Le Livre d’Artiste: Abstract Illustration and Text

From an early age, I was familiar with one of Matisse’s prints from Jazz, “La Chute d’Icare” (The Fall of Icarus). It hung there, framed, in the blue-wallpapered dining room of one of my parent’s friends. I was always intrigued by its dynamic presence. As a child, I only saw a human shadow, bursts of yellow with a blue sky. After learning more about Le Livere D’Artiste, I can understand this print in a new way.  Book Set 4, Matisse’s Jazz (1945) intrigued me. I had never seen the entire book of prints before. The rigid lines, highly saturated colors, the fluid text, all combined with cutouts, make for an elaborate and interesting artist’s book. Matisse’s handwritten cursive text is married with the images. They’re complimentary to one another, and the words become part of the expression of art. Turn on some Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong, or Dizzy Gillespie, and you’ll notice that Matisse’s colors and shapes convey the very essence of jazz music with a particular visual rhythm. There is a decorative relationship between text and image, and has particular significance because it was Matisse’s own writing.


I was also fascinated by À Toute Épreuve (1958), with text by the French Poet Paul Éluard and original woodblock illustrations by Spanish surrealist, Joan Miró. Carefully placed and arranged, the illustrations and text have a strong visual interaction. It’s alive and engaging, but also a little chaotic. The playful colors are illustrations allude to children’s drawing, but with extreme technical effort by the illustrator. Miró, solicited by the publisher Cramer, cut more than 230 woodblocks over eleven years to complete the project. Miró used traditional woodcut, as well as a technique called collotype, which combines natural and manufactured materials, creating texture to the abstract shapes. Early on in the project, Miró said,

“…I have made some trials which have allowed me to see what it was to make a book and not merely to illustrate it. Illustration is always a secondary matter. The important thing is that a book have all the dignity of a sculpture carved in marble.”

d5272532lBoth books discussed are exemplary of the Livre d’Artiste movement. Both also share an intriguing relationship between text and abstract illustration. While one was written and illustrated by the same artist, Cramer’s text combines an acclaimed artist’s interpretation of a well-known poet’s text, and marries the two together. Both have very different feels to them, but they balance the text in their own distinct way.