NESHAN, The Iranian Graphic Design Magazine

Member of International Council of Design ico-D

English | فارسی

Neshan 46/47

Archive - I

The Book Of Books; The Many Fates And Faces Of Livre D’artiste.

Olga Severina

At the turn of the 20th century a Parisian merchant, art dealer, and collector Ambroise Vollard, took upon himself an unlikely task — without any prior knowledge of the industry he chose to become a publisher. He commissioned French post-impressionist painter Pierre Bonnard to illustrate a collection of poems by Paul Verlaine — a French author and one of the founders of literary impressionism and symbolism.
The notion seemed eccentric or even ludicrous — a tome published by a merchant, oblivious to what the bookmaking is about, illustrated by an artist lacking any experience in book illustration and produced with the blatant disregard of social norms and classical traditions of book arts - one could hardly regard this endeavor a sensible undertaking. It was doomed to fail, but fate is a peculiar mistress blessed with an occasional, but, indeed, remarkably acute sense of irony.

The book caused a scandal — it was “all wrong” — enfolded by a rose-hued binding Verlaine’s poems were adjoined, or even obscured by Bonnard’s drawings, and the illustrations themselves, made with mascara of the same scarlet-pink color, were depicting a female body, before, during and after the act of making love. The provocative nature of the volume, its vivid sensual imagery that embroidered Verlaine’s redolent poetry, it all made the book an immediate sensation.
Perceived by many as being excessively progressive and offending the delicate sensibilities of the prudish elite, the book was poorly received by the general public. Proponents of a conservative approach to publishing have also chastised Vollard’s work for its lack of a coherent interconnection between the lithographed and inscribed elements on a page, as well as for its “failure” to set the images within the borders of the frames, as per the accepted practice of the time.
With such ample opposition the berated codex, indeed, seemed destined for a bitter end, but, in a curious twist of fate, the volume’s multitude of critics was being surpassed by the ever-growing myriads of its fervid admirers. It was as radical as it was beautiful. Made with smooth-textured, median-density watermarked sheets woven by one of the finest manufacturers in Holland, and imported from Amsterdam exclusively for this publication, its pages were an embodiment of sublime papermaking. Stylized during the Renaissance, the typeface for Verlaine’s verse, cast to order, and later send to be printed by hand in none other than Imprimerie Nationale — a royal printing house of France - was of equally supreme craftsmanship. Matching the high-grade production process, Bonnard’s risqué but exquisite planography printed in France’s most prominent lithographic workshop imbued nearly every page of this magnificent folio, making it a bona fide edition de luxe.
Over the course of his forty years long career as a publisher Vollar has become a benevolent patron of luxury publications, producing a grand anthology of fine-printed volumes, but it was his first tome that revolutionized the publishing world, established a new standard for book production and became a precursor for an entire genre of bookmaking, which the French later named Livre D’Artiste.
Translated as The Artist’s Book, livre d’artiste is traditionally defined by its unique printing methods, where each illustration is an individual work of art hand-made by the artist directly on the support used for creating the graphics and transferred onto the page by means of etching, aquatint, woodcuts, lithography, engraving or letterpress printing. In some instances, a combination of these techniques is utilized by the illustrator in order to realize the intended visual effect. Occasionally embossing, coloring by stencil or collage is added as well, as part of the printmaking process, to further adorn these highly artistic publications. 
The stature of the artist is another, unequivocal staple of the genre. In contrast with the conventional wisdom, livre d’artiste graphics were not created by the classically trained illustrators but rather by crème de la crème of the avant-garde movement - the artwork of nearly every eminent artist of the early 20th century can be found within the pages of these codices. The pantheon of names is simply astonishing: Leger, Gauguin, Picasso, Chagall, Dali, Matisse, Delaunay, Miró — these are just a few in a long list of artisans who’ve left their mark on livre d’artiste.
Along with the masters of canvas, livre d’artiste illustrations were often made by the titans of the statuary arts. At the first glance, this concept may seem radical even for this generally progressive genre — a flat plane of the printed sheet at the 'mercy' of a sculptor — a known patron of a three-dimensional space. Far from being illustrators in a traditional sense of the word, they were not even artists of the same medium. Despite this presumed conflict of the genres, Arp, Giacometti, Calder, Paladino, Rodin, Zadkine as well as plenty of other great sculptors of the last century worked on the printed graphics for livre d’artiste, creating a unique collection of imagery, where multidimensional essence of the masters protrudes through the thin-layered pages of these elaborate volumes.
Looking inside livre d’artiste one sees the very soul of the artist: bursting palettes of Chagall or simultanism of Delone’s interwoven imagery, the enigma of Picasso’s surrealistic drawings or watercolors of Rodin, which are as if the flattened maquettes for a statue that is one day will come to be. Published in limited editions to preserve the quality of artists’ original work, these exquisite folios are the quintessential exemplars of decorative book craft.
Complementing this highly artistic imagery, the authors, whose writings were published in livre d’artiste were the true giants of the world literature. The Bible and Homer, Dante and Cervantes, Shakespeare and Goethe, along with the leading names of the French literary beau monde, such as Mallarme, Verlaine, and Balzac, left livre d’artiste with an unparalleled legacy of captivating and extraordinary editions.
Another phenomenon of livre d’artiste is that of the publisher. Not publishers at all, that is not publishers by trade, people like Ambroise Vollard, Daniel-Henri Kanweiler, Ilia Zdanevich — all members of a great pleiad of visionaries, who were true adepts of the book arts. In fact, in no other genre of bookmaking does the publisher had such a wide-ranging impact on the produced edition. Unconfined by dogmas and conventions of the craft, they followed only their own creative vision — personally selecting preferred manufacturers, style of the typeface, paper size and its grade, type of the printing methods, while, at the same time affording the artists an unprecedented creative license in creating stunning masterpieces in a genre of livre d’artiste. That is why there are usually two signatures on those editions — that of the artist and another one of the publisher.
One more essential feature setting livre d’artiste apart from the canons of the publishing industry is the use of custom-made paper of the highest grade expressly commissioned for the publication from some of the most prominent paper artisans of the time. Individually printed, these sheets were typically published in an unbound form and enclosed in a beautifully embellished box or case. 
This practice of putting out a folio of detached sheets, however masterfully and lavishly encased, plaid a cruel trick on a great many editions of livre d’artiste. As fate would have it, the pages of these volumes were of such colorful splendor and remarkable workmanship that they were often sold to museums and auctions houses as individual pieces, rather than complete codices, which, undermined the integrity and the very nature of these meticulously assembled tomes.
From the very day of its inception livre d’artiste was a genre of conflicts and innovations, but perhaps its greatest contradiction is that for years these published works of art, made by some of the most prominent masters of the 20th-century avant-garde movement were largely forgotten. It seems almost inconceivable that these luxury volumes, which could rival in its beauty even the majestically sublime medieval manuscripts could be lost to time, but defying any and all logic they so often were. That is why it is so wonderful to see that now these marvelous tomes are being exhibited, giving them back to the world and offering them the recognition they so rightly deserve.

Olga Severina

A Ukrainian graphic designer, Olga Severina obtained her Ph.D. in Visual Arts in 2010. Olga is an author, whose articles on the history and contemporary trends in graphic design are published in magazines around the world. Over the years her works were featured in a variety of design competitions and campaigns: Biennale Golden Bee (Russia), Warsaw Poster Biennale (Poland), International Poster Biennale (Mexico) and Mayakovsky 120 poster campaign are to name a few.  Olga Severina was always an active participant in the design community. In 2006 she became involved with an International Eco-Poster Exhibition The 4th Block (Ukraine), where she currently serves as the exhibition curator.  In her more recent ventures Olga focuses on art shows that celebrate design and promote balance between nature and men in the United States.


And What Was In Its Own Possession*

Alireza Mostafazadeh Ebrahimi

> more

Opinion - I

Five Main Forms of Design in Narrative Storytelling

Mohammad Hasan Shahsavari

> more

Opinion - II

Shape of Imagination; An Interaction between Image and Imagination

Yourik Karimmasihi

> more

Opinion - III

Inside a Poem

Roshanak Keyghobadi

> more


Book as a Blank Canvas

Ali Bakhtiari

> more

Design Today

The Not-So-Subtle Art Of Book Cover Design

Sarah Snaith

> more

Face To Face - I

Broken Promises; Face To Face With Jennifer Sterling

Majid Abbasi

> more

Face To Face - II

Literature, Performance And Design; Face To Face With Warren Lehrer

Steven Heller

> more

Reference - I

The Visual Lyrism Of Apollinaire

Vanina Pinter

> more

Reference - II

Christian Chruxin: Master Of The Serial

Jens Mueller

> more

Reference - III

Across Disciplines: Literature And Graphic Design

Aysegül Izer

> more

Archive - II

Verbo-Visual Pyrotechnics! An Overview Of Concrete Poetry

Foad Farahani

> more

Archive - III

Daily Practice; On the Virtue of Beholding

Yourik Karimmasihi

> more

Archive - IV

Scrap Paper Poetry

Aria Kasaei

> more


Haghighi’s Typefaces

Borna Izadpanah

> more


My House is Cloudy; Farshid Mesghali’s illustrations for Nima Yushij’s poems

Ali Bakhtiari

> more