Tag Archives: Livres d’artistes

Visiting our Pre-Covid Past: Artists’ Books on Display at the Taylor Institution Library

Viewing Walter J. Strachan’s Livre d’artiste Collection with Geoffrey Strachan

Remember the Taylor Institution Library in the days before Covid? A busy place, full of academics, students and visitors en route to lectures — and to the library. Indeed, some individuals were attending seminars and other events at which the library’s special collections were on view. In this post we look back twelve months, to (as you will discover if you read on) one of our more memorable special collections events……

Giullaume Apollinaire. Si je mourais là-bas. Illustrated by Georges Braque (Paris: L. Broder, 1962)

 

In May 1945, less than a fortnight after the German surrender marking the end of  World War II in Europe, a British schoolteacher took his French language students on a trip to London. They were going to the National Gallery (whose collection of paintings had been transferred to Wales for the duration of the War) to see an exhibition of livres d’artistes, or artists’ books, a still relatively minor avant-garde art form imported from the Continent — principally Paris; one can assume that for the students the exhibition was little more than an excuse to experience a post-VE Day London still ecstatic with the new, incompre-hensible peace in Europe.

 

Whatever the students thought of it, the exhibition was nothing short of life-changing for their teacher, Walter Strachan, who described first seeing the livres d’artistes as simply “over-whelming”. He took his pupils home and returned not long after, traveling to Paris as soon as the Channel was re-opened to tourists. There he met the artists, authors, printmakers, typesetters and publishers in situ, with a dream of stimulating interest in the livre d’artiste genre back home in the UK. Strachan’s advocacy was greeted with open arms in France and he returned home rich with examples of recently-created works to show to potential collectors, such as V&A curators and librarians who, thanks to his urging, ultimately acquired over 60 such pieces. This trip was followed by another, and then another, until an annual tradition began.

Paul Verlaine. Parallèlement. Illustrated by Pierre Bonnard (Paris: A. Vollard, 1900)

By the time he was 80, Strachan had formed a working collection of over 250 complete and semi-complete livres d’artistes, spanning works incorporating lithographs designed by Pierre Bonnard (1900) to Pierre Tal-Coat etchings (1983). Strachan sought a permanent home for his collection, where it could be used as it had been throughout his life—not untouched in a collector’s drawer, but as a living body of work that would continue to promote the genre as a wildly creative and important art form.

Jean Cocteau. La voix humaine. Illustrated by Bernard Buffet (Paris: Parenthèses, 1957. Pierre Reverdy. Le chant de morts (Paris: Teriade, 1948)

In 1987, after a commemorative exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum, Strachan found that home at the Taylor Institution Library. Thirty-two years later, the collection is still used by both researchers and students from across the University—and occasionally shown to visiting groups, as happened in July 2019.

It was the hottest day on record in Oxford’s history: not the kind of day one would choose to mount a display of our livres d’artistes. With the support  of our premises manager, Piotr Skzonter—without whom the whole display would have fallen apart—we exhibited a selection of pieces chosen for a visit by the Charlbury Art Group, led by Walter Strachan’s son, Geoffrey. The Taylorian’s lecture  hall was mercifully cool, its high windows, blinds and thick walls protecting us from the inferno outside; still, we wondered, given the heat would anyone come?

Slowly, the hall filled up and, despite the  temperature,  soon the whole group was with us. The afternoon was introduced by Clare Hills-Nova, Librarian in Charge, Sackler Library, where the collection is now held (on long-term loan) in a climate-controlled environment. Clare noted that this was the largest livre d’artiste event that the Taylor had yet hosted. As library staff – together with Geoffrey Strachan — brought together selected works to show our visitors, we discovered pieces that we had never seen before; one example—Mario Prassinos’ rendering of Edgar Allen Poe’s The Raven, with its many iterations of the raven image—reminding us what an unparalleled didactic tool the collection serves for University of Oxford researchers and students. Since Strachan’s pieces were often page proofs, ‘off-cuts’ and/or working drafts, or even rejects from the artists (the finalized works too valuable to give away) our collection reveals the thought processes behind livres d’artiste production and the 30 works we showed that day represented a microcosm of this artistic dynamic.

Edgar Allan Poe. The Raven. Illustrated by Mario Prassinos (Paris: Pierre Worms, 1952

Alongside our selections of semi-complete artists’ books were a few complete works, either owned by the Taylorian or held by other libraries, to show how each of the incomplete works fitted into the finished whole, and what might have changed between Strachan’s visits with the artists and their books’ completion.

Aeschylus. Agamemnon. Illustrated by Abram Krol (Paris: A. Krol, 1965)

Geoffrey Strachan gave a stimulating talk, setting the stage by walking us through his father’s journey from that momentous National Gallery exhibition to his pivotal role promoting the livre d’artiste in Britain. That we have this collection is not only thanks to his father’s passion, Strachan reminded us, but also thanks to the generosity of the artists he met.

With that in mind, the group was invited to explore the display, spread across the shaded lecture hall. Grouped by theme and/or period, the pieces held different attractions for different viewers; some mulled over the more famous pieces such as Pierre Bonnard’s illustrations for Parallèlement, by Paul Verlaine, or Georges Braque’s images for Si je mourais là-bas by Guillaume Apollinaire; while others were drawn to lesser-known works such as the compelling line-images of Agamemnon, illustrated by Polish émigré Abram Krol or the fairy-tale-esque etchings in Hélène Iliadz’s Brigadnii – Un de la Brigade, by another émigrée artist, the Ukranian Anna Staritsky. One of the most popular works was French cultural icon (and Minister of Culture) André Malraux’s La Tentation de L’Occident, illustrated by Zao Wou-Ki (an émigré from 1940s China), combining emotive and explosive abstract images with an elegant typographical design.

While each work had a magic of its own, viewing the display as a whole had a kaleidoscopic effect, showing the variety of technique, colour, authors and artists within a once side-lined genre. This was magnified further by these artists’ books’  donation home: a library where the content of much-read and consequently battered texts normally takes precedence over the visual materiality of the publications themselves; a library temporarily transformed into a gallery for books whose physicality is their raison d’être. It is easy to see how this radical and at times very powerful marriage of word and image, content and form swept Strachan away in a lifelong love affair that we, with much appreciation, are still learning from.

Alex Zaleski, Library Assistant, Taylor Institution Library

Photo credits: Clare Hills-Nova, Justine Provino and Alex Zaleski

Further reading

Le livre d’artiste: a catalogue of the W.J. Strachan gift to the Taylor Institution: exhibited at the Ashmolean Museum, Ox, 1987 (Oxford: Ashmolean Museum and Taylor Institution, 1987).

W.J. Strachan. The artist and the book in France: the 20th century livre d’artiste (London: Owen, 1969)

Livres d’artistes / French Artists’ Books & the Avant Garde

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Left: Event poster. Right: Le livre d’artiste: a catalogue of the W.J. Strachan gift to the Taylor Institution: exhibited at the Ashmolean Museum, Ox, 1987 (Oxford: Ashmolean Museum and Taylor Institution, 1987)

On 1st March 2016, we welcomed Dr Camille Mathieu (History of Art Department, University of Manchester) back to Oxford, and to the Taylorian, where she presented the Taylor Institution Library’s livres d’artiste collection. This collection includes texts by French and foreign authors; with illustrations by well-known 20th century artists such as Braque, Kandinsky, Matisse and Picasso, as well as many others.

Charles d'Orléans. Poèmes. Illustrated by Henri Matisse (Paris: Tériade, 1950)

Charles d’Orléans. Poèmes. Illustrated by Henri Matisse (Paris: Tériade, 1950)

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Guillaume Apollinaire. Si je mourais là-ba. Illustrated by Georges Braque (Paris: Louis Broder, 1962)

Dr Mathieu’s presentation was accompanied by a display, in the Taylorian’s Voltaire Room, of related items in the artists’ books collection. The following is her summary of her talk.

As far as objets d’arts go, the artist’s book is a rather hybrid form. It turns a story or a poem into an object; it lends the weight of materiality to the metaphorical weight of narrative. It is necessarily a collaborative effort: author, artist-illustrator, typesetter, printer, editor, publisher—all of these people have a hand in producing the final product. It can be presented materially—as a bound book where only one page can be opened at a time—or immaterially, as a series of leaves and pages that feed into one another. 
It was its hybridity as a medium that drew Walter Strachan to the artist’s book; his impressive collection of sheets from these books was given to the Taylorian during Giles Barber’s tenure as Taylor Librarian (1970-1996).

A teacher of modern languages at Bishop’s Stortford College, Walter Strachan became interested in the genre of the artist’s book (or, in its French translation, livre d’artiste) in parallel with translations he was 
executing of the works of poets who inhabited Paris during the first decades of the twentieth century – Tzara, Eluard, and Apollinaire, for example, whose texts ultimately featured in Strachan’s collection.

Tristan Tzara. juste présente. Illustrated by Sonia Delaunay (Paris: Galerie Louise Leiris, 1961)

Tristan Tzara. juste présente. Illustrated by Sonia Delaunay (Paris: Galerie Louise Leiris, 1961)

Amassed in repeated visits to Parisian collectors, printers, and book artists and sometimes offered to the collector as gifts over several decades, the Strachan Collection is extremely diverse both in terms of the artists and the authors it represents.  It contains two of the most important works for the history and development of the genre, both of whose process of publication was spearheaded and supervised by the legendary post-impressionist art dealer (his “stable” included Cézanne, Renoir, Gauguin, Van Gogh) and book editeur Ambroise Vollard (1866-1939).

The collection includes two Vollard items: (1) What is arguably the first artist’s book ever produced in the avant-garde, early twentieth-century sense of the genre that Strachan devoted his scholarship to: Verlaine’s Parallèlement, illustrated by Pierre Bonnard (1900); and (2) Balzac’s Le Chef d’Oeuvre Inconnu, illustrated by Pablo Picasso (1931).

Each artist takes a different approach to the concept of illustrating the book. Bonnard’s work is arguably the more innovatively designed of the two, for his illustrations encircle the text, as opposed to providing separate, squared-off vignettes of illustration to the text, as is the case in Picasso’s work.  The rose-colored, frenetic drawing style exhibited by Bonnard in Parallèlement lends the entire production the feeling of being illustrated with sanguine chalk—a feature frequently associated in the late-nineteenth century with the Rococo drawings of Fragonard or Watteau.  This drawing style claims for the art book the purview of the luxury product.

Both Bonnard’s and Picasso’s drawings are more or less illustrative of the actual texts, providing images that generally coincide with the development of the narratives provided. In the case of the 1931 Chef d’Oeuvre Inconnu, the first artist’s book ever to be commissioned from Picasso—an artist who would go on to be prolific in the genre—the illustrations go one step further and take the power of mimesis and the pull of abstraction as their subjects; these are both underlying concepts in Balzac’s narrative as well as powerful motivators for the work of Picasso in the 1930s.  For the man who had invented Cubism (along with Braque) and whose art was currently in a broadly neoclassical phase, the importance of reconciling the live model with a kind of abstracted ideal retained all of the force with which Balzac presents it.  Picasso’s illustrations include both the more traditionally representative (the painter drawing his model) and abstract (the set of line-dot drawings that dominate the “introduction” he provides for the reader [not part of the Taylorian’ sheets from this book).

The successful marriage of disparate parts and influences that is represented by the genre of the artist’s book— edited, authored, illustrated, printed, etched/engraved/lithographed, and published by a litany of different people with disparate ideas—ironically finds its fullest and arguably most famous expression in this particular livre, whose text and illustrations both insist on the inability of the painter to successfully bind together the real and the ideal.

Dr. Camille Mathieu
Lecturer in Art History
School of Arts, Languages and Cultures
University of Manchester

Photo credits: Nick Hearn & Clare Hills-Nova (Taylor Institution Library)

Further reading

Le livre d’artiste: a catalogue of the W.J. Strachan gift to the Taylor Institution: exhibited at the Ashmolean Museum, Ox, 1987 (Oxford: Ashmolean Museum and Taylor Institution, 1987).

W.J. Strachan. The artist and the book in France: the 20th century livre d’artiste (London: Owen, 1969)

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Pierre Reversy. Le chant des morts. Illustrated by Pablo Picasso (Paris: Tériade, 1948)