Creating French Culture:Treasures from the BibliotHeque nationale de France
Edited by Marie-Hilne Tesnire and Prosser Gifford
Yale University Press
479 pp., $65
These two images, both from books, rather happily illustrate the scope of France's national library. Separated in time by five centuries, they are utterly contrasting. At the same time, they have surprising affinities.
The earlier - a medieval illuminated manuscript painted in 1409 - is featured near the start of a large new tome celebrating the possessions of the Bibliothque nationale de France.
The later, an example of experimental 20th century modernism printed in 1913, is shown near the end of the book.
Both were made in Paris, the home of the library, and the rich color might almost symbolize the opulence of the ever-increasing collection of books and manuscripts to be found there. Their lucid, expressive, almost jewel-fresh color also seems strikingly French, belonging to the same culture that gave birth to Impressionism, and even more significantly to that astonishing master of clear color, Henri Matisse.
It is also a point worth making that the Boucicaut Master (who painted the 15th century miniature for the French king, Charles VI) cannot fail to have known some of the glories of stained glass that dazzled the eyes of worshippers in the great French Gothic cathedrals; the brilliance of hue in his paintings on vellum seems to vie on a comparatively tiny scale with such intense splendors.
On the other hand, Sonia Delaunay, the artist who illustrated the long poem by Blaise Cendrars (upper right, this page) would also, after coming to Paris from the Ukraine in 1905, have seen the glass of Sainte-Chapelle or Chartres. And with her revolutionary determination to make color and its simultaneous contrasts, juxtapositions, and rhythms stand strongly on its own, she seems bound to have found the vivid translucent color of medieval glass stimulating. Much later in Delaunay's long career (in 1967-68) she was to paint, in gouache on a wood panel, a "project for stained glass" herself. However, at the time she illustrated "Prose of the Transsiberian and of the Little Jehanne de France," her interests, and those of her husband, the painter Robert Delaunay, were not at all medieval. They were inspired by the modern city, by the prismatic colors of street lights, and by that emblem of Paris and feat of modern engineering, the Eiffel Tower.
The large book from which these images are reproduced, "Creating French Culture: Treasures from the Bibliothque nationale de France," was published to coincide with an exhibition at the Library of Congress toward the end of last year. The treasures have returned to Paris. This heavy volume - though its illustrations can hardly do justice to such a vast accumulation of items representing some 12 centuries - is what remains. Its pictures are supported by scholarly essays and notes: It is much more than a decorative book.
The page by the Boucicaut Master is from the manuscript known as "Replies to Charles VI and Lamentations." Although Charles VI's father had been an avid collector and reader of books, and one of his uncles was Jean de Berry - who commissioned that consummate masterwork of medieval illumination, "Les Trs Riches Heures du Duc de Berry" - Charles VI himself was no bibliophile.
Franois Avril, who wrote the explanatory note on this item in "Creating French Culture," points to a paradox: that "one of the most beautiful manuscripts to leave the Parisian workshops during this period was illuminated for none other than this king who had little time for books." Of "Folio 53" (that is, this particular page, representing the manuscript's author, Pierre Salmon, presenting it to the king) she writes enthusiastically: "The scene ..., intricate and animated, demonstrates the artist's skill in embellishing this classic presentation scene with a multitude of anecdotal details, keenly observed and arranged in convincing spatial volume."
Although the king had, in reality, little interest in books, he may have recognized to a degree that books were linked with power. This political significance of books, particularly in French thinking, is one of the main themes of the essays in "Creating French Culture." Today, though, this exquisite illustration is most likely to be enjoyed for its aesthetic rather than its political meanings.
Sonia Delaunay's accompanying symphony of colors for Cendrar's long poem - the words of which are set in a variety of typefaces - had none of the prestige associated with the royal commissioning and patronage of books in the Middle Ages. Although much later in the century this unusual publication, originally sold for a modest price, became a highly prized and expensive collector's item, it was actually a financial failure. The plan was for an edition of 150 copies. Only 62 were made.
The poem is made of a single sheet of paper folded into 22 horizontal panels. When these are all unfolded, the whole length of the book is about six and half feet from top to bottom. One of the more fantastic notions of this unquestionably imaginative work of book-art, was that the complete edition would be as high as the Eiffel Tower! The poem, according to Arthur Cohen in his book about Delaunay, "evokes the passage by train from Moscow to Nikolskoye on the Sea of Japan, remarking the pains and pleasures of a vagabond adolescence...." Periodically, in larger type, the words ask a recurrent question: "Tell me, Blaise, are we very far from Montmartre?"
The "illustration" (a most inadequate word in this case) is done by "pochoir," which is a kind of repeat stenciling. The freely moving colors interrelate with the words to the point where neither can be separated from the other in the work as a whole.
"Literature," Cendrars wrote, "is part of life. It is not something apart."
Sonia Delaunay wrote about Cendrars: "His life was his poetry. He lived it the way Delaunay and I lived out paintings."
And the poet Guillaume Apollinaire called their collaborative book - now represented in France's great national library - "a unique experiment in simultaneity, written in contrasts of colors in order to train the eye to read with one glance the whole of a poem, as an orchestra conductor reads with one glance the notes placed up and down on the bar...."
And yet for all this imaginative innovation, this integration of word and image, of text and color, was, in the terms of a different era, what medieval illuminated manuscripts were also about.