Rare, beautiful and spanning the most important avant-garde figures and movements from the first half of the 20th century, a unique collection of 114 artists’ books is to be offered as a single lot during the Impressionist & Modern Art evening sale, which forms part of the new 20th Century at Christie’s series.
As well as showcasing the experimentation and ingenuity of artists, authors, poets and publishers of the time, the collection reveals how art dealers used artists’ books — or livres d’artistes — to promote and add value to the artists that they were working with.
Livres d’artistes. A collection of artistic collaborations between the most celebrated artists, authors and publishers of the 20th century, including original artworks by Picasso, Matisse, Kandinsky, Miró, Giacometti, Delaunay and Dalí. Estimate: £1,700,000-2,500,000. This lot is offered for sale in the Impressionist & Modern Art Evening Sale on 2 February at Christie’s London
As Meg Ford and Anna Povejslova explain, the collection also sheds light on the intricate relationships between the main figures within the artistic milieu of Paris — the love triangles and the folle amours that the Surrealists, in particular, were famous for.
Anna Povejsilova: How was the collection formed?
Meg Ford: The guiding principle behind the collection is that these books represent a true collaboration between art and text. The owner, fine-art photographer Werner Bokelberg, has taken the highlights of the classical golden age of livres d’artistes — 1893 to 1939 — and chosen the books that he feels really show these conversations between artist and author. What do you feel about it as an art collection?
AP: I think it’s amazing — it really does span the seminal moments in European art at the beginning of the 20th century. You had such dynamism with Dada, Expressionism, and the development of abstract art, and it’s fascinating to see how the different forms, from literature, poetry and book publishing in itself, interacted with each other.
Anna Povejslova (left) and Meg Ford discuss Saint Matorel. Max Jacob. Paris: Henry Kahnweiler, 1911. 4° (255 x 216mm). 4 original etchings by Pablo Picasso. Binding by Miguet with matching chemise and slip-case, original wrappers preserved.
Limited edition of 106 numbered copies. This copy number 67 is one of 85 printed on laid Hollande Van Gelder paper and signed by Max Jacob and Pablo Picasso
MF: The role of the dealer is also well represented, which is something we can see with Saint Matorel by Max Jacob, with four etchings by Picasso. We know that Picasso was a little reluctant at first, but Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, who was one of the great art dealers of the early 20th century, brought it all together. He was the one who thought this would be a great collaboration — and he was right: these etchings really are the beginning of Analytical Cubism. I’m sure you can tell us more about that…
AP: Yes, the prints were created in the summer of 1910 when Picasso was at Cadaqués. This was really a crucial period in his artistic development because he was working in a way that was extremely abstract at that moment in time. After the summer of 1910 he started introducing more concrete elements into his artworks again, so this was a seminal moment for Analytical Cubism.
MF: There’s a great quote by Abraham Horodisch in his book Picasso as a Book Artist. He says, ‘[Picasso] used these special values across three genres – figurative, still life and landscape – and just as the text is to be understood symbolically, so Picasso’s illustrations should be seen as formulas expressing the essence of the subject.’
From a book collector’s point of view, one of the nice things is that these books all have relatively low numbers — within the limited editions there would be even smaller limitations, and most of the books in this collection fall into that category. So, for example, Ne coupez pas Mademoiselle ou Les Erreurs des P.T.T. by Max Jacob and Juan Gris is number eight of ten copies signed by both the author and the artist.
AP: So these are very rare books?
MF: Yes, and the condition is amazing. The beautiful bindings were mostly by great mid-century French binders, and yet they all have their original wrappers bound in, meaning the front cover is preserved.
Tristan Tzara. L'Homme Approximatif. Paris: éditions Fourcade, 1931. 4° (238 x 185mm). Original dry-point etching by Paul Klee. Inlaid modern binding by Monique Mathieu in modern chemise and slip-case. Limited edition of 510 numbered copies. This is one of only 10 large paper copies to include the original signed and numbered etching by Paul Klee. Copy number 4 signed by Tristan Tzara
MF: This next one I’d like to talk about is L’Homme Approximatif by Tristan Tzara and Paul Klee. While I was doing some research I discovered that there’s a David Bowie connection here — Tzara was such an influential figure for Bowie that he even adopted some of his mannerisms and habits for a while. This book is one of ten and it has this wonderful dreamlike etching by Klee, which perfectly mirrors the text of this poem.
AP: Interestingly, this print from the early 1930s comes at a time when Klee was exploring abstraction. He didn’t really associate himself with the Surrealists, but some of his compositions are quite dreamy. Here you have a face on the left and then some organic shapes on the right, which interplays nicely with the title of the book. Klee was playful in his artwork and the titles of his works are often funny, so it actually works very well for him to be involved with literature because that was a big part of his work.
Wassily Kandinsky. Klänge. Munich: Piper & Co. 1913. Copy number 24 of 300 on laid Hollande van Gelder paper signed by Wassily Kandinsky
MF: In Klänge, both the poetry and the artwork are by Kandinsky. The illustrations are very attractive, but they’re also important because they show his transition from folk art to the more geometric forms of his later work.
AP: The year of publication, 1913, was a crucial moment in his development when he was verging on abstraction, which is evident in the book. Kandinsky was such a pioneer and this book really reflects how he wanted to do everything — to write and to paint and to create prints, like a Renaissance man.
MF: In terms of the rationale of the collection, Klänge perfectly illustrates Werner Bokelberg’s desire to include works in which no one element is greater than another. The thing I love about the collection is that you really get the personalities coming forward, and one of the figures that connects them all is Gala. She was very much at the centre of the Surrealist circles: first married to Paul Eluard, then later a lover of Max Ernst and finally wife of Dalí.
ART OF THE SURREALThe Stolen Mirror by Max Ernst — a surrealist tour-de-forceRead more
AP: And she lived with Eluard and Ernst together for some time.
MF: Exactly, and this book, Au Défaut du Silence, by Eluard and Ernst, is from that period. They’re love poems to Gala, illustrated by drawings by Ernst.
AP: And the drawings really reflect how obsessed with her Ernst was.
MF: Yes, and Eluard accepted it. These are original drawings signed by Ernst, so this book is really special. Printed works are not usually unique, and yet in this collection most of them have been made unique either by an inscription or an original drawing.
Salvador Dalí. La Femme Visible. Paris: éditions surréalistes, 1930. Limited edition of 204 numbered copies. This hors commerce copy numbered 1 of 4 is printed on mother-of-pearl japan paper. Printed for René Char. Gala’s portrait inscribed to Char, inscribed by Dalí to Char on the half-title, and two anonymous portraits of Char, Nusch, Dalí, Gala at Cadaqués
The other book Gala played a huge part in is La Femme Visible. It has a wonderful silver wrapper that reflects a photograph of Gala [seen in the main image at top], and lithographs by Dalí. What do you make of them?
AP: The lithographs are very typical of his Surrealist period and have a slightly dark side because they are about the subconscious, and what we might want to suppress. When you look at the works you have to dream a little bit in order to get into Dalí’s head and understand what he was trying to say. The beauty of them is that they leave room for interpretation, even if many of them are quite terrifying.
MF: The role of the muse is a recurring theme in these books, and you can see it again in another book by Eluard, La Barre d’Appui, which Picasso illustrated with prints of Eluard’s second wife, Nusch. The story goes that they met as passers-by on a boulevard in Paris, struck up a friendship, became lovers and married quite quickly.
AP: It was the same with Picasso and Marie-Thérèse Walter — he was completely mesmerised by her, so much so that he stopped her in the street and said, ‘I’m Picasso, and we’re going to do great things together.’
Blaise Cendrars. La Prose du Transsibérien et de la Petite Jehanne de France. Paris: Editions des Hommes Nouveaux, 1913. Original stencil colouring by Sonia Delaunay. (Few small repairs.) Original flexible black morocco wallet with hand-painted gouache by Sonia Delaunay, modern red box. Copy number 119. Printed on Simili Japon. Inscribed by Blaise Cendrars to the collector and art dealer Léopold Zborowsky, March 1919. This work is offered for sale in the Impressionist & Modern Art evening sale on 2 February at Christie’s London
MF: What a pick-up line! Our final book is La prose du Transsibérien et de la Petite Jehanne de France, which is a collaboration between the novelist/poet Blaise Cendrars and Sonia Delaunay. This is actually one of my favourite books of all time and it’s in its original painted leather binding, which makes it especially desirable. The poem tells the story of a fictional trip on the Trans-Siberian Railway, and it really works with the paintings.
AP: The colours are so beautiful!
MF: That’s an important thing about collecting books — because they are between covers they retain their micro-environment and the original colours. It’s amazing to think this would have been painted in 1913.
AP: There were supposed to be 150 copies so that if they were put in a line back to back they would be as tall as the Eiffel Tower.
MF: Yes, but they actually printed only 119 on this particular paper, so sadly they never made it to such heights.
Main image at top: This collection of 114 livres d’artistes is offered for sale in the Impressionist & Modern Art evening sale on 2 February at Christie’s London
For more sale information, features and videos, visit 20th Century at Christie's