Page turners - THE GUARDIAN

Before the 20th century, artists were subservient to authors in the creation of books, but that changed with the birth of the livre d'artiste, or artist's book. Since then, texts have been cut open, painted over, burnt and locked up. Blake Morrison browses through novel works by Henri Matisse, Joseph Cornell and Paula Rego

Saturday April 19, 2008
The Guardian

Blood on Paper at the V&A: Damien Hirst's I want to spend the rest of my life everywhere, with everyone, one to one, always, forever, now
Speaking volumes ... Damien Hirst's I Want to Spend the Rest of My Life Everywhere, With Everyone, One to One, Always, Forever, Now. Photograph: Nigel Young/ © Damien Hirst and Booth-Clibborn Editions 1997

When Joyce discovered that Matisse was to illustrate Ulysses for an American limited edition, he asked a friend in Dublin to hunt down visual material evoking the atmosphere of the city in 1904: "He knows the French translation very well but has never been to Ireland," Joyce explained. In the event, no suitable material was found, and Matisse went about the task in his own way, which was far from the way Joyce had intended. When asked why his illustrations had little or nothing to do with the novel, Matisse replied that he had based his ideas on Homer's Odyssey instead. Joyce said he thought his daughter Lucia a better artist anyway.

The story exemplifies the uneasy relationship between authors and artists. To authors, the text is sacrosanct, and any accompanying visuals - whether on the cover or the page - are there to serve it. To artists, the text is only one of several considerations: colour, shape, design, texture and technical innovation are at least as important. Sometimes, the artist seems so oblivious to the text that it may as well be in a foreign language (occasionally, it is in a foreign language). Even artists who feel a strong rapport with the author will have to focus on isolated phrases or episodes, since it is impossible to encompass a whole narrative or unpack all the ambiguities of a poem. That's why authors can be less than thrilled when a Matisse, Picasso or Damien Hirst collaborates on an illustrated edition. The problem isn't so much competing egos as conflicting agendas.

For readers, too, illustration can seem limiting or intrusive. Part of the fascination of a book lies in the mental pictures it evokes: we "see" such and such a character or episode. So when an artist's vision doesn't correspond to our own (how could it?), there is a curtailment rather than an extension of the imagination.

Yet drawing and writing developed alongside each other, as forms of representation and self-expression. And when authors and artists are inspired by the same subject matter, and come at it from different directions - "dealing with it twice within the covers of one volume," the American critic Monroe Wheeler put it, "as if in free enthusiasm author and painter had each created alone" - the rewards can be rich, with the images enhancing our appreciation of the text and the text pushing the artist in surprising new directions. This harmonious ideal has rarely been achieved: no union of word and image can surpass the Songs of Innocence and Experience, in which Blake collaborated with himself. But relations between the two camps haven't always been hostile. When Delacroix produced his illustrations for Faust in 1828, Goethe, unlike most contemporary critics, was enthusiastic - not just because the young painter had bothered in the first place (Goethe was nearly 80 by then), but because he depicted the protagonists so vividly.

What has slowly changed over time is artists' involvement in the process of creating and producing a book. In the 19th century, they were regarded as subservient, their job being to supply a graphic paraphrase to the text. This isn't to say imaginative interpretation was ruled out: in John Martin's mezzotints for Paradise Lost, say, or Manet's lithographs for Poe's "The Raven" (as translated by Mallarmé), the artist reinvents or reinvigorates the original. Gustave Doré, William Morris and Aubrey Beardsley also produced striking work. But the freedom of the artist, coming second to the author, was necessarily constrained. At best, artists were junior partners, employed to furnish pictorial comments; at worst, they were hired hands, their work shrunk or cropped to fill pre-allotted spaces. The label "hack" was unfair when applied to men such as Phiz or Cruikshank (who illustrated Dickens), but successful painters of the period tended to see book illustration as a sideline, to be resorted to only for money.

All that changed, dramatically, in the 20th century, with the notion of the livre d'artiste - a book in which the artist takes precedence, sometimes even to the extent of being responsible for text as well as image. The French invented the term and established the form; the Americans arrived later, joining in only after the second world war. But whatever its origins, the artist's book, or artists' book (or even, as it is sometimes designated, "artists book", with no apostrophe), is now an accepted part of the cultural landscape of the past century. Having already featured in monographs, teaching programmes and at least one major exhibition - at New York's MoMA in 1995 - it is now the subject of a show at the V&A.

Definitions of the livre d'artiste vary. The genre encompasses a wide range - albums, anthologies, manifestos, sketchbooks as well as deluxe editions. Computers and internet publishing are pushing back the boundaries still further. But there is a consensus that these are works of art conceived in book form, rather than texts with pictures. Words inspired them, and words are integral to them, but they are to be treated primarily as art objects, and it is the role and reputation of the artist that gives them value.

Gauguin's unpublished Noa Noa, which recounts and illustrates his impressions of Tahiti, is one of the earliest examples of the artist's book; Toulouse-Lautrec's homage to the Parisian performer Yvette Guilbert (with a text by the journalist Gustave Geffroy) is another. But the key figure in the development of the form was the art dealer Ambroise Vollard, who commissioned and published, among others, Bonnard, Rouault, Picasso and Chagall. Vollard had come to Paris from Mauritius and was hugely keen to make his mark. Only a handful of his projects saw the light of day, and after some awkward experiences with living authors he encouraged his artists to hook up with safely dead ones. Other publishers, notably Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler and Albert Skira, could claim to have contributed more. But Vollard did help create the ultimate parallel text, Parallèlement, in which Bonnard's erotic lithographs were played off against Verlaine's sensuous verse.

The cubists and surrealists went further in breaking down easy correspondences between picture and text. In Miró's Parler Seul, there is no obvious relationship between the brightly coloured semi-abstract figures and the poems by Tristan Tzara that they surround; each artist speaks for himself, in isolation. But even the surrealists did little to alter the idea of the book as a codex - a bound volume in which pages can be turned. The man who challenged that convention was Joseph Cornell, with his cardboard boxes containing words, papers, inventories, name tags and found objects. Each box is given the title of a literary classic (The Three Musketeers, Paul and Virginia, etc), but the original is reduced to a heap of fragments and severed from its original context. With their use of cut-ups and collages, Cornell's boxes are not there to be read so much as rooted through, like an old trunk in the attic.

Still, even Cornell seems timidly conventional and literary alongside some of the artists exhibited at the V&A. Cai Guo-Qiang, for instance, mixes paste and gunpowder to illustrate his Danger Book, and tempts the reader (viewer?) to test the work's explosiveness by pulling a string that will ignite it: "Be careful of books" is the message. Anselm Kiefer's The Secret Life of Plants, a 6ft-tall sculpture of splayed pages in oil on lead on cardboard, explores the idea of literary permanence: the solidity of the piece and its references to astronomy suggest that books (like the heavens) will last for ever, the perished edges of the pages that (like plants) all books have their season then die. Anthony Caro's sculptures in brass, bronze and stainless steel, with poems by Hans Magnus Enzensberger and passages from Shakespeare secreted inside their folds, are less ambiguous: as books cast in metal, they celebrate durability.

If such sculptures remind us that books are tactile, the majority of the exhibits here remain agonisingly untouchable, under glass. In this, artists' books resemble not the hardbacks or paperbacks most of us read, but ancient manuscripts; only the privileged few (researchers, archivists and curators) are allowed to get their hands on them. Catalogue descriptions add to that sense of exclusion: the inventories of white Eskulan paper mounted on to a concertina of linen and hand-sewn with hemp, or of bindings in Nigerian goatskin or red Morocco cloth, are reminiscent of Bruce Chatwin at his most precious. Unless you are fetishistic about books, and know what's meant by drop-spine boards, slip-cases, endbands, archival dyes, mould-made paper, pochoirs, foil blocking, bifolia and "fascicules", you can end up feeling left out.

But not all artists' books are aimed at rich collectors or white-gloved connoisseurs. In the 1960s, the American artist Edward Ruscha produced a series of booklets in unnumbered editions, intended to be sold cheaply in supermarkets and drugstores. They consisted of black-and-white photographs showing different examples of humdrum American locations: 26 gas stations, 34 parking lots, nine swimming pools, the buildings along Sunset Strip. Dieter Roth and Sol LeWitt (also in the V&A show) produced work in a similar spirit. Many small, independent publishers sprang up, putting out art in pamphlets and on postcards in a dream of subverting the establishment and achieving Malraux's goal of a "museum without walls". In place of the deluxe art book came the "democratic multiple", available to all.

In truth, most books are democratic multiples these days, and have been since Allen Lane founded Penguin; it is only artists' books that come in tiny editions at astronomical prices. But some artists have found ways to widen their audience without compromising high standards of book production. Tom Phillips's A Humument - which took a Victorian novel by WH Mallock and covered the pages with images, leaving odd phrases exposed to create a new text - began life as a one-off work valued at £20,000, was issued in a limited edition and then became a trade hardback; my copy of the revised edition in 1987 cost £12.95, not an exorbitant sum even then. Publishers such as Redstone and Enitharmon have also produced beautiful volumes at affordable prices, with the latter initiating some fascinating partnerships between poets (Heaney, Gunn, Hughes, Pinter) and painters (Kitaj, Pasmore and Rego).

There have been so many intriguing collaborations - Howard Hodgkin and Susan Sontag, David Hockney and CP Cavafy, Louise Bourgeois and Arthur Miller - that it must have been hard for Rowan Watson, who co-curated the V&A exhibition with the art publisher Elena Foster, to decide which artists' books to include and then, having chosen, which pages to put on display. Unbound pages allow room to manoeuvre, but with most volumes, all you can show in a display case is a double-spread or diptych. When the book is as substantial as Miró's Le Courtisan Grotesque, Paula Rego's version of Jane Eyre or Balthus's Wuthering Heights (bound in goatskin dyed grey-green to "evoke the Yorkshire moors"), it is frustrating not to be able to leaf through. At least with Francis Bacon's Detritus, the problem doesn't arise. This is not a book, but a leather suitcase (in fact, one of an edition of 25 suitcases) containing 76 items found in the chaos of the artist's studio. With the suitcase lid open, and Bacon's bric-a-brac scattered about the display case, we get a sense not just of mess, but of method - the way Bacon worked and thought.

When Tom Wolfe called his polemic on modern art The Painted Word, he was thinking not of artists' books, but of post-1945 abstract expressionism and its enshrinement of theory and text. Some of the exhibits in the V&A show share this tendency: they are more think-pieces than artworks, designed not to please us as art or literature, but to challenge beliefs we hold dear. For instance, that "getting lost" in a book is good for us (on the contrary - we should stay alert to the book as an object). Or that books exist to be read (not always: they can also be worshipped as icons, as with the Bible or the Qur'an, or Mao's Little Red Book). Or that you can't judge a book by its cover (you can if it is an artist's book by Miró or Roy Lichtenstein).

The exhibition isn't restful on the eye, or the brain, but with its suitcases, boxes, cabinets, installations, performance pieces and specially commissioned sculptures, it is refreshingly free of bibliophiliac solemnity. And, though seeing books cut open, burned or simply locked up is a shock, most of the artists here seem to hold them in quasi-religious awe. The show also has a come-on title, Blood on Paper, which works on various levels: as a running motif that culminates in Anish Kapoor's lacerated paper sculpture, Wound; as a reference to the colour red, much used by illustrators in the days of scribes and the immediate post-Gutenberg era; and as a reminder of the passion with which many artists have worked on books - not least Matisse, who, notwithstanding his cavalier treatment of Joyce, said it took him "10 months of effort, working all day and often at night", to finish the artwork for Henri de Montherlant's Pasiphaé to his satisfaction.

"He who wants to dedicate himself to painting should start by cutting out his own tongue," Matisse also said, and it's true that when artists use language, which isn't their first medium, the results can be less than happy. Peter Doig's current exhibition at Tate Britain was almost ruined for me by one of his titles: Reflection (What Does Your Soul Look Like?). And I find it hard not to think less of Damien Hirst, another contributor to the V&A show, for calling one of his pieces I Want to Spend the Rest of My Life Everywhere, With Everyone, One to One, Always, Forever, Now. But not all artists revel in inarticulate rapture. And some, such as Tom Phillips and Rego, are excellent readers, finding new meanings in old texts.

When Matisse did use his own words, in his book Jazz, he asked that they be read "in the indulgent spirit generally accorded the writings of a painter". He also said that they were there only to separate the colour plates, "as asters add to the composition of a bouquet of more important flowers. Thus their role is purely visual." [His italics.] Actually, Matisse's words in Jazz aren't half bad. But what makes the book speak to the reader is the exuberance of its colour. Fittingly, the two pages from Jazz on display at the V&A include no words at all.

· Blood on Paper: The Art of the Book is at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London SW7, until June 29. Box office: 0870 906 3883.

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