Jessica Berenbeim, a University Lecturer at the Faculty of English and a Fellow of Jesus College, has selected works from the Books On Books Collection for this exhibition. With the assistance of Justine Provino, a doctoral student at Cambridge, Berenbeim has arranged the works to effect a certain conversation. As she writes,
Artists’ experiments with books and letters have taken many forms, some of which look more like books than others. This exhibition of book art, and book-inspired art, opens a view of one of its most intriguing stories: the tradition of reflections, riffs, and responses to one seminal work, Stéphane Mallarmé’s A Roll of the Dice Never Will Abolish Chance (Un Coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard). Mallarmé’s experimental work celebrates its 125th anniversary in May 2022, when this exhibition opens. The particular objects on display here, and on view at the screening events, play on two central ideas inspired by this work: chance and visible language. The works in the exhibition are in effect a conversation about the intersection of those themes. What part does chance have to play in the way language is depicted on (or off) the page, and how might accidents of language determine how it looks? How does meaning settle throughout the forms of letters, words, lines, pages, and books, as well as in what the words say?
The exhibition and screenings include works by Jérémie Bennequin, Isabella Checcaglini & Mohammed Bennis, Robert Filliou, Ernest Fraenkel, Rodney Graham, ‘Estelle J.’, Michel Lorand, André Masson, Reinhold Nasshan, Michalis Pichler, Man Ray, Mitsou Ronat & Tibor Papp, and Honorine Tepfer.
Berenbeim and Provino have suspended seven plates from Pichler‘s homage to hang over the cases containing works by Bennequin, Nasshan, Lorand, Tepfer and Estelle J.. and quietly cast shadows to pun with those works and the exhibition’s title.
In a display case seemingly made for his particular work, the result of Bennequin’s long-distance performances of erasure with his colleague and publisher Antoine Lefebvre calls across the room to all the other works of chance and visible language.
Jérémie Bennequin, Un Coup de Dés jamais n’abolira le Hasard, Dé-composition (2009-2013)
With the sun streaming into West Court Gallery, the only things missing from the buzz of these conversations were perhaps canapés, champagne and name tags to celebrate the 125th anniversary of this strange poem’s publication.
Renée Riese Hubert and Judd D. Hubert, the curators of a 2003 exhibition celebrating the influence of Un Coup de Dés on art, took umbrage at André Masson’s homage as these three extracts demonstrate:
Far from continuing or elaborating on Mallarmé’s project, Masson has contrived a systematic substitution of graphics, including calligraphy, for a typographical chef-d’oeuvre, thus enabling an unforeseen and uninvited art form to usurp the territory of another. (p. 508)
… in illustrating poetry he more often than not deserves his usual designation of abstract surrealist, all the more so because he combines automatism with the mythological dynamism so characteristic of his paintings and his drawings. (p. 513)
… Mallarmé’s poem, characterized by its avoidance of anecdotal narrative, its deliberate twistings of metaphorical patterns, its deconstruction of rhythmic continuity, practically precludes figuration. How can any illustration, however abstract, lend visual support to a text that compounds to such an extent the problematics of representation? … How could Masson graphically master a text that perversely withdraws from the reader and pores over itself, like the hypothetically sentient waves it repeatedly evokes, questions, and denies? (p. 514)
His use of only the last four words in Mallarmé’s preface to the Cosmopolis edition (reprinted with changes in the 1914 NRF/Gallimard edition) is a clue that Masson is going to challenge La Poésie as the Unique Source or perhaps confirm it as the source of this very work that, according to the Huberts, runs at odds with Mallarmé’s poem.
But, given that deliberate, selective quotation from the preface, is this work the result of chance-driven Automatism? After all, isn’t the work driven by the poem to which it pays homage and by the engagement with the Amateurs du livre et de l’estampe modernes. While chance-driven Automatism implies a spontaneity that the practice of lithography affirms, that is so only up to a point. Even if Masson were drawing directly on a prepared surface, the production of these colors and imposition would have required careful planning and methodical execution. Much like Mallarmé’s as revealed in the proofs of his unfulfilled deluxe edition.
Although Masson’s layout of the text does not follow Mallarmé’s meticulous adjustments, it does nod in that direction as can be seen above and below, and like Mallarmé, Masson is primarily engaged with the double-page spread as his canvas. The dark green image in the spread above left could be anchored seaweed; the script curling away into the tangle could be words trapped in the shipwreck’s rigging. The gray image in the spread above right is a spectral human form juxtaposed with the words “Le Maître”. But if the Huberts are right that no illustration can lend visual support to a text that challenges the foundations of representation, is this work of homage a failed attempt to continue or elaborate on Mallarmé’s project as they conclude?
There is another perspective. Other of Masson’s works such as Florence at Dusk (1958) and Metamorphosis (1963) display the same technique and color so manifest in this distinctive homage. There is no denying that this artist’s response is anything other than authentic. Isn’t it the case that Masson’s embrace of the chance-driven technique of Automatism and chance puts him at the end of Le Maître‘s voyage where “All thought emits a throw of the dice” rather than at the beginning where there is hesitation in the face of Le Hasard. No surprise then that Masson’s homage does not concern itself with choosing the right typeface, placing the words precisely on the page as they appeared in the 1914 edition or respectfully distancing any artwork from the text. Masson takes Un Coup de Dés as a point of departure for a throw of the dice on his own terms. Masson does not usurp; he appropriates.
“André Masson”. Artsy. Accessed 30 July 2021. Displays 217 works. “An early Surrealist and devotee of Cubism—who went on to inspire the New York Abstract Expressionists before taking up a late interest in impressionistic landscapes—André Masson was an iconoclast whose abrupt stylistic transitions defy classification. Along with Joan Miró, he explored automatic drawing, seeking to express the creative force of the unconscious. This led to images—like the celebrated Battle of the Fishes (1927), a poetic depiction of conflict and metamorphosis with undertones of primordial eroticism—derived from random gestures and drawn spontaneously in glue, then sprinkled with colored sands for added texture and complexity. His signature violence, evident in the terrifying, fragmented figures of In The Tower of Sleep (1938), reflects the horrors of the Spanish Civil War and WWII, as well as his own troubled psyche in the aftermath of his service in WWI.”
“André Masson”. Wikiart: Visual Art Encyclopedia. Accessed 30 July 2021.
UN COUP DE DÉS JAMAIS N’ABOLIRA LE HASARD: POÈME (1989)
UN COUP DE DÉS JAMAIS N’ABOLIRA LE HASARD: POÈME(1989) Stéphane Mallarmé (text); Honorine Tepfer (art & design) Accordion fold with embossed paper cover. Cover – H325 x W255 mm; Book – H320 x W250 mm, 34 pages. Edition of 48, of which this is #5. Acquired from Studio Montespecchio, 2 February 2022. Photos: Books On Books Collection. Displayed with permission of the artist.
Before his sudden death in 1898, Stéphane Mallarmé was planning a deluxe edition of Un Coup de Dés Jamais N’Abolira le Hasard with Ambroise Vollard, an entrepreneur and publisher. A single-volume version of the poem did not appear until 1914. Issued under the direction of Mallarmé’s son-in-law Dr. Edmond Bonniot through the Nouvelle Revue de France (NRF), it omitted intended prints by Odilon Redon, used the typeface Elzevir rather than the Didot that Mallarmé preferred, and did not precisely follow his layout. We know all this because of correspondence between the poet, Redon and Vollard and because the Sorbonne’s Bibliothèque littéraire Jacques Doucet and Harvard’s Houghton Library hold proofs of the deluxe edition with Mallarmé’s handwritten corrections and instructions.
Mallarmé’s placement of words and lines was intentional and precise. Even before the planning for the deluxe edition, he wrote of what could be achieved with type size and layout:
Pourquoi — un jet de grandeur, de pensée ou d’émoi, considérable, phrase poursuivie, en gros caractère, une ligne par page à emplacement gradué, ne maintiendrait-il le lecteur en haleine, la durée du livre, avec appel à sa puissance d’enthousiasme: autour, menus, des groupes, secondairement d’après leur importance, explicatifs ou dérivés — un semis de fioritures. [Oeuvres Complètes, 2 227]
“Why — couldn’t a considerable burst of greatness of thought or emotion, carried in a sentence in large typeface, gradually placed with one line per page, hold the reader’s bated breath throughout the entire book by appealing to his or her power of enthusiasm: around this [burst], smaller groups of secondary importance, explicating or deriving from the primary phrase — a scattering of flourishes.” [Arnar, 234]
The NRF edition 1914 edition makes quite a few sad missteps as Robert Cohn pointed out in 1967. Tepfer’s inspiration to restore the intended layout follows in the footsteps of Mitsou Ronat & Tibor Papp (1980) and Neil Crawford (1985). She visited the Doucet library to examine the proofs and layout. Following the layout was not difficult, but with the scarcity of Didot, Tepfer needed to select another typeface. She chose Baskerville. Given that Firmin Didot was inspired by John Baskerville’s experimentation with thick and thin strokes, the choice adds historical interest, although Bodoni might have been nearer the mark. Below are Tepfer’s double-page spreads across which Mallarmé’s burst of thought appears one line per page among the “scattering of flourishes”.
The book’s central double-page spread, beginning with COMME SI / “AS IF”) in the upper left and ending with COMME SI / “AS IF” in the lower right, mimics the throw and fall of the dice and provides another example of the semantic and typographic play that Mallarmé describes above.
Like the artists before her — Redon (1897), André Masson (1961), Mario Diacono (1968), Marcel Broodthaers (1969), Jean Lecoultre (1975), Ian Wallace (1979) and Ian Tyson (1985) — Tepfer had to solve the puzzle of relating image to text. This is the difficult path of inverse ekphrasis: what and how the visual, tactile and conceptual works of art that come after Mallarmé’s text can be. We are more used to ekphrasis where the object, painting or sculpture comes before the text — like Achilles’ shield before Homer’s description, or the Grecian urn before Keats’ ode, or Brueghel’s Fall of Icarus before Auden’s Musée des Beaux Arts. Homer, Keats and Auden vie with the art of the crafted object to put that object (and more) in front of us with words. With the inverse, the crafted objects vie without the words to put Mallarmé’s poem (and more — and sometimes less!) in front of us. Tepfer’s solution?
A simple line runs across the debossed front and back covers. As Tepfer wrote in June 1990 about her journey into Un Coup de Dés: La ligne d’horizon était un sujet de ma hantise / “The horizon line was my obsession”. As the folded paper cover opens, a single geometric, abstract image appears — debossed and embossed on blank paper. Except for a single round dot, everything is linear. Two separate lines angle across the space. One cuts through the debossed horizon line that lies beneath a series of closely spaced horizontal lines — suggesting clouds? The other, longer one cuts at a different angle, creating a foreground from two sets of parallel lines that have slipped or shifted like tectonic plates. Could the round dot be the single-dot side of a die rolling down a slanted deck or broken mast? Could the longer slanted line be a broken mast? Could the shifted parallel lines be a broken handrail?
Rather than trying to track back to verbal images in the poem, though, perhaps we should recognize Tepfer’s prefatory image as a kind of substitute for Mallarmé’s preface in 1897 — the one he preferred we not read. He wanted us to look. To see les blancs. To hold thought and emotion like our breath across the space of the book. With her simple rectangle of blank paper, with the absence of ink, with the geometric solidity of the horizontal and slanting lines, and with the velvet softness of the velin d’Arches across her version’s accordion folds, Tepfer encourages us to look, see, hold meaning in abeyance and sense it.
Après Un Coup de Dés (2015) Michel Lorand Cover and gatherings, untrimmed and unbound, in glassine envelope. Cover: H362 x W260; gatherings: H362 x W256 mm; 32 unnumbered pages. Edition of 50, of which this is #19. Acquired from the artist, 22 October 2021. Photos: Books On Books Collection. Displayed with the artist’s permission.
Since the 1960s when Ernest Fraenkel, Mario Diacono and Marcel Broodthaers blotted out the text of Mallarmé’s poem Un Coup de Dés Jamais N’Abolira le Hasard (1897) to create their works of homage, numerous others have expanded on the technique: substituting images of sonograms (Sammy Engramer, 2009) or algorithmically generated abstractions (Eric Zboya, 2018, and Benjamin Lord, 2019), or excising the text (Michalis Pichler, 2008, and Cerith Wyn Evans, 2008) or algorithmically erasing it (Jérémie Bennequin, 2009) — just to name a few.
In Après Un Coup de Dés (2015), the only printed marks are the cover’s traditional black and red borders and the printer’s registration and gathering marks on the sheets. Wherever else Mallarmé’s text would have been printed has been excised. In reply to a question about the process involved, Lorand explains that he had asked the designer Filiep Tacq to create a layout that would cover in black exactly the blocks of text as it appears in the current Gallimard book edition of Mallarmé’s poem, including the front and back covers (correspondence with the artist, 1 November 2021). Lorand took a scalpel to the offset printed sheets, removed the blackened blocks, folded the sheets by hand into the four gatherings, assembled them in the correct order and laid them untrimmed and loose inside the cover. Each of fifty copies was placed inside its own handmade glassine envelope along with a flyer including introductory text by Jacques Sojcher (emeritus professor, University of Brussels) and the colophon for the work. It is a book that is not-yet a book.
Lorand’s and all of these other works of homage give us inverse ekphrasis. They are the visual, tactile and conceptual works of art that come after Mallarmé’s text. We are more used to ekphrasis where the object, painting or sculpture comes before the text — like Achilles’ shield before Homer’s description, or the Grecian urn before Keats’ ode, or Brueghel’s Fall of Icarus before Auden’s Musée des Beaux Arts. Homer, Keats and Auden vie with the art of the crafted object to put that object (and more) in front of us with words. With the inverse, the crafted objects vie without the words to put Mallarmé’s poem (and more — and sometimes less!) in front of us.
Many of the hommageurs hint at the “and more” with a subtitle to Un Coup de Dés Jamais N’Abolira le Hasard. With Broodthaers, it is Image; with Pichler, Sculpture; with Engramer, Onde (Wave as in soundwave); and with Bennequin, Omage (as in hommage with the “h” and “m” missing). With Lorand, there is no subtitle. Instead, we have the word après prefacing the truncated title of the poem. But, “after” Mallarmé’s poem, what is Lorand proposing? An homage in the form of something that restates, reproduces the poem but without the words? An homage in the form of something else presented in the manner of Un Coup de Dés but without the words? Or something else that simply occurs after the poem’s roll of the dice? As it turns out, all that and more.
Paul Valèry was probably the first of Mallarmé’s circle to see and hear Un Coup de Dés. His reaction picks out one of the themes that make up Lorand’s “and more”:
It seemed to me that I was looking at the form and pattern of a thought, placed for the first time in a finite space. Here space itself truly spoke, dreamed, and gave birth to temporal forms. Expectancy, doubt, concentration, all were visible things. With my own eye I could see silences that had assumed bodily shapes. Inappreciable instants became clearly visible: the fraction of a second during which an idea flashes into being and dies away; atoms of time that serve as the germs of infinite consequences lasting through psychological centuries — at last these appeared as beings, each surrounded with a palpable emptiness…. there in the same void with them, like some new form of matter arranged in systems or masses or trailing lines, coexisted the Word! — Paul Valéry, Collected Works of Paul Valery, Volume 8: Leonardo, Poe, Mallarmé (1972).
My <<Après un Coup de Dés>> introduces a corpus of approaches to what might be “the movement” that constitutes speech: “A language that speaks” as Martin Heidegger calls it (Unterwegs zur Sprache, Verlag Günther Jeske, Pfullingen, FRG, 1959).
How can we think, how can we imagine this movement within language itself? What path to take to allow us to experience this movement, the one that constitutes the word itself. This word is sound. The object of all my work is the identification of what could be the image of this movement, of this word. This exploration attempts to approach the nature of this movement: a word beyond language when the latter is silent. (Correspondence with the artist, 1 November 2021.)
Like his others, Heidegger’s On the Way to Language is a dense book; more than the others, it is poetical, an invitation to experience language. In it is a series of lectures entitled “The Nature of Language” in which Heidegger uses two poems, one by Stefan George and one by Gottfried Benn, to question language about its nature. Although George’s poem is the one that Heidegger deeply explicates, Benn’s is the one that, echoing Valèry, sheds the most light on Lorand’s Après Un Coup de Dés — especially with its last two lines.
A word, a phrase –: from cyphers rise Life recognized, a sudden sense, The sun stands still, mute are the skies, And compacts it, stark and dense.
A word — a gleam, a light, a spark, A thrust of flames, a stellar trace — And then again — immense — the dark Round world and I in empty space.
Après Un Coup de Dés seems to be a wordless invitation to experience language. But in a sense, Mallarmé’s words have not disappeared, not entirely. Their shapes — embodied in the voids — move silently and rhythmically across the unfolded sheets; in the gatherings, they cascade over one another much as they do syntactically and typographically in print. And even though the text is not before (in front of) us, Lorand’s artwork delivers a wordless experience of a key paradox of language with which Mallarmé sought to imbue his poem: the language of the void or abyss — the void or abyss of language. One of the ways in which the poem presents this self-enveloping paradox is that it begins and ends with the words un coup de dés, the act that can never abolish chance and the act that all thought emits. Similarly, Après un Coup de Dés displays the presence of language by displaying the absence of language, or les blancs defined by and defining empty space.
Mallarmé’s invitation in Un Coup de Dés, however, beckons us to a slightly different concept of language than that articulated by Heidegger. For Mallarmé, chance plays a prominent role in what Heidegger would call the “neighborhood of poetry and thought”. But chance, hazard or a roll of the dice plays a much less prominent role for Heidegger, and in Lorand’s work of art, with its registration and gathering marks and glassine enclosure, there seems little allusion to it — perhaps naturally so since Lorand’s work comes after the dice have been rolled.
Even though it comes after Mallarmé’s completed poem and after the Gallimard book edition, Après presents as an unfinished work, a book not yet trimmed and bound, which reflects not only Mallarmé’s unfinished realization of the poem as a book but also his unfinished life’s pursuit: le Livre, the thing in which everything in the world would end up — the thing that, by virtue of a spacious mobility of typographic layout and the interplay of its elements, would be “the total expansion of the letter”. Lorand’s attention and manual precision in excising the blackened blocks where the text would otherwise appear evoke Mallarmé’s attention to the minute details of typeface, size and font shown in his handwritten mark-up of the proofs for the book edition he was planning before he died.
In the 2018 display of Après Un Coup de Dés, the previously gathered but now unfolded sheets and cover lie side by side under glass. Often this is cause for complaint about the distanced display of artist books. In the case of Après Un Coup de Dés, the distance effectively draws point-blank attention to what the privileged reader gradually discovers in handling the work. The unprivileged reader may have to imagine the making, unmaking and remaking of the book but, confronted with the gestalt of the undone gatherings and their registration marks, that reader immediately sees/witnesses the void defined by a void.
Après Un Coup de Dés in the group exhibition Reading Hand Writing Bodies at Les Abattoirs de Bomel, Centre d’art de Namur, Belgium, 8 February – 11 March 2018. Photo: Courtesy of the artist.
In relation to Broodthaer’s Image and Pichler’s Sculpture, Après comes both before and after. The positioning of the words après, image and sculpture vis à vis the poem’s title has been noted already. Of all three visual, tactile and conceptual works, Lorand’s stands as the chronologically “after” yet unfinished “before” to Broodthaers’ and Pichler’s finished works. In yet another “afterness” to Mallarmé’s poem, Lorand likens Après to a silent score of music or a piano roll (correspondence with the artist, 1 November 2021). This echoes — if that is not too perverse a verb — Mallarmé’s reference to “score” in his preface to Un Coup de Dés. In premonitory, if not coincidental, irony, Lorand’s piano-roll-like 2015 work precedes a work that Michalis Pichler created for his 2016 Milan exhibition: a piano roll playable on a foot-pumped pianola and entitled Un Coup de Dés Jamais N’Abolira le Hasard: Musique (see video above).
The interplay of its philosophical roots with its mechanically produced print and its manual cuts makes Lorand’s AprèsUn Coup de Dés one of the more challenging works of homage to Mallarmé’s poem. To “hear” it side by side with the others in the Books On Books Collection (see below) is rewarding.
“Eric Zboya“. Books On Books Collection. 01 June 2020.
Heidegger, Martin, and Peter D. Hertz, trans. 1959/2009. On the Way to Language. San Francisco: HarperOne. Reprint. “No matter how we put our questions to language about its nature, first of all it is needful that language vouchsafe itself to us. If it does, the nature of language becomes the grant of its essential being, that is, the being of language becomes the language of being” (p. 72).
Renée Riese Hubert and Judd D. Hubert’s The Cutting Edge of Reading: Artists’ Books (Granary Books, 1999) is a signal work of appreciation and analysis of book art. Nearly twenty years on, it can be read and appreciated itself more vibrantly with a web browser open alongside it.
To facilitate that for others, here follows a linked version of the bibliography in The Cutting Edge of Reading — a “webliography”. Because web links do break, multiple, alternative links per entry and permanent links from libraries, repositories and collections have been used wherever possible. These appear in the captions as well as the text entries. Also included are links to videos relating to the works or the artists. At the end of the webliography, links for finding copies of The Cutting Edge (now out of print) are provided.