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[BKARTS] WOID XV-44. Review: The Book-keeper

WOID XV-44. Review: The Book-keeper

Ambroise Vollard, Patron of the Avant-Garde
Metropolitan Museum of Art
Through January 7, 2007

Every art historian has a little list of works you discuss like an 
expert without ever having seen them. For this alone (or for extra 
credit, maybe) this show's recommended. 

Vollard was dealer to the avant-garde at the turn of the previous 
century. Cezanne and Picasso had their breakout shows with him. Almost 
every major artist passed through his gallery. At the Met you'll find 
Cezanne's early "Olympia Moderne" from a private collection, 
Picasso's "Portrait of Vollard" (from Moscow) and Gauguin's "Where do 
we come from," which comes from Boston, actually. There's also a 
flicker film of Vollard and Renoir together. Renoir painted Vollard's 
portrait at a time when the fading artist had begun to repeat himself 
regardless of his model. Presumably Vollard didn't have to undergo the 
humiliation of Misia Sert, who Renoir insisted should bare her breasts 
like all the others.

Since when do dealers get their own shows? I'd say, every time, but 
still some critics have found the theme of this particular show 
irritating. In fact there are a few works here that are close to being 
*by* Vollard, not simply bought and sold by him. For about forty years 
Vollard issued what was then called "livres d'artistes," translated 
as "artists' books," loosely, because then as now there's some argument 
as to whether such books are best seen as well designed books whose 
design comes from an artist or simply books that happen to include 
contributions from "real" artists. Vollard mostly intended his books to 
fall into the second category even if, by luck, they ended in the first.

They ended in the first, when they did, through historical 
circumstance. In 1900 Vollard brought out Verlaine's Parall?lement, a 
collection of erotic poems that owed its original publication to the 
fact that the censors looked at the title and decided it was a geometry 
textbook. The erotic drawings that Bonnard produced for Vollard's 
edition didn't help matters either, but the balance of parts is superb -
 see for yourself, it's in this show, or you can link to the witty 
analysis by Alfred Jarry at:

But Vollard was riding the crest of a tidal wave in the development of 
book design. Somewhat earlier, William Morris had initiated what became 
the Arts-and-Crafts Movement, and in 1896 the impresario Rudolf Bing 
held an important exhibition of English art books down the street from 
Vollard; Bing himself introduced the French people to what he called 
Art Nouveau. In Germany Harry Kessler, the "Red Count," continued to 
promote the idea of the "Book Beautiful" into the nineteen-twenties - a 
project involving the English typographer Eric Gill and the French 
sculptor Maillol. Vollard's own productions are linked to Morris by the 
handful of books designed by Maurice Denis. Denis was deeply interested 
in Medieval art - perhaps too interested at that, and his works for 
Vollard had already started to dive towards the stilted, politically 
and aesthetically rigid decoration he continued to grind out for 
decades. Vollard continued to produce books until his death in 1939, 
but the level of the earlier works was never repeated, with the 
possible exception of a few of cheap chapbooks inspired by Alfred 
Jarry's character Pere Ubu, the Dick Cheney of the Fin-de-Siecle. The 
museum coyly informs us that one these books, seen closed and under 
glass, contains initials in the form of genitalia and anuses. You can 
look them up elsewhere.

Vollard's production resumed in the twenties, though, as one critic 
politely put it, "his books lack the unity and spiritual homogeneity 
that would cause them to be classified as books of the first order." 
Forget about the quality of the typography or the talent of the 
artists: these books are little more than portfolios with titles, with 
text attached. The paper is expensive, the type extra-large, the 
artists are blue-ribbon investments: Chagall, Dufy and Rouault were not 
exactly taking risks in the 'twenties and 'thirties, and neither was 
Vollard, who had stopped taking risks after he hit the Picasso jackpot.

The curators of this show, along with a few sycophantic art critics, 
have tried to suggest that since these productions do not meet the 
traditional criteria of the Book Beautiful (balance of typography and 
narrative intent, unity of design and artwork, etc) they are really 
aesthetic breakthroughs, and closer to "real" artworks. The curators, 
and a few sycophants, forget that Vollard's later books are in form 
even further from a canvas or sculpture than from other types of books.

Vollard's later productions were sold unbound; artwork and type were on 
separate sheets; often the written text was trivial. They were 
intended, not as books, not as prints to be hung, but for speculation: 
a portfolio of prints, easy to store, available in any number of 
combinations and therefore at any number of prices from the signed full 
copy to the individual print, signed or numbered, or not. Such books 
were easy to store in a gallery; once bought, you could keep them on 
your bookshelf without actually showing them, thereby preserving the 
art while displaying your investment. Such investments were popular in 
France in the 'thirties and early 'fifties in France, times of 
industrial stagnation that made other types of investment useless.

So perhaps those critics who've complained about this show have a 
point: Vollard was no artist, and his interest in art, to judge from 
these books, had nothing to do with aesthetic qualities. There may be 
some truth to Gertrude Stein's portrayal of Vollard as uncouth, cynical 
and quite indifferent to the paintings he himself bought and sold. 
Still, he may well have invented a new category in the book arts all by 
himself: call it The Hustle Book.

- Wölfflin Jack
Paul T Werner, New York

WOID: A journal of visual language
THE ORANGE PRESS, publishing "Vellum Preparation: History and Technique"
DRAGONSBLOOD AND ASHES, a project to research and practice the 
techniques of the medieval scribe

Guild of Book Workers' 100th Anniversary Exhibition Now Online - Catalog Available
             For all your subscription questions, go to the
                      Book_Arts-L FAQ and Archive.
          See <http://www.philobiblon.com> for full information

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