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 – Giorgio & Giulio Maffei

Display of Ed Ruscha's Various Small Fires and Milk, 1964, at Pliure: La Part du Feu, 2 February - 12 April 2015, Paris. Photo by Robert Bolick. Reflected in the lower left hand corner is the display of Bruce Nauman's Burning Small Fires; in the upper right corner, the film clip of Truffaut's 1966 Fahrenheit 451; and in the upper left, Maria Helena Vieira da Silva's La bibliotheque en feu, 1974.
Display of Ed Ruscha’s Various Small Fires and Milk, 1964
Pliure: La Part du Feu, 2 February – 12 April 2015, Paris, Fondation Calouste-Gulbenkian.
Photo by Robert Bolick, 11 April 2015.
Reflected in the lower left hand corner is the display of Bruce Nauman’s Burning Small Fires, 1968; in the upper right corner, the film clip of Truffaut’s 1966 Fahrenheit 451; and in the upper left, Maria Helena Vieira da Silva’s La bibliotheque en feu, 1974.

The Studio Bibliografico Giorgio Maffei specializes in original texts and book art by twentieth century visual and literary avant-garde artists such Baldessari, Lewitt, Munari, Man Ray, Ruscha and Warhol among others. Recently the owner’s son – Giulio Maffei – “started making film as a side activity” and introduced a series of short animations “to put on the social networks and reach new potential customers”.  An anonymous pair of hands displays a variety of the books and book art in stock.

But Giulio’s videos are not always the straightforward marketing effort intended. They provide an experience of book art or artists’ books that most of us will never hold or touch. And that may be Maffei’s point in his series “Le Vite dei Libri” (The Lives of Books) in which these usually glassed-off works are playfully handled, gently made fun of and still honored.

Some of the videos are derivative artworks in their own right in the same vein as Bruce Nauman’s Burning Small Fires, 1968.  Nauman poked fun at Ed Ruscha’s Various Small Fires and Milk, 1964, by composing a book of photos recording the burning of a copy of Various Small Fires. Maffei’s Nauman-esque handling of Various Small Fires and Milk involves flash paper or its Photoshop equivalent.  His celebration of Ruscha’s The Sunset Strip is still more endearing with its soundtrack and toy convertible. His cheeky animations of the pop-ups in Warhol’s Index (Book) and the ironically daring destruction of Papa Maffei’s copy of Some/Thing No.3 are even better.  In the latter, the plastering of a Banksy-like mural with Warhol’s “Bomb Hanoi” stickers torn from the perforated cover is a sharp-edged example of the arch, reflective commentaries throughout Maffei’s videos.

Most of the films’ credits pay typographical homage to the work at hand, which is a nice self-deprecating and affectionate touch.  At my last viewing, there were twenty-two works in the Lives series.  They are listed below, but once you reach one on YouTube, the others follow. Giulio Maffei has also created a longer video catalogue for his father’s enterprise: Tra Libro e Oggetto (Between Book and Object). The Maffeis are a knowing team. The catalog title can be read as the beginning of a statement displayed on the cover.

BETWEEN BOOK AND OBJECT

The artists’ book, the multiple and the object

become an artwork

A statement that refers not only to the works in the catalog but to the video catalog itself and to the elder Maffei’s lifework of collecting, selling and writing about book art.

1 – An Unreadable Quadrat Print, Bruno Munari

2 – The Sunset Strip, Ed Ruscha

3 – Nine Swimming Pools, Ed Ruscha

4 – Various Small Fires, Ed Ruscha

5 – Andy Warhol’s Children’s Book, Andy Warhol

6 – Choosing Green Beans, John Baldessari

7 – Kleve 2009, Ettore Spalletti

8 – Made in Machine, Jean-François Bory

9 – Cieli ad Alta Quota, Alighiero Boetti

10 – Il Merlo Ha Perso il Becco, Bruno Munari

11 – Mémoires, Guy Debord, Asger Jorn

12 – Zang Tumb Tuuum, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti

13 – Acervus, Luigi Ontani

14 – Toiletpaper JAN 2011, Maurizio Cattelan & Pierpaolo Ferrari

15 – Toiletpaper JUL 2012, Maurizio Cattelan & Pierpaolo Ferrari

16 – Les Illuminations, Fernand Léger & Arthur Rimbaud

17 – Man Ray, Man Ray

18 – The Biggest Art-Book in the World, Enrico Baj

19 – Fable, John Baldessari

20 – Air Condition, Allan Kaprow

21 – Andy Warhol’s Index (Book), Andy Warhol

22 – Some/Thing No.3, ed. David Antin, cover by Andy Warhol