Books On Books Collection – Ken Botnick

“How does a book reflect a distinct way of thinking about a subject? How does the page become a dynamic landscape of visual and conceptual ideas?” So begins the description for a workshop run by Ken Botnick in 2017. His two works in the Books On Books Collection answer those questions with a resounding “This is how“.

Table of Contents (2020)

Table of Contents (2021)
Ken Botnick
Slipcased, boards with exposed sewn binding. Slipcase: H270 x W170 mm; Book: H265 xW185 mm, 56 pages.
Edition of 20, of which this is #5. Acquired from the artist, 3 May 2022.
Photos: Courtesy of the artist; Books On Books Collection. Displayed with permission of the artist.

Table of Contents has no table of contents. Instead the whole book is a meditation on a table of contents — that of James J. Gibson’s The Senses Considered as Perceptual Systems (1966). On the inside cover, Botnick characterizes Table of Contents as a “book-length visual/textual poem” and identifies the cento as its model. Cento is short for the Latin centonibus (“patchwork”) and describes the technique of appropriating others’ lines of verse to compose an original “collage” poem. Rather than lines from poems, though, Botnick has appropriated text from Gibson’s table of contents and figure labels.

Here is Gibson’s complete table of contents:

Gibson, The Senses Considered as Perceptual Systems, pp. ix-xiv. Internet Archive.

Here is Botnick’s selection of text:

Table of Contents
Compression waves from a vibratory event
How are associations between events detected?
The stationary information for seeing one thing through another
Radiation from a luminous source
The physical reality of speech
The diffusion of volatile substances
The development of selective attention
The superfluous appeal to memory
The consequences of inadequate information
The consequences of rigidity
The special consequences of light
Transmitted light and transparent surfaces
The structuring of light by means other than reflection
The structuring of light by alphabetic writing
The stable and unbounded character of the phenomenal visual world
The perception of chemical values in the sea
The inspired air
The beginning of a theory

But that is not how Botnick’s cento is presented. In calling it a “visual/textual poem”, Botnick is too modest. It is much more than visual/textual: it is visual, textual, auditory and haptic — and is so from the start, proceeding by contrasts and complements, provoking multi-sensory activity and responses.

First of all, the slipcase is more of a “slipsleeve” from which the spine protrudes for fingers and eyes to feel the exposed binding threads, the pattern of knots and the ridges of the gathered signatures. This is the sewn boards structure, credited to Gary Frost, more on that later. The spine and fore edge offer bright colors that contrast with the deeply black sleeve that displays three slanting parallel cutouts in the cloth, exposing the board it covers. The pattern those cutouts make will become a recurrent visual and tactile theme as the pages turn.

As the tightly fitting sleeve pulls away from the board-stiff book, they make a “shirring” sound together. As the front cover turns, the title page bows upward showing nine impressed parallel lines beneath the words “Table of Contents”, and when that page turns, it crackles and makes a shuffling sound as its edge drags across the following bright blue page.

Through that bright blue translucence, the pattern from the slipsleeve reappears but rearranged and multiplied into a zigzag spectrum of colors. The physical turning of the translucent page “exposes” that zigzag spectrum and the second line of text in this poem: “Compression waves from a vibratory event”. Gibson’s text refers to the perception of sound or physical vibrations, and Botnick poetically overlays this with his selection of papers and introduction of zigzag waves of color. The zigzag pattern and its rounded elements, which on some pages are scattered, elongated, cross-hatched or sharp-edged, contribute a recurrent visual syncopated rhythm through the book. Toward the end, the zigzag moves into a more consistently vertical and angular, almost helical, appearance.

First leaf turned, second leaf turning, third leaf revealed.

Zigzag pattern scattered. Zigzag pattern become helical.

To deliver other visual and haptic effects, Botnick prints his translucent papers sometimes only on their reverse sides, sometimes on both, sometimes to the point of opacity as with the first leaf and other times to the point of transforming the colors about to appear on the next sheet beneath as with the second and third leaves. Of course, this changes the feel of the sheet from one side to the other. Botnick also uses six different paper types (including one with a watermark designed for this edition and made at Dieu Donné Paper). The variety in printing and papers introduces additional tactile and visual rhythms: slick and matte, smooth and rough, dark and light, etc. Again, proceeding by contrasts and complements, provoking multi-sensory activity and responses.

Visual effects achieved by printing on both sides of translucent paper layered over fine print paper.

Visual effects achieved by printing translucent paper to near opacity on one side, spot printing on the other side and layering that sheet over a translucent paper printed on one side.

Variation of paper types.

The sewn boards structure, executed by Emdash studio member Robin Siddall, offers the most effective means of achieving the sensory effects intended with the variety of papers, ink colors and printing techniques, as well as delivering a lay-flat binding. Each four-page signature consists of two separate sheets glued to the inner edges of a narrow folded card (the board) sewn and linked to the boards of the signatures before and after. The card used for those hinges is a Japanese washi called Moriki, known for its folding strength and colors, but how particularly apt those multiple hinges and colors are for this patchwork poem.

Detail of an open signature exposing the thread sewn through the board and showing the leaves glued to the edges of the board.

Gibson defines the haptic system as that “by which animals and men are literally in touch with the environment” (p.97). On the penultimate double-page spread, Botnick reveals the environment that touched his “book-length visual/textual poem” into existence: one of pandemic, isolation, violent exposure of institutionalized racism, the “Big Lie” and insurrection. Set in the now familiar zigzag pattern, the revelatory text annotates the lines of appropriated text and the prints, connecting both with the environment and the meditation on perception. Botnick’s book is certainly a distinctive interweaving way of thinking about these threads.

It is telling that Table of Contents ends with black and gray, the colors that dominate the other work in the collection: Diderot Project (2015), which presents this pronouncement from Odilon Redon:

Even without the prismatic range of colors in Table of Contents, Botnick’s Diderot Project (2015) may outstrip the former in the number of ways in which Botnick makes not only the page but also the codex itself “become a dynamic landscape of visual and conceptual ideas”.

Diderot Project (2015)

Diderot Project (2015)
Ken Botnick
H290 x W194 mm, 150 pages. Edition of 70, of which this is #32. Acquired from the artist,
Photos: Courtesy of the artist; Books On Books Collection. Displayed with permission of the artist.

Clearly, like Table of Contents, this work is a “book-length visual/textual poem”, so it offers some insights on the book artist’s favorite rhymes, rhythms, metaphors, techniques and themes. First and foremost is his taking a literary work as his muse. With Table of Contents, it is James J. Gibson’s psychology book; in this case, it is Denis Diderot’s multi-volume Encyclopédie (Encyclopedia), a decades-long project with Jean le Rond d’Alembert and 138 other contributors. Nodding to the multiple volumes of the Encyclopedia, the artist refers to the sections of his work as Volumes 1, 2 and 3, although they are bound as one binding. The three volumes’ titles follow the Encyclopedia‘s overarching categories in its “System of Human Knowledge”: Memory, Reason, and Imagination. Digitally captured images from the Encyclopedia‘s plate volumes abound.

Table of Contents

Diderot Project, however, is not a condensed version or description of the Encyclopedia. Like literary works of ekphrasis whose words meditate on a visual object, Diderot Project is book art that meditates — inversely — on a literary work. The cover to Diderot Project does not show its name where the title is expected, rather it shows the name of its object of meditation. And it displays that name in a distinctive monumental way.

The front cover’s silver slab serif italic letters in all caps on textured, triple-dyed flax paper and the back cover’s diagram in the same palette strike chords that reverberate throughout the work. The chords are both obvious and subtle. Immediately, with a pattern of silver-gray compasses and directional stars, the doublures repeat the cover’s black and silver notes but on a less textured paper. Curiously the fly leaves of the doublures are not really fly leaves because they are pasted at their fore edges to separate leaves of black paper: a subtle hint to look beneath the surface, inquire into the mechanics. (An irresistible side note on the mechanics of the binding: the binder Daniel E. Kelm, in tipping the black fly leaf to the outer printed one, extends the fly leaf further into the book as a tipped-on hinge inserted through the first two signatures. The detailed image below on the right shows the hinging edge of the fly leaf between the signatures.)

L-R: Inside back cover, doublure with compass and directional star motif; Inside front cover, doublure leaf anchored to fly leaf; Binding detailed view of hinging edge of fly leaf extending between signatures.

Following that almost-Chinese fold of a flyleaf, the half-title drops any pretense of hinting. Turning the half-title with its 3×4 grid of black, brown, tan and gray squares on translucent paper reveals that the squares have been created by printing in silver, copper, light brown tint and no ink on the reverse. Underneath the half-title leaf lies another black page with the recurring silver-gray image of four buckets linked by their handles. The pattern of buckets is parallel to the interlinked image of compass and directional star on the doublures. It is another subtle hint: this time, to look at patterns for their similarities and differences arising from the mechanics of effects, to consider the commonality of tools whether at the low or high end of culture.

L-R: Half-title on translucent paper; inked reverse of half-title and the interlinking buckets.

If this reaction to the prelims seems a stretch, then the following run of folios surely validates it. Not only does the text articulate the parity of craft and tools (métier) with art and science, the watermark hand gestures to it, then the watermark hand joins its mirror image “to tie” the knot of the binding thread, and then the second watermark hand joins its printed mirror image at the same point. These six pages enact parallels of similarities and differences.

The layering of translucent paper printed on one or both sides, which also occurs in Table of Contents, is another of Botnick’s favorite techniques. He has even delivered a lecture at the Getty Research Institute entitled “Transparency as Metaphor“. Botnick’s use of it in the sequence below invites the reader/viewer to meditate with him on “the nature of craft, tools, memory, and imagination, while provoking questions about authorship in artists’ books”.

Running across the four pages of the two leaves of UV Ultra Clearfold, the enlarged present, past and future letters call on perception, memory and imagination to decipher the name: Diderot, emerged and submerged. However large his name is cast, though, is Diderot the author? By bracketing these transparencies with an image of a manufactory or workshop and a crowd of listeners and observers with pens poised, Botnick evokes the other 139 contributors to the Encyclopedia and his own host of collaborators, including Kelm (binding), Paul Wong (papermaking) and, importantly the Emdash studio (Catherine Johnson, Ben Kiel, Karen Werner and, in New Delhi, Ira Raja).

Tools, the workplace and studio lie at the heart of the Diderot Project‘s second volume, which boasts the following complex foldout which in itself validates Roland Barthes’ statement from his essay on the Encyclopedia‘s plates: “The object is the world’s human signature”.

Sensation, perception and the natural world lie at the heart of the third volume, and here is another of Botnick’s favorite techniques: typographic distinction. The right-side up text on the verso page is set in Walbaum, as is every instance of Diderot’s text. The upside down text on the verso and all the text on the recto are set in Trade Gothic, as is the case for more contemporary authors (Michel Foucault and Walter Benjamin, respectively, in these instances). Note how Foucault’s upside down text reflects the action in the image of the camera obscura, and picks up the theme of perceptual flipping initiated with the watermark hand in Volume 1 and Diderot’s enlarged name across the translucent pages in Volume 2.

Both Table of Contents and Diderot Project reward revisiting for this kind of close reading, close looking, close fingering and close listening. Close comparison and contrast as well because together they answer “How does a book reflect a distinct way of thinking about a subject? How does the page become a dynamic landscape of visual and conceptual ideas?”

Further Reading

Notes on ‘Inverse Ekphrasis’ as a way into book art“. 17 June 2022. Bookmarking Book Art.

Artist Books: From Idea to Form – Workshop by Ken Botnick“. 18 March 2017. Lawrence Art Center, Lawrence, Kansas. Accessed 2 June 2019.

Botnick, Ken. 23 April 2015. Transcription of talk given as the annual Enid Mark Lecture. Smith College.

Botnick, Ken. 1 October 2015. “Diderot Project: Making the Book to Discover my Subject“. Boston Athenaeum. Video. Accessed 1 June 2019.

Diderot, D., & Alembert, J. L. R. 1967. Encyclopédie ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences des arts et des métiers. Stuttgart- Bad Cannstatt: Friedrich Fromann.

Frost, Gary. 2012. Adventures in Book Preservation. Coralville, IA: Iowa Book Works. See “Sewn Board Bookbinding More than a Thousand Years Later”.

Gibson, James J. 1966. The Senses Considered as Perceptual Systems. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Gibson, James Jerome. 1950. The Perception of the Visual World. [With illustrations]. Riverside Press: Cambridge, Mass.

Books On Books Collection – Hervé Di Rosa

Un Coup de Dés jamais n’abolira le Hasard (2021)

Un Coup de Dés jamais n’abolira le Hasard (2021)
Stéphane Mallarmé & Hervé Di Rosa
Casebound, cloth-covered hardboard. H295 x W245 mm, 36 pages. Edition of 15 (including 7 non-commercial copies), of which this is #5. Acquired from Éditions Virgile LeGrand, 11 April 2022.
Photos: Courtesy of Virgile LeGrand; Books On Books Collection. Displayed with permission of Virgile LeGrand.

Many works of homage to Un Coup de Dés jamais n’abolira le Hasard seek diligently to replicate the layout, typeface, artwork (its placement) and dimensions that Mallarmé intended for his deluxe edition with Ambroise Vollard — or those we think he intended. Bertrand Marchal, editor of Mallarmé’s Complete Works, thinks that absolute fidelity is unachievable because Un Coup de Dés is ultimately an unfinished work. Alain Hurtig (2018) thinks it more than likely the choice of typeface was as much Firmin-Didot’s as Mallarmé’s. With all the foregoing efforts of Mitsou Ronat, Michel Pierson, Alain Hurtig, Neil Crawford and others to achieve the unachievable, why would any serious hommageur retread their paths?

Virgile Legrand has chosen to ignore their paths altogether and take his inspiration from the May 1897 issue of Cosmopolis, where the poem first appeared and was constrained by the Cosmopolis typesetters’ inability or unwillingness to accommodate the double-page structure and the precision-typography Mallarmé had in mind.

Even within the usual constraints of the magazine, the poem astounded and confounded the Cosmopolis editors so much that they insisted on a preface that would explain how to read the poem. Although the preface’s author is named as the publisher/editor, its author is Mallarmé himself, and it begins tongue in cheek:

“I would prefer that this Note not be read, or only skimmed, even then forgotten; it tells the knowledgeable reader little beyond his or her penetration: but may confuse the uninitiated, prior to their looking at the first words of the Poem, since the ensuing words, laid out as they are, lead on to the last, with no novelty except the spacing of the text.” [reproduced in the NRF/Gallimard 1914 edition]

After 125 years, we can no longer be shocked by Mallarmé’s layout, and it is a humorous surprise that, having decided to ignore the pursuit of absolute fidelity to Mallarmé’s wishes, Legrand does accommodate the poet’s wish in the Cosmopolis preface and omits the Note from his homage altogether. As further evidence that the Cosmopolis edition is merely an inspiration for Legrand, several pages in the homage do not match up with it. Legrand deploys a much wider measure and takes full advantage to give les blancs a bit more space. He also does not hesitate to vary the layout and typeface of significant lines — in particular the poem’s final line (see below), mixing Bodoni and Univers.

Legrand’s contrary playfulness and independence show up equally, if not more so, in his embrace of the color, woodcuts and linocuts of the artist Hervé Di Rosa. Di Rosa’s art belongs to the “Figuration libre” movement, is associated with Keith Haring and grafitti artists and is not without controversy. Hard to say who could be further from Odilon Redon, Vollard’s and Mallarmé’s choice of artiste. The faces and signs on Di Rosa’s dice (nearly reproducing the blackface that stirred controversy in another context) rollick through the book — not sequestered in front and back matter as Mallarmé planned for Redon’s. Each of the woodcuts fills a recto page, while the linocut dice appear on verso and recto. Di Rosa’s bright red squeezes through the end papers and doublures right out into the spine, and spills over onto the front cover with his equally bright blue.

Like Vollard, though, Legrand pursues the kind of sourcing expected with livres d’artiste. The book was printed on the presses of the Dugrip Picard Jacomet workshop on Moulin de Brousse‘s paper — steeping it in the grand tradition of the livre d’artiste of handset letterpress, handmade paper and fine binding.

Also in keeping with the French livre d’artiste tradition, this copy of the homage includes a loose original print by Di Rosa (see below). As a co-founder of the Musée international des arts modestes (MIAM) and exponent of a movement to break down barriers to cultural diversity and to fringe and unorthodox art, Di Rosa is an hommageur who should remind us of Mallarmé’s unorthodoxies: the eloper, the heteronymic entrepreneur behind the short-lived fashion and culture magazine La Dernière Mode, the inscriber of poems on fans and rocks or the correspondent who wrote addresses in the form of quatrains (which the postal service recognized and delivered).

Further Reading

Arnar, Anna Sgrídur. 2011. The Book as Instrument: Stéphane Mallarmé, the Artist’s Book and the Transformation of Print Culture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Bloch, R. Howard. 2017. One toss of the dice: the incredible story of how a poem made us modern. New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation, a division of W.W. Norton & Company.

e-flux. 20 October 2016. “Plus jamais seul: Hervé Di Rosa and The Modests Arts“. October 22, 2016–January 22, 2017, La Maison Rouge. e-flux announcements.

Marchal, Bertrand. March 2015. “Petite Histoire du Coup de Dés“. Transversalités: Revue de l’Institut Catholique de Paris, No. 134: 109-113.

Leydier, Richard, Claire Margat, and Catherine Millet. 2018. Hervé Di Rosa. Paris: Artpress.

Stark, Trevor. 2020. Total Expansion of the Letter: Avant-Garde Art and Language after Mallarmé. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Books On Books Collection – Isabella Checcaglini and Mohammed Bennis

POÉME: Un coup de Dés jamais n’abolira le Hasard (2007)

POÉME: Un coup de Dés jamais n’abolira le Hasard (2007)
Stéphane Mallarmé, Isabelle Checcaglini and Mohammed Bennis
Four volumes in slipcase. H380 x W280 mm, 40 pages per volume. Edition of 99, of which this is #57. Acquired from J.F. Fourcade, 7 January 2022.
Photos: Books On Books Collection.

Ypsilon Éditeur’s editions of Un coup de Dés jamais n’abolira le Hasard bring together for the first time the three prints from Odilon Redon with the deluxe edition layout intended by Stéphane Mallarmé. Also for the first time, we have a translation into Arabic. Below, the central double-page spread of the poem is displayed in the French and Arabic editions to show how their mirror images of the layout heighten its movement.

In the additional French volume and its Arabic counterpart, Checcaglini adds a brief history about Mallarmé and Vollard’s plans for the deluxe edition and helpfully includes correspondence among them and Odilon Redon. Although the earlier edition published by Mitsou Ronat & Tibor Papp in 1980 does include Redon’s prints, they are placed in a separate folder along with other visual and textual tributes. The Redon prints may not be among his best, nor do they include the mooted but undiscovered fourth print, still at least we now have the three and the poem in relation to each other more nearly as intended, which makes it possible to compare and contrast this deluxe edition with the outpouring of works of homage to Mallarmé’s poem. Even with the prior absence of that chance, few if any of those hommageurs would be unaware of Redon’s images. Jean Lecoultre (1975) notes how his publisher’s solution to handling his soft varnish etchings honors the intended separation of text and images. By contrast, Christiane Vielle (1989) challenges Mallarmé’s layout and his unit of the double-page spread by altering the spatial relationships among lines, hiding text beneath panels and juxtaposing her artwork with the text.

The added volume with Checcaglini’s synopsis also includes a three-way dialogue among Mohammed Bennis, Isabelle Checcaglini and Bernard Noël about the light that the translation sheds on the poem.

Checcaglini’s edition also claims to have most closely reproduced the Firmin-Didot typeface that Mallarmé wished for his deluxe edition. The search for absolute fidelity to this font that has been unavailable for at least a century has been an obsession since the discovery of the poem’s proofs corrected and annotated in Mallarmé’s hand. The Further Reading provides a start for anyone inclined to join the search.

Further Reading

“Mitsou Ronat & Tibor Papp“. 16 November 2020. Books On Books Collection.

Honorine Tepfer“. 7 April 2022. Books On Books Collection.

Ian Tyson & Neil Crawford“. 7 February 2022. Books On Books Collection.

Arnar, Anna Sigrídur. 2011. The book as instrument: Stéphane Mallarmé, the artist’s book, and the transformation of print culture. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. Pp. 231-35, 348n.

Cohn, Robert Greer. 1967. Mallarme’s masterwork: new findings. The Hague: Mouton.

Hurtig, Alain. 28 March 2012. “À propos du Coup de dés de Stéphane Mallarmé“. L’Outil Typographique. Accessed 25 January 2022.

Marchal, Bertrand. March 2015. “Petite Histoire du Coup de Dés“. Transversalités: Revue de l’Institut Catholique de Paris, No. 134: 109-113.

Bookmarking Book Art – Marine Hugonnier

The Bedside Book Project (2006-07)

The Bedside Book Project is a quintuple homage — Stéphane Mallarmé (1842-1898), Marcel Broodthaers (1924-1976), Odilon Redon (1840-1916), Kurt Schwitters (1887-1948) and Richard Hamilton (1922-2011) — and approaches its subjects in cinematic fashion. It begins with this anecdote:

In 1945 René Magritte gave Marcel Broodthaers a copy of Mallarmé’s poem as ‘a way of explaining his art to a young admirer without explaining it literally’. In 1969, Broodthaers modified an edition of the poem by covering all its words with black stripes that correspond directly to the typographic layout used by Mallarmé to articulate the text. In this way, Mallarmé’s poem, which Broodthaers considered had unconsciously invented modern space, is reduced to its structure. 

From here, Marine Hugonnier‘s imagination takes hold. As if in a film scene, she moves into the bedrooms of Redon, Schwitters and Hamilton, steals their copies of Un Coup de Dés from their bedside tables, alters each one by inserting images and then replaces them. The result is a series of installations in which the pages of their altered books are displayed on the gallery walls. Each has its “book title”: La forme du mystère (Odilon Redon), Altération (Kurt Schwitters) and L’espace social (Richard Hamilton). Here is Hugonnier’s description of Redon’s book and the installation performance in which it is presented:

Redon’s bedside book has been stolen and its pages have been folded to extend the space and time of the poem’s interlude bringing his dreams to a deeper sleep. ... The mise-en-scène is composed of a white space with an open window, a spider and a man dressed in a tuxedo who will change a solitary frame, containing a folded page of the poem, on the wall every hour. On the 12th hour, the room will be left empty.

The Bedside Book Project: La forme du mystère (Odilon Redon). Source: Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona, displayed with permission of the artist.

Staging a performance in which the pages of Redon’s bedside book are parceled out over 12 hours is ambitious. As she introduces Schwitters and Hamilton into The Bedside Book Project, Hugonnier creates an even more ambitious immersion for the reader/viewer in different times, spaces and influence. Further temporal instability is involved as well: the pages on Redon’s 19th century bedside table come from a 2006 Gallimard edition of the poem.

Time travelling from Redon’s bedside table to that of Kurt Schwitters, Hugonnier also introduces a bit of temporal and linguistic instability: Schwitters’ bedside copy comes from the Tiber Press edition of Daisy Aldan’s translation into English, published in 1956 eight years after Schwitters’ death. Colored paper cut-outs conceal words, disrupt the gaps of the poem and alter its reading.

The Bedside Book Project: Altération (Kurt Schwitters). Source: Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona, displayed with permission of the artist.

With Richard Hamilton, Hugonnier gives him the same edition as Redon — the Gallimard 2006 — and fills its interstices with images as a way to change its reading.

The Bedside Book Project: L’espace social No.2 (Richard Hamilton). Source: Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona, displayed with permission of the artist.

As ghostly film director and actress in the film, Hugonnier wonders how these altered bedside books might have affected the way those three artists perceived art and practiced it in their times. As Hugonnier’s audience, we must surely wonder how she has altered the way we perceive Un Coup de Dés and its influence and very possibly how we perceive time, space and art.

Further Reading

Un Coup de Dés Jamais N’abolira le Hasard – L’Espace Social N2, 2007“. MACBA Collection. MACBA Foundation. Fundación Repsol Collection. Acquired 2009.

Books On Books Collection – Honorine Tepfer


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.

Further Reading

“Mitsou Ronat & Tibor Papp“. 16 November 2020. Books On Books Collection.

Ian Tyson & Neil Crawford“. 7 February 2022. Books On Books Collection.

Arnar, Anna Sigrídur. 2011. The book as instrument: Stéphane Mallarmé, the artist’s book, and the transformation of print culture. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. Pp. 231-35, 348n.

Cohn, Robert Greer. 1967. Mallarme’s masterwork: new findings. The Hague: Mouton.

Mosley, James M. 7 November 2011. “Elzevir Letter“. Typefoundry: Documents for the History of Type and Letterforms. Accessed 28 March 2022.

Tepfer, Honorine. June 1990. “Toute realité se dissout”. La Part du Livre, No. 2. Paris: Ed. Le Temps qu’il fait.

Books On Books Collection – Jean Lecoultre


Jean Lecoultre
Double canvas slipcase/folder enclosing a folded-paperbound book. Slipcase: 340 x 260 mm; Book: 330 x 250 mm, 62 pages inclusive of the 5 foldouts. Edition of 115, of which this is #78.
Acquired from OH 7e Ciel, 10 March 2022.
Photos: Books On Books Collection. Displayed with permission of Jean Lecoultre

Among the many distinguishing features of Jean Lecoultre’s homage to Stéphane Mallarmé’s poem, three of the most striking are the typeface, the paper and the images. In deliberate ways, each differs from the deluxe edition that Ambroise Vollard and Mallarmé planned after the poem first appeared in 1897.

Sabon is the typeface, designed by Jan Tschichold in 1964 under commission from Walter Cunz of Stempel. The Linotype, Monotype and Stempel foundries released it jointly in 1967, which makes its use only eight years later a little bit daring. Only a “little bit” because anything more modern (say, Garamond) would have been preferable to Mallarmé rather than the Elzevir chosen by NRF when it published the 1914 edition. Lecoultre and the publisher Galerie Edwin Engelberts followed the 1914 layout but, thank goodness, not the typeface. Sabon’s thin and thick strokes do not contrast as much as those of Didot, and it does not have the same verticality. Although rooted in Garamond, Sabon comes closer than Garamond to the narrowness of Didot. Walbaum might have been a still closer option, but with its more substantial thin strokes, Sabon has to have been a more suitable choice for the handmade paper in this work.

Screenshots of adaptations: Didot © Apple; Sabon © Adobe, Linotype and ™Monotype; Garamond © Microsoft; Walbaum © Linotype and Monotype; comparisons made possible by Identifont.

Georges Duchêne (1926-2012) (Moulin de Larroque and Moulin de Pombié) fabricated the paper (vélin de cuve) especially for the project. The paper bears Duchêne’s watermark as well as a rough “tooth” (surface texture that grips the ink) and uneven deckled edges. With his semantic and typographic innovation, Mallarmé intended to draw attention to les blancs (the spaces around the lines, phrases and single words). With its smoothness interrupted by bumps, its simultaneous softnesss and stiffness, the paper draws the eye and touch even more to the space around the verses.

The surface must have presented a challenge for the technique of “soft varnish” etching used by Lecoultre. Crown Point Press defines it this way:

A process that involves applying a beeswax ground made soft by the addition of tallow or petroleum jelly evenly over a heated plate with a brayer. After the plate has cooled, the artist draws on paper laid over it. The soft wax comes off on the back of the paper exactly where the artist has pressed, exposing the metal in the pattern of the grain of the paper. More pressure in drawing removes more wax and produces a darker line after the plate has been bitten. In general, soft ground lines look like lines made by the drawing instrument, usually a pencil or crayon. Soft ground can also be used to take a direct impression of any flexible material—a fingerprint, a leaf, a piece of cloth, for example.

The technique resonates metaphorically with Mallarmé’s dictum peindre non la chose mais l’effet qu’elle produit (“to depict not the object but the effect the object produces”). The technique allows Lecoultre to depict the fine details of easily identifiable objects (a stone, fingerprints, a rope and more) and less easily identifiable ones (a blurred wall and windows, a pair of draped rectangular columns being sliced by a cheese-cutter-like cable and so on). Identifiable or not, the objects yield to the effects their juxtaposition, layering and blurring produce.

Lecoultre is also Mallarméan in his mastery of the technique. In an invitation booklet included with the book, Pietro Sarto, who pulled the prints, points out that, due to its delicacy, the soft varnish technique is most often associated with spontaneity and the chance effect. In Lecoultre’s case, Sarto makes the startling revelation that, for some of the images, the plates went through thirteen states. Thirteen chances for precision to be marred. Lecoultre even extends his chance-taking to the paper in pursuit of effect: note how the image of the rock bleeds across the deckle edge. The strange juxtaposition of objects and the way some objects seem to float on the page (or fall off it) — these also mirror Mallarmé’s arrangement of words and lines among les blancs of the pages, the precision of his images and the suggestiveness of his metaphors.

Finally Lecoultre and his publisher strike out in a novel direction with the number and placement of the prints. Unlike Mallarmé/Vollard’s plan to segregate the poem from Odile Redon’s three to four images, Lecoultre integrates his seven with the poem. This entails “bookending” the poem with two double-page spreads, each taken up entirely by a print: one spread before the half-title and one after the final page of the poem. For the remaining five prints to appear on double-page spreads, the publisher urged the use of five foldout pages. This solution, which Lecoultre approvingly embraced, simultaneously challenges and celebrates Mallarmé’s unit of the double-page spread.

Further Reading and Viewing

Jean Lecoultre: l’oeil à vif : peintures & dessins, estampes. Genève: La Dogana ; Vevey: Fondation William Cuendet & Atelier de Saint-Prex, 2021.

Baldwin, Andrew. “Soft Ground Part 1” and “Part 2“. Trefeglwys Print Studio, Wales. Videos accessed 26 March 2022.

Carr-Pringle, Sam. 18 July 2018. “The Softground Etching Process“. Crown Point Press. Video accessed 26 March 2022.

Cheyrou, Françoise. 25 March 2015. “Georges Duchêne, Maître Papetier, Pionnier du Papier d’Art“. Esprit de Pays. Accessed 24 March 2022.

Johansen-Ellis, Mariann. 24 January 2012. “Basic Softground Etching“. Denmark. Video accessed 26 March 2022.

McNeil, Paul. 2017. The Visual History of Type. London: Laurence King. Pp 48-49 (Garamond), 106-07 (Walbaum), 90-91 (Didot), 378-79 (Sabon).

Monotype. ND. “Sabon“. Accessed 26 March 2022.

Truszkowski, Robert. 7 September 2020. “Soft Ground pencil drawing“. University of Regina. Video accessed 26 March 2022.

Books On Books Collection – Ian Tyson and Neil Crawford

Poème: Un Coup de Dés Jamais N’Abolira le Hasard (1897)
Poem: A cast of Dice never can annul Chance (1985)

Un Coup de Dés Jamais N’Abolira le Hasard (1897)/A cast of Dice never can annul Chance (1985)
Ian Tyson and Neil Crawford
Embossed cloth-covered clamshell box enclosing two set of folios, each in a blue folio folder. Edition of 40, consisting of 30 numbered copies, of which this is #7, and 10 copies marked I-IX. Acquired from Roseberys, 2 November 2021.
© Ian Tyson and Neil Crawford. Photos: Books On Books Collection. Permission to display from Neil Crawford.

As Mitsou Ronat and Tibor Papp were preparing their mise-en-page edition of Mallarmé’s Un Coup de Dés Jamais N’Abolira le Hasard(1897/1980) following Mallarmé’s corrected proofs, Neil Crawford came across a copy of Robert Cohn’s Mallarmé’s Masterwork and was struck by its reproduction of the set of proofs sold by Pierre Berès to an American collector – the so-called Lahure proofs. Crawford, too, was determined to prepare a “typographic translation” of the proofs — but in English. In an essay providing a rich background to the poem, his meeting with Tyson and the publishing of their homage, Crawford explains how he went about his typographic translation.

First, using Cohn’s reference to the original’s size, he enlarged the reproductions photographically and then began puzzling over how to squeeze an English version taking up 10% more space than the French into Mallarmé’s careful layout. Compromising on the use of Bodoni in place of Didot as the typeface (the latter was not available to English typesetters when the poem was first pubIished anyway), it would take Crawford seven years of evenings in tracing letters, translation, transcription, adjustment, retranslation and retranscription to generate hand-crafted layouts that could be stored away until the day that photocomposition would be sufficiently advanced to accommodate the word and character spacing necessary to follow them. The original of Crawford’s typographic layout resides at the University of San Diego. Below are iterations toward the double-page spread that completes the appearance of the poem’s title within the poem.

Courtesy of Neil Crawford.

When Crawford and Tyson met in the early Eighties, Tyson had already established Tetrad Press and was planning his own livre d’artiste version of the poem. His aquatints in a separate folio cover would occupy the position Mallarmé expected for Odilon Redon’s prints in the abortive limited edition in train at the time of his death in 1898. In an ironic reversal of Mallarmé’s concern that the Redon prints might undermine the typography, Tyson and Crawford were concerned that anything less than letterpress printing would not ensure the density of black on the page that would complement Tyson’s aquatints. This led to phototypesetting output as patch setting, then hand pasting according to Crawford’s layouts, and then creation of process line blocks for the relief printing in letterpress.

At a glance, Tyson’s aquatints present a puzzling juxtaposition with the poem, but we can thank Crawford’s essay for a clue to the puzzle.

© Ian Tyson. Permission to display from Neil Crawford.

The poem’s reference to LE NOMBRE (“THE NUMBER”) has sent plenty of scholars on the hunt for its identity. Mitsou Ronat had argued that the magical number has to be 12. After all the classic Alexandrine line of French poetry numbers 12 syllables, and the larger type sizes that Mallarmé chose for the poem are 36, 48 and 60. Unconvinced “typographically”, Crawford points out that “at the time of composition – faces above 24 point were cut in multiples of twelve as standard”. Nevertheless, he also writes, “It would appear that the number 12 (the number of feet in the classic Alexandrine verse form) had great symbolism for Mallarmé” and notes that Tyson’s images

reflect the undertones of the Poème’s symbolism with a composition based on a duodecic permutation corresponding to the measures within the Alexandrine metre, referring in an oblique way to Mallarmé’s recurring imagery ….

Duodecic refers to the Base 12 system, which has the arithmetic advantage over Base 10 of making fractions easier as can be seen from the following image. To apply that image’s Base 12 grid to Tyson’s permutations, however, requires modifying it from 3×4 to 4×6. In other words, there are 24 small squares underlying Tyson’s images, not 12. Mallarmé intended the double-page spread, not the single page, to be the unit for page layout. So perhaps Tyson’s oblique reference to the Alexandrine is also “doubly oblique” (2×12), referring to Mallarmé’s preferred canvas.

“The Curious Case for Base 12 …” Steemit.

Tyson’s geometric approach would be echoed in later works of homage such as Michael Lechner‘s Les Ondes de sable; Un coup de dés / d’ordinateur (1986), Geraldo de BarrosJogos de Dados (1986), Ellsworth Kelly‘s livre d’artiste (1992) and Michael Graeve‘s Hexagram 12: Heaven and Earth Shall not Meet (1998). Neil Crawford has kindly shared the following image of Tyson’s preliminary study for the print suite. Ian Tyson passed away in France on 2 October 2021.

© Ian Tyson. Photo: Neil Crawford.

Further Reading

Cohn, Robert Greer. 1966. Mallarmé’s Masterwork: New Findings. The Hague: Mouton.

Crawford, Neil. December 1997. “A typographic translation of Stéphane Mallarmé’s Un coup de Dés”. Unpublished.

Dave __. 2017. “The Curious Case For Base 12 (Why Dozens Are Easier For Everyday Maths Than Tens)“. Steemit. Accessed 28 December 2021. (Base 10 has 1, 2, 5 and 10 as factors; Base 12 as 1, 2, 3, 4, 6 and 12).

Meillassoux, Quentin, and Robin Mackay. 2012. The Number and the Siren: A Decipherment of Mallarmé’s Coup de Dés. Falmouth: Urbanomic.