When people hear the term "rare books" they generally think of a first edition Charles Dickens or a leather bound set of the complete works of William Shakespeare, or even their family Bible. Most people are unaware of the marvellous works of art to be found within the covers of the "Illustrated Book". I'm not talking about color-plate books with reproductions of flora and fauna, but books with original prints or drawings created by artists to complement the text.
This genre actually began in medieval times with illuminated manuscripts, but the late 19th Century gave birth to the concept of the "Livre d'Artiste" or "artist's book". In this new exhibition at the New York Public Library, the collaboration of artist and writer is explored by curator Yves Peyré, who sees this medium as a form of mutual creativity that broke with tradition and offered new forms of artistic expression resulting in "books of dialogue".
Beginning with "Le Corbeau (The Raven)" an 1875 work uniting the poetry of Stéphane Mallarmé with the images of Edouard Manet, this exhibition proceeds through the 20th Century with 126 examples of fine artists' books. Highlights of the show include Max Jacob's "Saint Matorel" with Cubist etchings by Picasso, Marcel Duchamp's "La Mariée mise à nu par ses célebataires, même (The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even)" also know as "The Green Box" and Fernand Leger's "La Fin du Monde". My personal favorite is the exquisitely beautiful "La Prose du Transsibérien et de la petite Jehanne de France" a 1913 work by Blaise Cendrars with pochoir illustration by Sonia Delaunay.
In the center of the exhibit space is a small gallery devoted to photographs of the artists and writers whose work is represented in the show. These portraits are taken by various photographers including Man Ray and Cartier Bresson, and offer the viewer a more personal glimpse of the creators of these literary works of art. It's a clever touch and certainly adds to the visitor's experience.
"French Book Art" will remain at the New York Public Library through August 19th, 2006. It's free, with hour-long guided docent tours available several times a week. It's worth stopping by to discover the treasures hidden between the covers of these books.