Books On Books Collection – “La Prose du Transsibérien Re-Creation” by Kitty Maryatt

It was 1913. Stravinsky’s ballet “The Rite of Spring” debuted. The Cubists, Constructivists, Suprematists, Futurists all bound onto the art scene, many of them showcased in the Armory Show in New York that year. The Nouvelle revue française (NRF) attempted the first book form of Stéphane Mallarmé’s Un Coup de Dés Jamais N’Abolira le Hasard, which revived that 1897 typographic disruption of the page and prepared the ground for dozens of works of book art since. And Blaise Cendrars and Sonia Delaunay-Terk announced and published what they called le premier livre simultané. It was La Prose du Transsibérien et de la petite Jehanne de France.

From the Bodleian Library collection
Photos: Books On Books

From the National Art Library, Victoria & Albert
Photo: Books On Books

La Prose du Transsibérien et de la Petite Jehanne de France (1913)
Blaise Cendrars and Sonia Delaunay-Terk
Photo: Swann Gallery Auction “19th & 20th Century Prints & Drawings Featuring Property from the Ismar Littmann Family Collection“, 5 March 2019.

Like Mallarmé, Cendrars disrupts the page with multiple typefaces (thirty distinct ones in his case) and scattered placement of lines and stanzas. But La Prose presents an even more physical and structural disruption of the page and book than Un Coup de Dés. Unlike the latter, La Prose unfolds — twice — in an accordion format to over two metres in length or rather height since the text descends on the right and ends alongside the interlinked images of the Eiffel Tower and a Ferris wheel at the foot of the accordion. Cendrars and Delaunay had aimed to produce 150 copies of La Prose because, placed end to end, that would have equalled the Eiffel Tower’s height.

More than this monumental, sculptural, typographic and physical disruption of page and book, La Prose presents a temporal disruption. By le premier livre simultané, Cendrars meant a simultaneity of the verbal and visual — the way that text and image appear all at once — en un éclair. Early Bohemian that he was, Cendrars was co-opting a fair bit of artistic and literary theorising by the Cubists, Futurists and others. Most important and of the moment was his co-opting of Robert and Sonia Delaunay’s colour theory of simultanéisme. The “couleurs simultanées de Mme Delaunay-Terk” had also appeared in her 1913 robe simultanée and paintings. Building on a French scientist’s exposition on how perception of colours changes depending on the colours around them, the Delaunays claimed that rhythmic, musical and spatial synaesthetic elements were also at play. Sonia Delaunay asserted that the artwork produced for La Prose was not in response to reading the poem but hearing it from Cendrars. (Listen to it for yourself here.)

La robe simultanée/“The Simultaneous Dress” (1913)
as displayed in ”Sonia Delaunay at Tate Modern, 15 April – 9 August 2015
Photo: © LondonArtFile.

In presenting the adolescent Cendrars travelling physically eastward on the Transsibérien, travelling mentally to Flanders-Basle-Timbuctoo-Auteuil-Longchamps-Paris-New York while still registering the landscape outside, seeing the maimed and wounded returning from the front of the Russo-Japanese war, conversing with a prostitute named after Joan of Arc, doubting himself as a poet, and so on until a sudden transposition back to Paris, the process poem juxtaposes the sacred and profane, past/present/future, stationary and dynamic, national and international in outlook and locale. In short, simultaneously. In a format that is bound and unbound, the poem mirrors the swirling, interacting shapes and colours beside and in which it moves — and vice versa.

However more disruptive of the page and book La Prose may have been, it did not inspire the profusion of direct re-interpretations (or appropriations) that Un Coup de Dés prompted from artists such as Jérémie Bennequin, Ellsworth Kelly, Man Ray, Didier Mutel, Michel Pichler, Eric Zboya and dozens of others.

Bennequin, Kelly, Man Ray, Mutel, Pichler and Zboya on the shoulders of Mallarmé.

Not until 2001 did a re-versioning of La Prose appear. Tony Baker and Alan Halsey published an English translation and codex re-formatting. Its black on white imagery is reminiscent of the Russian Futurists, the type is monochromatic, and the typefaces, fonts and weights vary but not as much as in La Prose.

Baker and Halsey note in their colophon:

So far as we’re aware no translation of the poem into English has ever been attempted to give a sense of Cendrars and Delaunay’s original conception, not the least reason for which may have been the difficulty until recently of seeing the first edition, even in reproduction. Prose of the Trans-Siberian and of the Little Jeanne de France (Sheffield: West House Books, 2001)

A well-founded lament — at least for the book art community. Not until 2000 had there been a reduced-scale reproduction of La Prose. It appeared in Granary Books’  A Book of the Book by Jerome Rothenberg and Steven Clay across a four-page foldout in the embrace of Ron Padgett’s English translation. Only in 2008 was there a full-scale, full-colour offset facsimile, produced by Yale University Press with an appended translation. It is now out of print.

The Yale University Press offset facsimile. Image courtesy of Accordion Publications

With her work La Prose du Transsibérien Re-creation (2019), Kitty Maryatt has changed all that. With this deuxième livre simultané, she has more than caught the echo of Cendrars/Delaunay’s original and its arrival. As scholar, artist and veritable impresaria, she has reinvigorated the book art/arts community with the legacy of La Prose

Her blogspot documents the research and production with rich details about sourcing the type, learning about stencil-cutting from Atelier Coloris (one of the few remaining businesses devoted to pochoir), determining the recipes for the ink colours, testing papers (Zerkall Crème, Biblio, and Rives HW), creating a census of the existing 1913/14 originals and their locations —  all that and more, including the use of bacon fat and a wine bottle filled with lead shot. She also organized a documentary by Rosylyn Rhee: “The Pochoir Re-creation of La Prose du Transsibérien”. It brings the importance of the original and this re-creation to life in the expressions and voices of prominent collectors, librarians and scholars, artists, rare book dealers and the project’s funders.

In addition, Maryatt has been either a contributor to, or the motivating force behind, several symposia and exhibitions such as “Paris 1913: Reinventing the Artist’s Book” (at the Legion of Honor Museum in San Francisco, 2018) and “Drop Dead Gorgeous”. The latter is a travelling exhibition resulting from invitations to twenty-four book artists and designer bookbinders to design and create bound copies of La Prose du Transsibérien Re-creation. For the San Francisco venue, Maryatt prepared a workshop on traditional French pochoir and provided text for the exhibition catalogue (available from the online store of the San Francisco Center for Books).

Announcement of “Drop Dead Gorgeous” exhibition at the San Francisco Center for Books, showing Dominic Riley’s fine binding of La Prose du Transsibérien Re-creation

Monique Lallier’s fine binding of La Prose du Transsibérien Re-creation 
Photos: Courtesy of Monique Lallier

The pinnacle of Maryatt’s efforts, of course, is the standard and deluxe editions of La Prose. Both editions consist of 4 pages, glued together to create the tall single page. For the standard edition, the page is folded into 21 sections and loosely placed in a painted vellum cover with a booklet describing the project and production. An acrylic slipcase houses the covered bundle.

The standard edition
Photo: Books On Books

Photo: Books On Books

Photos: Books On Books

For the deluxe edition, the single page is left double-wide, accordion-folded double-tall between aluminum covers and housed in a clamshell box. A separate case holds the painted vellum cover, colour cards, Sonia’s visual vocabulary, 27 progressives for page one, 5 pochoir plates with tracing paper and registration system, the booklet with introduction and colophon, and the list of 30 typefaces Cendrars used. A large clamshell box houses this separate case and the boxed book. The colour cards include the recipe for mixing the gouache, and Sonia’s visual vocabulary shows the numbered steps of operations. The progressives for page one show the steps for doing the pochoir stencils and handwork.

The deluxe edition
Photos: Courtesy of Kitty Maryatt

Any institution with a focus on book art or the graphic arts should seek out the standard edition of La Prose du Transsibérien Re-creation. Any institution with a focus on teaching and practice in those domains should seek out the deluxe edition. As indefatigable as Cendrars and as productive as Delaunay, Kitty Maryatt has provided the basis of master classes for generations. Now it is up to the book art community to respond as it has to Un Coup de Dés.

A shorter version of this essay appears in Parenthesis 39, Fall Issue, 2020.

Further Reading

Ashton, Doré. “On Blaise Cendrars. . . But I Digress.” Raritan 31, no. 2 (2011): 1-42,164. An entertaining extended anecdote sketching Cendrars and his milieu.

Gage, John. Colour and Meaning : Art, Science and Symbolism (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1999). Despite her works’ better quality and representation of simultanéisme, Gage focuses on Robert and mentions Sonia only in passing or footnotes. (Telling that the Tate chose Sonia not Robert for a retrospective in 2015.) Nevertheless, there are passages that place her work in context.

P.198: Chevreul’s “privileging of the harmony of complementaries was essentially in the context of ‘painting in flat tints’, a method developed largely in the decorative arts, but which was increasingly integrated into many branches of French painting in the second half of the nineteenth century …”.

P.254 “When, probably early in 1912, Delaunay wrote to Kandinsky outlining his theories, he had shifted to a rather different approach, claiming: ‘the laws I discovered … are based on researches into the transparency of colour, that can be compared with musical tones. This has obliged me to discover the movement of colours.’ …

P.256 [Delaunay’s] Essay on Light, which was composed in the summer of 1912, attributed the movement of colours less to transparency than to the qualities of hue: ‘Movement is given by the relationship of unequal measures, of contrasts of colours among themselves which constitute Reality. The reality has depth (we see as far as the stars), and thus becomes rhythmic Simultaneity.’”

P.257 “For Chevreul in 1839 such painting [in flat tints] had only a decorative, accessory function, but the Delaunays did not feel the distinction, and Sonia had recently been experimenting with flat colours in appliqué textiles and in bookbindings decorated with collage.”

Maryatt, Kitty. “A Bookmaker’s Analysis of Blaise Cendrar’s and Sonia Delaunay’s La Prose du Transsibérien et de la Petite Jehanne de France”, The Quarterly Newsletter (Fall 2016), The Book Club of California. Online version available here.

Maryatt, Kitty. Interview with Steve Miller, Book Arts Podcasts, School of Library Information and Sciences, University of Alabama, 13 January 2006.

Perloff, Marjorie. The Futurist Moment: Avant-Garde, Avant-Guerre, and the Language of Rupture, 2nd ed. (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2003). Along with Shingler’s essay, this is the best explication of the work and its lineage with Mallarmé’s Un Coup de Dés.

Rothenberg, Jerome; Clay, Steven. A Book of the Book: Some Works & Projections about the Book & Writing (New York City: Granary Books, 2000). Contains an excerpt from Perloff’s book above, Ron Padgett’s translation of La Prose and a four-page foldout showing a full-color photo-reduction of the 1913 original.

Shingler, Katherine. “Visual-verbal encounters in Cendrars and Delaunay‘s
La Prose du Transsibérien
“, e-France: an on-line Journal of French Studies, Vol. 3, 2012, pp. 1-28. Accessed 15 November 2019. Along with Perloff’s book, this is the best explication of the work and its lineage with Mallarmé’s Un Coup de Dés.

Sidoti, Antoine. Genèse et dossier d’une polémique: ‘La Prose du Transsibérien et de la Petite Jehanne de France’. Blaise Cendrars – Sonia Delaunay (Paris: Lettres Modernes, 1987). Provides the compressed time line within which the poet and artist created the work.

Slevin, Tom. Visions of the Human: Art, World War I and the Modernist Subject (London: I.B. Tauris, 2015). Provides a lengthy discussion of la robe simultanée and La Prose.

Woodall, Stephen. “La Prose du Transsibérien et de la Petite Jehanne de France”, Insights from the de Young and Legion of Honor (San Francisco: Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, 2020. A spectacular website presenting the original work in its context and its influences on subsequent book art. The work can be viewed panel by panel, and its overall structure is presented in an animation of its unfolding and refolding.

Bookmarking Book Art – The Colophon and the Left-over “i”

This tale comes from J. S. Kennard’s short 1901 tome on the colophon — that last page at the end of a manuscript or book. The colophon has served many purposes: giving the title of the work, identifying the scribe or printer, naming the place and date of completion or imprint, thanking and praising the patron, bragging, blaming, apologizing, entreating, praying and much more. Examples can be traced back to clay tablets and forward to websites.

Cuneiform tablet from the Library of Ashurbanipal, British Museum. Interesting that the colophon was added in ink after the clay had dried.
Colofon page of Rijksmuseum website

Its presence on websites may be one of those decried skeuomorphic hangovers from book publishing, but perhaps the colophon has an underlying value or purpose to serve in both the analogue and digital worlds. The late Bill Hill, who wrote the 1999 Microsoft white paper “The Magic of Reading” and was an early contributor to online typography, suggested making colophons a compulsory standard for website design and asked:

Why not introduce the venerable concept of the colophon to the Web? Could it be used to drive a new business model for fonts which would benefit the font industry, web developers and designers – and the people who visit their sites?[Sadly this page at the Bill Hill’s site is no longer available.]

Fanciful? Perhaps, but not much more fanciful than Erasmus’ proffered explanation of the word “colophon”. His expanded edition of Adagia printed by Manutius in 1508 includes this adage:

Colophonem addidit He added the colophon. This came to be used when the finishing touch is added to something, or when some addition is made without which a piece of business cannot be concluded. The origin of the adage is pointed out by Strabo in … his Geography, …

And here is Strabo from the Loeb Classical Library online:

As venerable a publishing custom as the colophon may be, it is more honoured in the breach than the observance. Book artists tend to be more observant, but not religiously so, and of course some works of book art might be disfigured by a colophon. Still, there are sound reasons why book artists should bother themselves with a colophon — even if it stands apart from the work. In her review of Book Artists and Artists Who Make Books (2017), India Johnson gives one of those sound reasons:

It’s probably impossible to include every detail of production in a colophon—but some give it their best stab, exhaustively listing everyone that took part in a project. More concise colophons recap only the most relevant details of making—perhaps those the primary creator feels will factor saliently into making meaning of the book.

The convention of the colophon in our field exposes an assumption that the meaning of an artwork is informed not only by the finished product, but by the specifics of artistic labor. Book Artists and Artists Who Make Books“, CBAA, 1 October 2018. Accessed 3 October 2018.

If craft does figure in a work’s meaning, then the more we can see how it figures, the greater our ability to appreciate and understand the work. For conveying insight — what materials and from what sources, what processes, what tools, who contributed, where and when the work occurred — the colophon stands ready. But where does it stand?

A contemporary of Kennard, A.W. Pollard declared that, to be a proper colophon, it had to appear at the conclusion or summit of the work. Artful as are some of the manuscripts and books that Kennard and Pollard cite, none push the envelope in the manner that works of contemporary book art do. Which brings us to another reason for book artists to consider the colophon: inspiration from history or tradition.

The last page of the codex may be a rightful spot for placing the codex, but what if the bookwork’s shape is challenging or musing about the shape of the book? Finishing touches might go anywhere. Think of Van Eyck’s self-portrait hidden in a reflection in The Arnolfini Portrait, or that of Vélazquez in Las Meninas.

Historians’ diligent cataloging of the “hands” of the scribes has enriched the self-identifications in colophons and connected those craftspersons with additional manuscripts. Book artists who use calligraphy or involve calligraphers should ponder the implications of this tool historians use to identify scribes by the style of their “hands”.

Late Medieval English Scribes (2011)
The Centre for Medieval Studies at the University of York

What potential, meaningful “tells” in a work’s colophon might the book artist or calligrapher leave to enrich the work — and provide insights for historians and connoisseurs poring over the finishing touch?

The colophon’s underlying value or purpose warrants book artists’ thinking about recording it offline and online, though this might be stretching the definition of the colophon. Our enjoyment of Kitty Maryatt’s 2018 reconstruction of La prose du Transsibérien et de la Petite Jehanne de France (1913) by Blaise Cendrars and Sonia Delaunay is certainly enhanced by the “colophonic” booklet she included with the work and the “About” page online.

Perhaps the story of the little “i” left over – the colophon – will prod the future historians of book art to examine bookworks and their artists’ websites for those finishing touches and stir artists to bestow that last finishing touch for the sake of the work’s soul if not their own.

A Prospect of Colophons

The Anatomy Lesson: Unveiling the Fasciculus Medicinae (2004)
Joyce Cutler-Shaw
The careful reader will notice that the edition number is missing. This instance of the work is one of the binder’s signed but unnumbered copies, having been acquired directly from Daniel E. Kelm.
The Ballad of the Self Same Thing (2019)
Lyn Dillin
Can this be the first rhyming colophon?
Finding Home (2016)
Louise Levergneux
This may not be the first bilingual colophon I have seen, but its being inside the top of the box enclosing the work makes it the first to occupy the physical summit a work.
Theme and Permutation (2012)
Marlene MacCallum
This double-page spread reveals process information about the work that adds to the reader/viewer’s appreciation of the themes and permutations occurring in the pages.
Mallarmé’s Coup d’État (2007)
Kitty Maryatt
The colophon’s nod to Iliazd sends the reader/viewer back to the start of this catalogue that is a bookwork in its own right.
La prose du Transsibérien Re-Creation (2019)
Kitty Maryatt
A “colophon within a colophon”. The booklet providing details about the original work and Maryatt’s re-creation has an accordion structure and collapses into its own tri-fold wallet, which fits within the cover of the main work, seen here in its acetate holder.
L is for Lettering (2011)
Cathryn Miller
This hilarious and touching abecedary parades as a marked work handed in for a course, a portrait of the artist within a contemplation of the past and future of typography and letterpress. This colophon embodies the finishing touch.
A’s Rosen War (2017)
Alan Caesar
This colophon continues the premised date with which this work of science fiction book art begins.

Further Reading

CREWS Project, “Learning about Cuneiform Tablets Behind the Scenes at the British Museum”, 14 June 2017, accessed 20 April 201. (See for an example of scribes’ skill in ink on clay.)

Richard Gameson. The Scribe Speaks? Colophons in Early English Manuscripts. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001. (See for the human interest: “I, Aelfric, wrote this book in the monastery of Bath”; “Pray for Wigbald”; “Just as the port is welcome to sailors, so is the final verse to scribes”.)

Bill Hill, “The Magic of Reading”, accessed 20 April 2019.

Joseph Spencer Kennard. Some early printers and their colophons. Philadelphia : G.W. Jacobs and Co., 1902. (Less academic but just as interesting and typographically more fun than Gameson.)

Alfred W. Pollard. An essay on colophons, with specimens and translations. Chicago: Caxton Club, 1905.

Alfred W. Pollard. Last words on the history of the title-page, with notes on some colophons and twenty-seven facsimiles of title-pages. London: J.C. Nimmo, 1891.

Ming-Sun Poon, “The Printer’s Colophon in Sung China, 960-1279”, The Library Quarterly,43:1 (January 1973). (See for the 34 calligraphic inscriptions and the colophon to the Diamond Sutra: “On the 15th of the 4th moon of the 9th year of Hsien-t’ung [May 11, 868], Wang Chiek on behalf of his two parents reverently made this for universal free distribution.”)

Christine Proust, “Reading Colophons from Mesopotamian Clay-Tablets Dealing with Mathematics”, NTM Zeitschrift für Geschichte der Wissenschaften, Technik und Medizin, 20:3 (September 2012). (Helpfully diagrammed black and white views of the difficult-to-see incisions in clay.)

Ding Wang, “A Buddhist Colophon from the 4th Century: Its Reading and Meaning”, Manuscript Cultures, 3 (2010). (Beautiful photos of the scroll scribed by Baoxian.)

David C. Weber, “Colophon: An Essay on its Derivation,” Book Collector 46 (Autumn 1997).