In 1913, two leading figures of the Paris avant-garde collaborated
on a groundbreaking book.
Sonia Delaunay (1885-1979) was an abstract artist and
Blaise Cendrars (1887-1961) — anointed the ‘son of Homer’
by American writer
John Dos Passos — was the pioneer of modernist poetry.
Together they created an ambitious work of art that unified
text and imagery, in a variation on what Guillaume Apollinaire had coined in 1912 as Orphism.
In essence, they wanted to express the feelings conveyed by
words, in colour and shape. The result was
La Prose du Transsibérien et de la petite Jehanne de France (Prose on the Trans-Siberian Railway and of Little Jehanne of France),
and it helped shape the face of modernism. On 20 February, a rare edition of the book, estimated at €150,000-200,000,
will be offered at Christie’s in Paris.
‘It is one of the most important artist’s books ever
to have been made,’ says Christie’s Director of Books in Paris, Adrien
Legendre. ‘It is almost like a conversation, and it questions
what a book can be.’
At two metres in length when fully extended, the work features a
series of abstract shapes cascading down the left-hand side
of the page. On the right is Cendrars’ long-form poem, which
describes an imaginary trip on the Trans-Siberian railway
between Moscow and Paris during the Russian Revolution. Delaunay’s
colours lurch and sway like the syncopated rhythm of a train; brilliant flashes of vermilion and blue are suggestive of
the world hurtling by at breakneck speed through the windows.
The style is also reminiscent of a piece of celluloid. ‘Cendrars
got involved in movie-making early on,’ explains the specialist,
‘and later worked with the celebrated French director Abel
Gance. The text is written in a kind of telegraphic prose,
as if he himself is the movie camera, recording everything
he can see. It is a glorious celebration of freedom, speed
and vitality in the modern age.’
La Prose du Transsibérien et de la petite Jehanne de France is owned by the bibliophile and former banker
Marc Litzler, who began collecting artist books in the
late 1990s. Among his remarkable collection offered for sale
at Christie’s is also a small copy of Charles Baudelaire’s
Fleurs du mal, illustrated by the sculptor
Auguste Rodin (1840-1917). ‘As far as we know, it is the
only book he ever illustrated,’ says Legendre, ‘although
he was very influenced by 19th-century literature — his busts
of Victor Hugo and Balzac are very famous.’
There is also the notorious collaboration Parallèlement (In Parallel) between
Paul Verlaine (1844-1896) and
Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947). Published by the gallery dealer Ambroise Vollard (1866-1939), it had to be
reprinted when the sponsors discovered it was not, as they
first thought, a book on geometry, but a work of erotic poetry.
The Litzler copy is one of the few that still has the Imprimerie nationale named as printer on the cover, before it was suppressed.
It is these special features — an inscription or an original drawing
— that make the books unique, and La Prose du Transsibérien et de la petite Jehanne de France is no different. It has the original hand-painted leather
cover by Delaunay and a dedication to the collector
André Lefèvre. By the time the book was published in
1919, Cendrars had lost his right arm fighting at the Battle
of the Somme, so he had to sign the copies with his left hand.
‘We often think of the First World War as being the catalyst
for all the avant-garde movements that came about,’ Legendre
adds, ‘except that this is a pre-war book; they didn’t need trauma
to create a revolutionary way of presenting poetry and painting.’
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That said, it took time for the world to come round to their
avant-garde thinking. ‘Oh yes,’ acknowledges Legendre, ‘the
book was a total failure when it was published. But today
it is recognised as a modern masterpiece.’