Blaise Cendrars and Sonia Delaunay, La Prose du Transsibérien et de la Petite Jehanne de France. Paris Editions des Hommes Nouveaux, 1913. Original stencil colouring by Sonia Delaunay. Original

‘A glorious celebration of freedom, speed and vitality in the modern age’

Prose on the Trans-Siberian Railway and of Little Jehanne of France, a collaboration between Sonia Delaunay and Blaise Cendrars, is ‘like a conversation, and it questions what a book can be’. A rare edition is offered in Paris on 20 February

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.’

Blaise Cendrars and Sonia Delaunay, La Prose du Transsibérien et de la petite Jehanne de France (The Prose of the Trans-Siberian and the Little Jehanne of France), 1964. Dimensions approximately 2051 x 360  mm. Estimate €150,000-200,000. This lot is offered in Marc Litzler Library on February 20 2019 at Christie’s in Paris

Blaise Cendrars and Sonia Delaunay, La Prose du Transsibérien et de la petite Jehanne de France (The Prose of the Trans-Siberian and the Little Jehanne of France), 1964. Dimensions: approximately 2051 x 360 mm. Estimate: €150,000-200,000. This lot is offered in Marc Litzler Library on February 20 2019 at Christie’s in Paris

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.’

The original hand-painted leather cover by Sonia Delaunay

The original hand-painted leather cover by Sonia Delaunay

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.’

Charles Baudelaire and Auguste Rodin, Twenty-seven Poems of the Flowers of Evil, Paris, Société des Amis du livre moderne, 1918. Dimensions 183 x 117  mm. Estimate €2,000-3,000. This lot is offered in Bibliothèque Marc Litzler  on 20 February 2019 at Christie’s in Paris

Charles Baudelaire and Auguste Rodin, Twenty-seven Poems of the Flowers of Evil, Paris, Société des Amis du livre moderne, 1918. Dimensions: 183 x 117 mm. Estimate: €2,000-3,000. This lot is offered in Bibliothèque Marc Litzler on 20 February 2019 at Christie’s in Paris

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.

Paul Verlaine and Pierre Bonnard, Parallèlement (In Parallel), Paris, Vollard, 1900. Dimensions 304 x 206  mm. Estimate €30,000-40,000. This lot is offered in Marc Litzler Library on February 20 2019 at Christie’s in Paris

Paul Verlaine and Pierre Bonnard, Parallèlement (In Parallel), Paris, Vollard, 1900. Dimensions: 304 x 206 mm. Estimate: €30,000-40,000. This lot is offered in Marc Litzler Library on February 20 2019 at Christie’s in Paris

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.

The inscription by Blaise Cendrars — written with his left hand, since he had lost his right arm at the Battle of the Somme — to the well-known Parisian collector of modern art, André Lefèvre

The inscription by Blaise Cendrars — written with his left hand, since he had lost his right arm at the Battle of the Somme — to the well-known Parisian collector of modern art, André Lefèvre

‘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.’