The screen prints that appear in Cerceaux ’sorcellent—in bold red, black, blue and white—are intuitive and almost childlike. Dubuffet’s art is best exemplified in his own statement: ‘Art should amuse a little, and frighten a little. Everything, but never bore’. (Strachan, p. 97)

Spanish artist Joan Miró and Romanian-born poet Tristan Tzara were both expatriate artists when their friendship began in Paris in the 1920s. Tzara, whose real name was Samuel Rosenstock, was already notorious as the founder of the Dada movement. He wrote the poems that appeared in their collaborative book, Parler seul, during a stay at the psychiatric hospital of Saint-Alban in 1945. Emotionally distraught from a divorce, and from his recent experience of being hunted as a Jew by the Gestapo during the war, his poems touch upon the nature of survival, friendship, fellow inmates in the hospital, and his own fragile mental state. Miró’s gestural images adorning each page are stunning in their use of colour, placement and evocation of the themes found in Tzara’s poems.

The Catalan poet Joan Brossa was one of the founders of the avant-garde collective Dau al Set in 1948. Amongst its earliest members was the young painter Antoni Tàpies. The group, influenced by the Surrealist and Dadaist movements, was formed in response to Franco’s Fascist regime, which suppressed individualistic art in preference to propaganda. Brossa and Tàpies, whose work dealt with themes of the subconscious mind and political rebellion, created a number of books together, including the striking Nocturn matinal, which plays off Brossa’s playful and ironic visual poems against Tàpies more dramatic and sweeping textural gestures.

During this time of experimentation, it was not uncommon for artists to work across a number of artistic mediums. Ukrainian-born French artist Sonia Delaunay cofounded the art movement Orphism in 1912, after a term coined by friend and poet Guillaume Apollinaire.

Emerging out of Cubism, it promoted a pure abstraction, highlighting the use of strong colours and geometric designs. Delaunay worked across various media, creating films, theatrical sets, costumes and textiles, and she also ran an interiors and fashion boutique. For a period during World War II, she lived with Sophie Taeuber-Arp, Jean Arp, Alberto Magnelli and other artists at their art colony in Grasse, in the south of France, where they produced work together. Her outstanding achievements were recognised when she became the first living woman to have a retrospective exhibition in the Louvre in 1964.

Inspired by the classics

For many artists, inspiration was to be found in classic works of the past. Intense sketches by Balthus were inspired by Emily Bronte’s Wuthering heights, Rodin responded to Charles Baudelaire’s Les fleurs du mal, and Matisse created images for Poèmes de Charles d’Orléans.

Henri Matisse started making books late in his career. While the bulk of the work for Poèmes de Charles d’Orléans was undertaken in 1942–3, the book was not published until 1950. It contains no printed text, the words instead appearing as lithographs in Matisse’s hand. There are five portraits, one being of the poet himself. The remainder is richly decorated in fleurs-de-lys and borders, giving the impression of a medieval manuscript. Charles d’Orléans wrote over five hundred poems in French and English while imprisoned by the English after his capture in the battle of Agincourt in 1415. During a serious illness in 1941, Matisse read d’Orléans’ poetry extensively, becoming immersed in the lyrical wordplay. In his 1946 essay, ‘How I made my books’, Matisse clearly outlined the pivotal role that books played in his work: ‘I do not distinguish between the construction of a book and that of a painting.’ (Flam p. 109)

Influence on the Antipodes

This modern tradition of illustrated books that featured original work by artists set alongside texts by writers was slow to take root in Australia. An aspect of this exhibition attempts to trace this development, oftentimes fuelled by immigrant journeys, of a European tradition introduced into a contemporary Australian context. Publishers such as Lyrebird Press, Zimmer Editions, and the Graphic Investigation Workshop, along with the work of many individual artists, such as Petr Herel, Bruno Leti, Inge King, Peter Lyssiotis, Angela Cavalieri, Theo Strasser and George Matoulas, all form an integral part of this story.

Sasha Grishin, in his essay ‘Books in the Canberra region: The golden years’, makes a strong case for that city’s critical role in the development of deluxe books featuring the work of Australian artists and writers: ‘By the late 1970s the cultural landscape of Canberra, especially in relation to printmaking and the book arts, changed significantly with the arrival

of three continentally trained artist printmakers: Petr Herel from Czechoslovakia and France, and Jörg Schmeisser and Udo Sellbach, both from Germany’. (p. 35) In 1977, Sellbach became director of the Canberra School of Art. Within a few years, he had established the Graphic Investigation Workshop, a Bauhaus-modelled school, with Petr Herel as its head. Under Herel’s leadership, the perfect conditions were engendered for the creative approach to bookmaking. As Grishin states, ‘Herel as an artist and as a teacher introduced a sensibility, as well as a bewildering wealth of experience in techniques and possibilities in book arts that he brought from continental Europe, and which had a profound impact on several generations of artists, particularly in Canberra and Melbourne’. (p. 38) Herel established Labyrinth Press with Thierry Bouchard in 1980, thereby linking the two creative locales of Canberra and Losne in France, intent on producing collaborative books in the European tradition. The press folded in 2008, after Bouchard’s death, having produced 21 titles; and subsequently Herel founded Uncollected Works Press, which operates from his base in Fitzroy, Melbourne.

An earlier precursor in Canberra was the publishing venture of Brindabella Press, set up by Alec Bolton in 1972. His aim was to produce beautifully crafted books, often bringing together significant Australian poets, such as A.D. Hope, Les Murray and Rosemary Dobson, with artists, including Arthur Boyd, Barbara Hanrahan and Rosalind Atkins. While the press operated more in the tradition of an English private press, there was a simple elegance to Brindabella books combined with a respect for poet and illustrator.

For many Australian artists influenced by the European tradition of book-making, it is possible to trace a direct line between the European heritage of the artist—Inge King, Bruno Leti, George Matoulas, Angela Cavalieri, Peter Lyssiotis, Jim Pavlidis—and the work they have subsequently produced. One such recent example is Dutch-born Theo Strasser’s Ghost bones, an unbound folio, made in the European tradition. With its pages entirely covered by strong gestural brushstrokes, it is reminiscent of the paintings of Antoni Tàpies, yet wholly original, with a compelling Australian subject matter and feel.

George Matoulas cites his decision to work with book arts as a direct result of chancing upon an exhibition of livres des artistes published by Albert Skira while travelling in Switzerland: ‘Skira had worked with Picasso, Matisse and many of the Surrealists along with numerous authors. Great art and text with designer bindings. It was at this moment that I decided I wanted to set up my own publishing house with original Australian text and art’. (p. 2)

A number of Australian writers have relished the opportunity to work closely with artists whose work they admire. Chris Wallace-Crabbe, Dimitris Tsaloumas, Tom Petsinis, Antoni Jach and Gary Catalano all collaborated with artists in producing books featured in this exhibition.

Links to the past

Peter Lyssiotis is both an artist and writer, and has regularly operated in both guises in the production of his collaborative books, which often exhibit a strong political stance. He has stated:

The abiding influence on what I do comes from the European peaks, from the Spanish, the Germans, the Italians and especially the French ... I’ve learnt not to be afraid or suspicious of collaborating with other people. Not only do other people bring a new voice to what you can do but they can also give you the support and courage to follow through with some of your more wayward ideas ... I’ve been so influenced by these bookworks that it brings a smile to my face when I can use the same materials and techniques as my predecessors did ... that I have companions, that I am linked to the past. (pp. 2–4)

These links with the past that Lyssiotis refers to allow us to draw a line from Paris in the early years of the 20th century through to the studios of artists in Brunswick or East Burwood in Melbourne today. What unites this disparate group of artists and writers, across time and space, is a shared passion for the book and for creativity and experimentation. At a time when the physical book is no longer the primary means of disseminating information, artists continue to elevate the book as an object of beauty, both tactile and visually appealing, drawing upon its past to re-imagine, in the words of Maurice Blanchot, ‘the book to come’.

Susan Millard
Special Collections Librarian