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Looking at Art: Finely Printed Artists’ Works / Livres d’Artistes

Art Department, Central Library,
Works by Wassily Kandinsky, Henri Matisse and Salvador Dalí
Works by Wassily Kandinsky, Henri Matisse and Salvador Dalí

In continuing the exploration of the history of the book through the holdings of Los Angeles Public Library’s Special Collections, this installment will cover the fine printing in paper form of artworks by famous artists. These works are finely printed in limited edition, at times with artists’ etchings or lithographs. These deluxe books and portfolios are, at times, large-sized in format and have elaborate production values, such as hand coloring, masterful printing, and fine binding. These books are an extension of the art market for these artists’ paintings, drawings, sculptures, etc. Listed below is just a sampling of the superstar artists collected within Special Collections.

These works of art can be seen in person in the Special Collections of the Central Library. In order to view these items, anyone can make an appointment using this online form.

Wassily Kandinsky (1866 – 1944) was a Russian artist who was at the forefront of abstraction in Western art. Western art, prior to this point, was focused primarily on representation and reproducing visible reality. Abstract art, as Kandinsky practiced it and described in his work On the Spiritual in Art (1912), is made up of color and shapes that have spiritual qualities. He also recognized that art carried the momentum of the changing age and the promise that it could bring greater innovation. As a side note, this development in art into abstraction parallels William Morris’ work within the Arts and Crafts Movement in its elevation of everyday goods from merely functional, to objects of beauty and spiritual beauty.

In 1922, Kandinsky had left Russia and was teaching at the Bauhaus School of Art and Architecture in Weimar, Germany and was creating works in this abstract manner. The Bauhaus school was a German art school (1919 – 1933) that, similar to the Arts and Crafts Movement, combined crafts and fine art. However, its approach to design was markedly different, the goal being to unify artistic vision with the principles of mass production, with an emphasis on function. Bauhaus is best known for its emphasis on simplicity, functionality, and minimalism.

In 1919, German publishing house Ullstein started Propyläen-Verlag, a limited edition luxury imprint that commissioned bibliophile editions of prints, portfolios, and illustrated books by leading artists of the day. For its 1922 publication of Kandinsy’s Kleine Welten (German translated: Small Worlds), Kandinsky created 12 pieces of art with four prints each using three different printmaking techniques—drypoint, woodcut, and lithography—to create a vibrant interplay between color, life and form. These prints are abstract and have no reference to the visual world and instead, contain swirls and swooshes of all shapes and sizes. For more about Kandinsky’s works and his perspective on art, check out this book.

A print from Eine Welten
A print from Eine Welten

German painter, sculptor and graphic artist Max Ernst (1891− 1976) was an artist that experienced the horrors of both World Wars and a member of two European avant-garde art movements: Dada and Surrealism. Dada was an art movement developed as a reaction to the horrors of war and a rejection of the society that would promote and prolong war; art created by dadaists is often nonsensical, irrational and irrational in nature. Surrealism is also an art movement that developed as a reaction to the First World War and focuses on expressions from the unconscious mind; works created tend to be dreamlike in nature with elements of surprise and juxtaposition. Ernst embraced these art movements and, as a surrealist, in order to tap into his unconscious, developed frottage, a form of automatic activity where Ernst, through a collection of found objects placed beneath paper, would rub a pencil or a charcoal crayon over the surface.

A print from the 1972 reprint of Histoire Naturelle
A print from the 1972 reprint of Histoire Naturelle

Henri Matisse (1869 – 1954) was a French artist famously known for his original use of color. He is primarily known as a painter but was also known for his sculpture and his printmaking. From 1936 onwards, Matisse began to use gouache-painted paper cut-outs in his graphic design work. At about the same time, Matisse began collaborating with Tériade (1897 – 1983), a Greek publisher; from 1937 through 1960, Tériade published Verve, a review journal that included writers from the Surrealist movements, revolutionary writers such as George Bataille, Jean-Paul Sartre, etc. and at times, artworks from Henri Matisse. The library has a copy of Verve issue 33-34 that focuses on the works of Russian-French artist Marc Chagall (1887 – 1985).

In 1941, Matisse was diagnosed with abdominal cancer that left him wheelchair-bound. Due to the physical challenges of painting and sculpture and his ongoing experimentation with Verve, Matisse focused on using his paper collage technique, also known as decoupage, more extensively. In 1947, Tériade published Matisse’s Jazz, a portfolio of 20 of his prints, (some of which were reprints from Verve) and Matisse’s own handwritten text, with art using this technique. Matisse used paper, inked with printers’ ink color samples, which allowed for ease in reproduction by the printers for his cutouts. The colorful cutouts of paper were then transferred into stencils, and a hand-applied brush and stencil technique called pochoir was used to transfer the shapes of the images in Jazz in layers. Pochoir is a technique of making limited edition stencil prints using hand coloring techniques directly onto paper. Tériade published an edition of 270 books in large folio size (250 for sale and 20 non-commercial copies) with color plates and text and a separate edition of 100 portfolios with just the images. The 'book' version is made up of 38 sheets of vélin d’Arches paper that is folded and kept unbound to create four-page sections. The library has both a smaller-scale facsimile of Jazz and an original version of Jazz in a custom album binding with aluminum covers that is missing its colorful pochoir prints.

The cover to the album-bound version of Jazz.
The cover to the album-bound version of Jazz
 Inside front cover to the album-bound version of Jazz
Inside front cover to the album-bound version of Jazz

For more information about the almost 50 books that Matisse illustrated, including Jazz, please check out this book.

Salvador Dalí (1904 – 1989) was a Spanish artist known for his work in surrealism. His dreamlike works incorporated the subconscious, optical illusions, geometry, and religious themes. In 1969, an editor at Random House commissioned Dalí to illustrate Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland as part of their Maecenas Press imprint.

For this book, Dalí created 13 gouaches with 12 images reproduced as heliogravures and with the frontispiece reproduced as a four-color etching. The book is bound in portfolio style as loose leaves. Heliogravure is a specially prepared plate that uses heated rosin to create the raised areas that will be inked before printing on paper. A facsimile copy of the book is available here; however, the pagination is different from the original work.

A sample spread from the original Dalí Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
A sample spread from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland