Rare & Beautiful

Paris and the Artist’s Book in the 1920s and ’30s

Beginning with the Dada and Surrealist movements, Paris nurtured a tradition of artists, including Ernst, Tanguy, Arp, and Léger, illustrating imaginative and important books.

By Peter Kraus September 4, 2019

Most people who are familiar with twentieth-century illustrated books are aware that, starting with Parallèlement, Paul Verlaine’s series of sensual poems illustrated by Pierre Bonnard and published by Ambroise Vollard in 1900, a succession of high-profile French art dealers and publishers issued a steady stream of livres d’artistes, or artist’s books.

Interior spread from Parallèlement, featuring Pierre Bonnard’s lithographs for Paul Verlaine’s poems, 1900.

For the most part, the results were substantial tomes illustrated by some of the century’s leading artists. Beginning with the Dada and Surrealist movements, however, Paris also nurtured a tradition of artists illustrating imaginative and important books on a more modest scale, but often without any diminution of their aesthetic appeal or artistic importance.

The year 1919 saw the publication of La Fin du monde filmée par l’Ange N.-D (The End of the World, Filmed by the Angel N-D), with text, originally conceived as a screenplay, by Blaise Cendrars and pochoir illustrations by Fernand Léger.

Interior spread showing Fernand Léger’s pochoir illustrations for La Fin du monde filmée par l’Ange N.-D (The End of the World, Filmed by the Angel N-D) by Blaise Cendrars, 1919.

Pochoir illustrations involved the use of gouache with stencils, and for a long time the academic world did not consider pochoir “original,” which explains why even Matisse’s Jazz was very difficult to sell when it was first published. Thankfully, this is no longer the case.

Lithograph by Natalia Goncharova for Gorod: Stikhi (The City: Verses), by Aleksandr Rubakin, 1920.

In 1920, the only substantial Dada book was published in Paris, the majority of printed Dada material being either broadsides or pamphlets. This was Cinéma calendrier du coeur abstrait, Maisons (Cinema Calendar of the Abstract Heart, Houses), with text by Tristan Tzara and woodcuts by Hans Arp. The same year saw the publication of Gorod: Stikhi (The City: Verses), by Aleksandr Rubakin with lithographs by the Russian artist Natalia Goncharova.

Between 1922 and 1934, Max Ernst produced a total of five books illustrated with collages. The first, Répétitions (Repetitions) included only a frontispiece as artwork. This was followed by Les Malheurs des immortels (Misfortunes of the Immortals), in which the collages accompanied poems by Paul Eluard. Then came the three celebrated collage novels: La Femme 100 têtes (The 100 Headless Women) in 1929; Rêve d’une Petite Fille qui voulut entrer au Carmel (A Little Girl Dreams of Taking the Veil) in 1930; and last, Une Semaine de bonté (A Week of Kindness) in 1934. These five books form a unique contribution to the evolution of the illustrated book in the twentieth century.

The year 1923 witnessed the publication of Ledentu le Phare, a combination of collage and letterpress by Naum Granovsky, the first book issued by the Russian polymath known as Iliazd, who would later publish some of the most creative artist’s books of the twentieth century under his Paris imprint, Le Degré 41.

Interior spread from Les Malheurs des immortels (Misfortunes of the Immortals), featuring Max Ernst’s collages for Paul Eluard’s collection of poems, 1922.

In 1927, Yves Tanguy illustrated Dadaist and Surrealist Benjamin Péret’s collection of poems Dormir dormir dans les pierres (To Sleep, to Sleep in the Rocks) with hand-colored line drawings.

Yves Tanguy’s cover for Benjamin Péret’s collection of poems Dormir dormir dans les pierres (To Sleep, to Sleep in the Rocks), 1927.

The first appearance of Joan Miró as a book illustrator occurred in 1928, with his pochoir illustrations accompanying Il était une petite pie (Once There Was a Little Magpie) by Lise Hirtz; and in 1929, the English-language Black Sun Press published Tales Told of Shem and Shaun with Brancusi’s celebrated portrait frontispiece of James Joyce. Last but not least, in 1930, Salvador Dalí illustrated his own text for La Femme visible with a striking etched frontispiece.

While none of these books is remotely similar to the livres d’artistes published by art dealers such as Vollard and Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, they bear vivid contemporary witness to the evolution of modern art during an important decade of the twentieth century.



For those interested in finding out more about the books highlighted in this article, including possible acquisition (ParallèlementLa Femme 100 têtes, Rêve d’une Petite Fille qui voulut entrer au Carmel, Dormir dormir dans les pierres), please contact Peter Kraus at Ursus Books & Gallery: (212) 772-8787 or ursus@ursusbooks.com:

Peter Kraus is the founder and current owner of Ursus Books & Gallery in Manhattan, which offers a comprehensive selection of art reference books, superb copies of rare books in all fields, and decorative prints.


This is the fourth installment in a collaboration with Peter highlighting important books from the past.

Previous articles in this series are “Discovering Old Design Books in Japan,” “A Dialogue with Color,” and A Flowering of Creativity: Ladislav Sutnar and F. T. Marinetti.”

Please note that Designers & Books will receive an accommodation from sales resulting from this collaboration.

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