Published  15/08/2006

French Book Art/Livres d'Artistes: Artists and Poets in Dialogue

French Book Art/Livres d'Artistes: Artists and Poets in Dialogue

5 May-19 August 2006
The New York Public Library

'Never give into routine; at each step, through books or in a wider context, everything must begin anew, from zero.'1 So Jean Fautrier, Jean Dubuffet and Henri Michaux forewarned after World War Two, a catastrophe whose destruction sparked a new wave in the development of book art in France, which began in the late 19th century with the publication of L'Après-midi d'un Faune in 1876 by Stéphane Mallarmé.

The period in which book art gathered momentum in the interrelated art forms of visual art and writing was defined by tempestuous and dangerous times, by wars, poverty, rebellions, flux and a widely spread need to grasp some sense of comprehension; to resurrect oneself and one another through art. With such passion in both the literature and art of the time, it seems inevitable in hindsight that the two art forms should have collaborated in what was, effectively, a wartime romance of the most powerful modes of human expression and emotional renewal.

Magritte separately played with the relationship between words and pictures in his paintings, in which he subtitled paintings of everyday objects with contradicting texts, to expose the convalescence between a thing and its linguistic definition. In the Surrealist ideology, he broke down the relations we assume between a thing and its representation - visual or literal. His paintings expressed a broken relationship between actual and art, and between painting and words. He was a Surrealist, and this movement, although with clear artistic influence thereafter and into the modern age, scattered when war began: 'The sense of chaos, of panic, which Surrealism hoped to foster so that everything may be called into question, was achieved much more successfully by those idiots the Nazis … Against widespread pessimism, I now propose a search for joy and pleasure'. So Magritte and his fellow Surrealists signed in a manifesto: Surrealism in Full Sunlight. After that, Magritte entered a Vache period, an explosion of political satire and grotesque ridicule, albeit affecting no more than nausea in the critics of the time. Those critics were prone to nausea, though.

More importantly, his stance had changed from the deconstruction of the relationship between Art and Reality - and Painting and Words - to a style that, despite being essentially satirical and critical of the world he saw, was an attack against the negativity of the world rather than an attack against its salvations. With the oncoming of war, therefore, the mood changed. Artists did not disintegrate their forms, did not expose the inadequacies of art forms - but rather they expelled those inadequacies by collaborating with one another. The poet needed the artist to elaborate his meaning in visual terms - and the artist needed a spark of inspiration, a leg-up. They needed each other equally. Amid the devastation of war, artists and poets recognised the most essential front against absolute destruction - human solidarity. In their works, therefore, they formed excellent dialogue, in which the brilliance and possibilities of human relationships are celebrated.

This romance of the two complimentary art forms, poetry and painting, proves itself to be extraordinary with the careful and informed curation of the 'French Book Art/Livres d'Artistes' exhibition on show in the middle of Manhattan this summer. It is the realisation of the original concept for the show by Yves Peyré and has travelled previously from The Fitzwillian Museum, Cambridge, England; to the Bibliothèque Municipale de Lyon; and the Sorbonne, Paris. With clear admiration for the artists and writers whose collaborations star under delicate spotlights, the exhibition represents a wide range of artists, mostly based in Paris, but also New York later in the century, through 126 artists' books. Other related works from corresponding periods and artists furthermore complemented the books, as well as photographs and sculptures that enrich the exhibition. The technique and care with which the exhibition is arranged parallels the incredible skill and sense of perfection with which the books were originally published. The exhibition, in a sense, is simply the continuation of a line of thought - where collaboration, sociability and mutual artistic sensibility are the centrepiece ideas. As one book expresses the imagination and creativity of two artists, so the exhibition publishes the entire movement with appropriate understanding and finesse.

The setting of the New York exhibition, furthermore, is ideal. It resides in a large room of the New York Public Library in the middle of Fifth Avenue, surrounded by other manuscripts and delicate works in other rooms … with people writing angry and yet eloquent letters to Mayor Bloomberg concerning the snatching of a million or so dollars of public funding for the institution by the entrance to the French Book Arts exhibit. The day I happened to see the exhibit, employees were rushing around in preparation for that night's 'The Beautiful and The Damned' party in another room. There are granite lions guarding the Fifth Avenue entrance and Fitzgerald's spirit drinking bourbon in the bar (it is a rare thing indeed to find a library with an open bar, with such a discreet elite). Never before has a library been such a happening place.

But chandeliers, fashion editors and glitterati aside, the Livres d'Artistes is a soirée that the masses can attend: why, admission is free of charge. Even a Fitzgerald whose inheritance has still not come through - or a Picasso who has smoked all his dollar notes with tobacco - could afford to see this exciting exhibit. Such is the democracy of the New York Public Library: the rich and famous dress as flappers, raising funds so that the artists can be enlightened for no expense. It is a beautiful thing.

One of the most illuminating features of the exhibition, never mind the pretty lights and bourbon in the air, is the timescale of the represented cultural association. The book art movement, subtle and understated in comparison with other movements that exploded and burned out quite rapidly, stretched over more than a century. More than that; the books are interrelated, not by simple form - a concept that these days, given the boom in graphic design and so on, does not seem so revolutionary. Rather, the books form a single and yet encompassing movement, at one with its central ideas of dialogue in reaction to destruction - a clear link between war and relationships - with the first ‘Make Love Not War’ banner to exist, where a love heart described the idea in place of the prose, but only in the context of the worded statement.

To print and paint had its developments and ramifications in the visual arts to such an extent that one cannot go into any collection of contemporary art without seeing some wordplay. Likewise, whether or not they admit it, most people do judge a book by its cover, as publishers realise, and they exploit the desire for a seductive picture with approaches that vary according to country. American publishers, for example, I am told by someone in publishing that night at the party, tend to describe the whole plotline in one revealing photograph, whereas the British remain inclined to provoke the reader, or viewer, with a suggestive detail. Words and pictures these days are inseparable - so inseparable, in fact, that it seems a strange concept that books were ever plain prose, in a superficial manner, or that paintings demanded no poetic license.

To see the Livres d'Artistes exhibition - in New York or anywhere else - is to fall in love all over again. It is to see the most luminous and yet understated mutual expression of solidarity in the face of disintegration. These books were made during war, in the grieving silences that followed, and in the fever that precipitated a new one: in a time when all three modes seemed to be playing grotesquely at once and when dialogue, writing and art were needed more than ever before. 'Manuscripts don't burn', Bulgakov wrote,2 and one statement with its entwined picture remains especially clear through all the smoke - it just sparkles in reactive romance: 'Make Love Not War'.

Fitzgerald isn't even at the Beautiful and Damned party: he crept downstairs, a Manhattan in hand, to see the soirée of poetry and painting, so silent and yet so musical, a discreet romance in the dusk of the library, as the revelry and glitter colours the sky pink in renaissance.

Christiana Spens

1. Exhibition Introduction. Yves Peyré, Director, Bibliotheque Litteraire Jacques Doucet, Universités de Paris.
2. Bulgakov M. The Master and Margarita. London: Penguin Books, 2004.

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