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  • James Stewart

Artist Books, Livre d’artiste - a brief history

Updated: Jul 21, 2022

An Artist’s Book is a book that has been made or conceived by an artist, in many respects it is similar to an original print in that:

1. The artist has a high degree of control/input into its creation

2. Artists books are limited in number produced in the edition

3. They are signed and individually numbered by the artist

4. The book is intended to be a work of art in itself, an object or sculptural form

5. They contain a handmade or printed element as part of the book itself or as an insert

It is the last attribute which makes each one in the edition potentially unique, because as with original prints, there is always some variation between them, however small this maybe, intentional or otherwise - See Tom Hammick's Window Wall World and Laura Carlin's The Iron Man below.

Given these characteristics you could say that there are many fine artists who make artist’s books, but there are also book artists who produce work exclusively in that medium including illustrators, typographers, writers, poets, etc.

A lot of artist’s books are self-published, or produced by small independent presses. This is not though an identifying characteristic, since some artist’s books are produced by the large art publishing houses - such as Pictures by Craigie Aitchison (see above); Entrada Drive by Jim Dine or the three novels of Jake Chapman (see below).

These latter ones as usually described as ‘deluxe’ or ‘special’ editions of a widely published book, and may be presented in a different binding, box and with a limited edition print. In all cases though the book and print would be signed and numbered in the limited edition.

Artists want to create these books for a number of reasons, as a challenge; to say something new (that cannot be expressed in another medium); or to make the work accessible outside the usual arenas of galleries and museums.

Leaping Down to Earth with poetry by Robert Vas Dias and illustrations by Tom Hammick and Stephen Chambers, is unusual in that the poems are a response to artwork and not the other way around as is usual for Artist's Books.

Contemporary Artist’s Books these days take many forms and have evolved from a standard bound book: they can now include scrolls, concertinas or loose items contained in a box or folder. Whatever form it takes artists use the Artist’s Book as useful means of expression.

Evolution of the Artist’s Book

Artists have been associated with the written word since illuminated manuscripts were created in the medieval period, but the most notable artist was William Blake.

Illustrated pages from Songs of innocence and of Experience by William Blake
Illustrated pages from Songs of innocence and of Experience by William Blake

Blake’s ‘Songs of Innocence and of Experience’ was written, illustrated, printed, coloured and bound by Blake and his wife Catherine. Throughout the handwritten text merged with images creating an intensely vivid, hermetic work that had not been seen before.

Consequently, William Blake is seen as the main influence for the modern form of the artist’s book.

By the end of the nineteenth century, as demand for art posters and editions began to grow, entrepreneurial publishers began to commission artists to illustrate small editions of books.

In fact, some of the first publishers of illustrated books were art dealers who felt that producing books embellished by their artists would increase the audience for their paintings.

The Livre d’Artiste, also known as Livre de Peintre, is generally considered to be the precursor to the current artist’s book. They originated in Paris at the turn of the 20th Century and were a form of illustrated book. A distinguishing facet of the livre d’artiste is that the pages were printed directly from a source created by the artist themselves, as opposed to a plate created by a printer’s technician from an artist’s design.

Illustration by Bonnard for Paul Verlaine's poems in Parrallelement
Illustration by Bonnard for Paul Verlaine's poems in Parrallelement

The dealer Ambroise Vollard commissioned Pierre Bonnard to create a set of lithographs to illustrate a collection of poems by Paul Verlaine: Parallelement (1900).

The works were produced as deluxe limited editions, generally left unbound so they could be easily displayed.

Artist’s books, or book like objects have been created by many movements in the early 20th century including Dada, Constructivism, Futurism and later Fluxus.

Picasso's Heads Illustration for Ovid's Les Metamorphoses (1931)
Picasso's Heads Illustration for Ovid's Les Metamorphoses (1931)

Classical literature, fables, and folk tales have often been the subject of artists’ books. These include Les Métamorphoses (1931) by Ovid with Picasso’s etchings, The Ecologues (1927) by Virgil with Aristide Maillol’s wood engravings, and Fables (1931) by Aesop with Alexander Calder’s wiry line drawings of animals.

George Rouault’s Miserere (1948)
George Rouault’s Miserere (1948)

Artists have also used the pages of the printed book to focus on political and social issues. For example, George Rouault’s Miserere (1948), an album of fifty-eight black-and-white aquatints, mixes episodes from the life of Christ with images recalling the brutal events of World War I. Picasso produced Sueño y mentira de Franco (Dream and Lie of Franco, 1937), two nine-part compositions of violent and satirical images representing Franco and the suffering Spanish people, in order to raise money for the Spanish Republic.

Malevich’s Suprematism: 34 Risunka (1920)
Malevich’s Suprematism: 34 Risunka (1920)

For some artists, books are the means to convey and preserve their teaching and working methods:

Malevich’s Suprematism: 34 Risunka (1920), consisted of a group of black-and-white prints, and was created as a textbook for his students; Marcel Duchamp’s La Mariée mise à nu par ses célibaraires, meme (the Green Box, 1934) reproduced notes for his masterpiece of the same name, created two decades earlier; Josef Albers’ Formulations: Articulation(1972) is a compendium of the artist’s compositional repertoire, and includes 121 colour and six black screen prints.

During the 1950’s and 60’s several conceptual artists such as Dieter Roth and Ed Ruscha created conceptual works which are considered the start of the modern artist’s book form.

Ed Ruscha’s 1962 ‘Twenty Six Gasoline Stations’ comprised a set of deadpan photographs of gasoline stations along Route 66 from Los Angeles to Oklahoma City, produced in an edition of 400. The book was not intended as a means for the reproduction of the images, but rather as an artwork in its own right. In this work Ruscha was influenced travelogue photobooks such as by Robert Frank’s ‘The Americans’ (1965), but in Rushca’s case the journey more banal and less photogenic.

Ruscha went on to create a number of books in a similar way, but they were sometimes produced in unlimited editions and had a wider distribution. This does not stop them necessarily from being an ‘artwork’, the idea was that they would be inexpensive and so accessible to more people.

Dieter Roth looked at the construction of books themselves: formal pages, bound in a sequence. He deconstructed the books and his investigations became the subject matter for his books.

‘Bilderbucher’, 1957, by Dieter Roth
‘Bilderbucher’, 1957, by Dieter Roth

Bilderbucher’, 1957, by Roth consisted of two picture books of geometric shapes with die cut holes in each page. These allowed the reader/viewer to glimpse patterns on the pages underneath. Roth was also the first artist to re-use found books (comics, printer’s end pages and newpapers).

Throughout the 1960’s and 70’s Artist’s Books became popular and the art form expanded.

The National Art Library holds a number of Livres d’Artistes by artists from Manet to Hockney.

From October 1994 to January 1995 MOMA in New York presented an exhibition devoted to the Artist’s Book: ‘A Century of Artists Books’. This looked at the evolution of the medium and celebrated the extraordinary impact that modern/contemporary artists have had on the centuries old tradition of book design.

MOMA curator Riva Castleman said “The difference between ‘illustrated books’ and ‘artists’ books’ is what makes them modern: the artist augments the text with images that do not necessarily define passages in the text. In this way, the reader-viewer may form personal responses to the images as well as to the text, thus broadening the experience of the book.… The intention of the illustrator is to clarify the text, while the intention of the artist is to create Images that extend and/or enhance the text.”

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s illustrated Yvette Guilbert
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s illustrated Yvette Guilbert

The exhibition started with Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s innovative Yvette Guilbert, which MOMA believed was the first example of a modern book where text and image were dealt with as a single, clearly conceived object, and Paul Gauguin’s manuscript and prints for his planned book Noa Noa, both of 1894.

It continued with famous volumes by Marc Chagall, Henri Matisse, and Pablo Picasso from the first half of the twentieth century; avant-garde experiments from World War I through the 1960s by artists ranging from Sonia Delaunay-Terk and Kasimir Malevich to Robert Rauschenberg and Edward Ruscha to recent books by other contemporary artists, such as Louise Bourgeois, Francesco Clemente, Anselm Kiefer, and Barbara Kruger.


Selection of our available Artist's Books

We have a number of contemporary Artist's Books available in our online Bookshop

A selection of these are also shown below:

Leaping Down to Earth:

Leaping Down to Earth is a response in poetry to twelve pictures, six each by Stephen Chambers and Tom Hammick, all of which are brilliantly reproduced in the book. The poems are not about art and don’t describe their images but, as Robert Vas Dias writes in the Preface, “convey what’s on my mind after I’ve lived with the images a while.” The design of the book displays the integral connection between poem and image and yet allows each work to stand on its own. This rare special edition of Leaping Down to Earth (number 8 of 25) is in a fabric slip case, with an original print by each artist made specially for this book, signed and numbered. Designed by Borja Goyarrola, published by Permanent Press and Pratt Contemporary Art in 2008.

The poet Lee Harwood, is “a collection of poems that are some of the best Vas Dias has ever written. There’s a wit and liveliness to them that often makes me laugh out loud. But also more serious and moving threads weave through these poems. They can be sexy and funny and also include a subtle understanding of the complexities and struggles in human relationships.” Nicholas Usherwood writes in Galleries Magazine: “The call and response between the three of them is edgy, witty and often extremely touching, making this one of the most genuinely satisfying collaborations of its kind I’ve come across.”

Marriage of Reason and Squalor/Memoirs of My Writers Block/Introspastic:

Three novels written by Jake Chapman, presented in a cloth slipcase with a limited edition hand coloured etching.

Jake Chapman's first work of fiction was 'Marriage of Reason and Squalor', this deluxe version is in an edition of 250.

His second novel is 'Memoirs of my Writer's Block' in an edition of 100.

And his third novel is 'Introspastic', also in an edition of 100.

Entrada Drive

This deluxe book by Jim Dine is limited edition of 140.

This special signed edition of a book of photographs by Jim Dine comes with a signed Stone Lithograph print of a flower, 30 x 32 cm, in a box case.

Wall Window World

This is the special 'deluxe' edition of the first book to survey the work of painter and printmaker Tom Hammick. It sets out Hammick's art within the context of contemporary debates about painting while relating it to the two centuries old tradition.

The book comes in an embossed slipcase, designed by the artist and includes a three-part colour etching 'Fallout', created for this publication in an edition of just 60.

The Iron man

A stunning, new, limited edition of 100, version of a much-loved children's classic by Ted Hughes, illustrated by Laura Carlin.

Each one comes in a box case, with a signed print and unique drawing book plate by Laura Carlin.

For this edition, the whole package is enclosed in a four colour semi-translucent trace wrap, over printed with images from the book. inside is a cased 3mm board box, which opens with a magnetic catch and is embossed on the front with a figure of the Iron Man.

The first panel opens to reveal a striking cut out of the Iron Man, through which is visible a section of the front cover of the book, and the second panel opens right to reveal the book itself. Both panels have colour illustrations of figures from the book.

The book cover for this special edition is different from the unlimited open edition and there is a unique book plate artwork included, which has been created and numbered by Laura Carlin.

Finally, at the back of each limited edition copy is an envelope containing an individually signed Laura carlin print of a spread from the book.

If you have any questions on these special edition Artist's Books, or this article generally, please contact us.


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