Many of the 20th century’s greatest painters — from Picasso to Hockney — also produced beautiful works for the printed page
The livre d’artiste, as it came to be known in France at the outset of the 20th century, put images alongside words to create hybrid works of art. This alchemical magic arguably never worked so well as in 1926, when the Parisian art dealer and publisher Ambroise Vollard commissioned Pablo Picasso to illustrate Honoré de Balzac’s short story The Unknown Masterpiece.
‘The story is about an artist who is constantly improving his way of painting, which could also be applied to Picasso,’ says Adrien Legendre, Director of the Books and Manuscripts department at Christie’s Paris. ‘It’s what an artist’s book should be — a text that has been taken by the artist and turned into his own story.’
A pristine edition of Picasso’s book, which was published in 1931, a century after Balzac’s story first appeared, is a highlight of Une vie de bibliophilie, an online auction at Christie’s Paris from 2-12 May. The book is printed on Imperial Japan paper and contains 13 etchings and 67 drawings by the artist.
The single-collection auction comprises 177 lots ranging across the 20th century. It was amassed over half a century by a lover of artist’s books who prefers to remain anonymous. As well as several books by Picasso, there are others by Pierre Bonnard, Henri Matisse, Alberto Giacometti, Jean Dubuffet, Joan Miró, Man Ray, Max Ernst, Marc Chagall, Jasper Johns and David Hockney.
‘Little by little in the 20th century, publishers, gallerists and artists in Paris began to work together in a collaborative spirit,’ Legendre explains. ‘Also, printing techniques improved dramatically in the 20th century, so artists could have their work reproduced in exactly the way they wanted.’
Many of the artist’s books being auctioned have original features. ‘There’s an inscription, a little drawing or an original binding,’ says Legendre. These boxes are all ticked by the French poet André Salmon’s Le manuscrit trouvé dans un chapeau, which was published in 1919 with reproductions of drawings by Picasso. The copy being auctioned is the only one to have been bound by the master French bookbinder Paul Bonet, who kept it for himself.
Picasso drew a small nude on the title page, where Salmon also wrote a note explaining the story. At the end of the volume, Bonet added a drawing of Picasso by Jean Cocteau, which he made during a journey around Naples with Picasso and Salmon. ‘In Cocteau’s drawing you can see Picasso smoking a pipe, with Vesuvius also smoking in the background,’ says Legendre.
One of the features of the collection are several artist’s books created and published by Ilia Zdanevich, known as Iliazd (1894-1975), who emigrated to Paris from Russia. Before Iliazd, Parisian dealers such as Vollard viewed artist’s books as a way of promoting their paintings and sculptures. ‘Iliazd really cared about the book as an object in itself,’ says Legendre. ‘He wasn’t making books as a marketing tool.’
Iliazd’s revolutionary use of mixed typography sprang from Zaum poetry, an experimental phonetic form devised by Russian Futurists. The auction’s top lot is 65 Maximiliana or the Illegal Practice of Astronomy (1964), which Legendre calls Iliazd’s ‘masterpiece’. It was a collaboration between Iliazd and Max Ernst, who made 34 etchings and aquatints for the book and wrote a punning text about the German astronomer Wilhelm Tempel’s little-known discovery of a planetoid named in honour of Maximilian II.
Another highlight is a compendium of poetry entitled Poésie de mots inconnus (1949), for which Iliazd gathered the work of 38 notable writers and artists, including Antonin Artaud, Picasso, Matisse, Giacometti, Jean and Sophie Taeuber-Arp and Georges Braque. ‘With all those artists, I really don’t know how Iliazd managed this project,’ says Legendre.
Some livres d’artiste took years to complete. Such was the case with Iliazd’s last completed book, Le Courtisan grotesque (1974), on which he collaborated with Joan Miró for 25 years. The book is printed on Imperial Japan paper with 31 etchings by Miró illustrating Adrien de Montluc’s 17th-century comic novel about a thwarted knight.
Iliazd’s perfectionism was legendary, as was Miró’s. The artist summed up his approach after creating woodcuts for an edition of the French poet Paul Éluard’s À toute épreuve: ‘I have made some trials which have allowed me to see what it is to make a book and not merely to illustrate it. Illustration is always a secondary matter. The important thing is that a book must have all the dignity of a sculpture carved in marble.’