January 25, 2013

The first “simultaneous book” on display at MoMA


La Prose du Transsibérien et de la Petite Jehanne de France by Blaise Cendrars and Sonia Delaunay is on display at the Museum of Modern Art.

If you visit the Museum of Modern Art before April 15, 2013, you’ll be able to see the Inventing Abstraction: 1910-1925 exhibition, which traces the development of abstraction through the work of artists like Kandinsky, Duchamp, Mondrian, and Malevich. The show covers a wide range of artistic production — paintings, drawings, sculptures, films, photographs, music, and dance.

The show also includes books, and cultural critic Johanna Drucker, author of A Century of Artists Books would approve:

the artist’s book is the quintessential 20th-century art form. Artists’ books appear in every major movement in art and literature and have provided a unique means of realizing works within all of the many avant-garde, experimental, and independent groups whose contributions have defined the shape of 20th century artistic activity.

La Prose du Transsibérien et de la Petite Jehanne de France, a collaborative book project by Sonia Delaunay and Blaise Cendrars (the pen name for Frédéric Louis Sauser, which literally implies burning ashes and is meant to invoke the rebirth of a phoenix) is included in the exhibition and is a dramatic re-envisioning of the book. It consists of four sheets glued together in a grid, with Sonia Delaunay’s signature vivid geometric watercolor painting, created by the pochoir method (painting through a stencil).

The colors are meant to guide the reader around the text, reflecting the mood and content of Cendrars’ poem, which describes his experience as a young boy on the Trans-Siberien express, which runs from St. Petersburg to the Sea of Japan. His companion on the trip is Jeanne, a French prostitute, and while the landscape rushes by him on the train, he thinks back in fragmented recollection to his childhood in Paris and imagines trips to tropical paradises.

The large sheet of paper is folded in half lengthwise (this is how it is displayed in the show) and then is meant to be accordion-folded ten times to reach a conventional book size. The entire planned print run of 150 copies was carefully planned to reach 300 feet high, the height of the Eiffel Tower.

Drucker praises this project, which caused quite a stir in salons in Berlin and Paris as a significant moment in the history of the book:

No private reading experience had ever assumed such dimensions, and the explosion of the book into a piece of this size is a dramatic conceptual as well as formal achievement.

Cendrars as poet and publisher and Delaunay as painter were interested in achieving what they called simultaneisme, or a “simultaneous book.” They wanted to create a form of art in which painting and text could be united in expression. Delaunay painted the left column of color and abstract shapes guides us through the text, which is set in various typefaces, allowing for movement as the reader mimics the journey across the page as described in the train ride in the poem.

In 1913, Cendrars expressed his idiosyncratic enthusiasm for the project in a the German magazine Der Sturm:

Literature is a part of life. It is not something “special.” All of life is nothing but a poem, a movement… Here is what I wanted to say. I have a fever. And this is why I love the painting of the Delaunys, full of sun, of heat, of violence. Mme Delaunay has made such a beautiful book of colors that my poem is more saturated with light than is my life. That’s what makes me happy. Besides, think that this book should be two meters high! Moreover, that the edition should reach the height of the Eiffel Tower!



Claire Kelley is a the former Director of Library and Academic Marketing.