La Prose

du Transsibérien et de
la Petite Jehanne de France

Reva and David Logan Collection of Illustrated Books
Legion of Honor Museum
La Prose
La Prose

Introduction

By 1913, Paris had been for more than a decade the epicenter of artistic revolution in Europe. That year, artist Sonia Delaunay and poet Blaise Cendrars collaborated on La prose du Transsibérien et de la Petite Jehanne de France (Prose of the Trans-Siberian and of Little Jehanne of France). Hailed as the first “simultaneous book,” the artwork was conceived as a unified experience of text and image, indivisible and apprehended concurrently.

Detail of La prose du Transsibérien et de la Petite Jehanne de France by Sonia Delaunay-Terk and Blaise Cendrars

I Introducing the Book

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Mme. Delaunay has made such a beautiful book of colors that my poem is more saturated with light than is my life. . . . Besides, think that this book should be two meters high! Moreover, that the edition should reach the height of the Eiffel Tower! Blaise Cendrars in Der Sturm (Berlin), September 1913
Detail of La prose du Transsibérien et de la Petite Jehanne de France by Sonia Delaunay-Terk and Blaise Cendrars

It was an audacious work of art: appropriating a map-fold format, the book unfurls to over six feet in length, then opens to reveal Delaunay’s abstract forms confronting a poem of more than 400 lines splashed across the right-hand side of the opening. Her preliminary painting was reproduced for the edition with pochoir, a laborious stenciling process. Planned in edition of 150, only slightly more than half were actually produced.

The text is presented in a radical format, printed in several colors in more than two dozen typefaces. Sometimes tethered to the left margin, sometimes to the right, the poem wanders through fields of applied color. Though Cendrars denied it, he may have been influenced by the contemporary typographic experiments of the Italian Futurists—the poem’s layout seems to break all the rules of conventional formatting.

Photo of sonia delaunay-terk
Photo: Sonia Delaunay-Terk, 1931. Photograph by Florence Henri. Martini & Ronchetti Gallery

Sonia Delaunay-Terk

Delaunay-Terk (1885–1979) was born in Ukraine and raised in Saint Petersburg. She moved to Paris in 1905. In 1910 she married Robert Delaunay, an artist known for his bold use of color and abstract form. The Delaunays were exemplars of Orphism, as the poet Guillaume Apollinaire called it, their work infusing Cubism with dynamic light and color. In addition to painting, Delaunay-Terk’s practice encompassed textile and fashion design, bookbinding, furniture design, and set design.

Photo of blaise cendrars
Blaise Cendrars, ca. 1907. Wikimedia Commons

Blaise Cendrars

Cendrars (1887–1961) was born Frédéric-Louis Sauser in Neuchâtel, Switzerland, and became a French citizen in 1916. One of the leading literary figures of twentieth-century France, he was a friend of and collaborator with many artists, including Fernand Léger, Marc Chagall, and Amedeo Modigliani.

Aerial view of Paris, from a balloon, showing the Seine River, the Eiffel Tower, and buildings of the Exposition Universelle of 1889

II Paris: 1913

The year 1913, on the cusp of the Great War, was a kind of fulcrum in time, and Paris was at the balance point.

La prose was a product of its time and place, a period like no other before or since. Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso were creating the radical new artistic vision of Cubism, leading to the birth of abstraction, and Marcel Duchamp was brewing his own conceptual artistic revolution. In poetry, Guillaume Apollinaire was charging through the door that Stéphane Mallarmé had opened with his sophisticated exploration of visual poetics. Russian émigrés were injecting energy and radical ideas into the mix, bringing with them the bold dynamics of Futurism. The modernist spirit that was centered in Paris extended to all of Europe and the world beyond, setting the stage for the advent of Dada and Surrealism.

It was not the art dealers, nor the critics, nor the collectors who made these painters famous, it was the modern poets, and people forget it rather too easily, and so do all these painters who, today, are millionaires and are still indebted to us, the poor poets! Blaise Cendrars, La lotissement du ciel (Sky), 1949
Photo of Stéphane Mallarmé
Stéphane Mallarmé, ca. 1890. Photograph by Nadar studio. © The New York Public Library

Stéphane Mallarmé

Mallarmé (1842–1898) is widely credited with opening the field of modernist visual poetics with his poem Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard (A Throw of the Dice Will Never Abolish Chance). He was a major influence on many of the poets, and even visual artists, of the generation that followed, an influence that is still felt today.

‘One Toss of the Dice’ was the birth certificate of modern poetry. R. Howard Bloch, One Toss of the Dice, 2017
Photo of Guillaume Apollinaire
Guillaume Apollinaire with a shrapnel wound at the temple, 1916. Wikimedia Commons

Guillaume Apollinaire

Apollinaire (1880–1918) was the quintessential poet of modernism. Immensely influential among his contemporaries, both poets and artists, he helped define the avant-garde in both art and literature, and coined the terms Cubism and Surrealism.

[Apollinaire] marks an epoch. The beautiful things we can do now! Jacques Vaché, letter to André Breton, 1918
New York Times June 7, 1913
The New York Times, published June 8, 1913 Toggle Caption

The “Riot” of Spring

Until 1913, there had rarely been a time when artists felt so emboldened to disregard rules and traditions. The disruptive clash between more orthodox expression and that of the avant-garde was the defining spirit of the time. (The battlefields of modernism in their own way foreshadowed the battlefields of 1914, when many artists and poets—including Léger, Cendrars, and Apollinaire—eagerly enlisted for combat.) Perhaps no event was more characteristic of the time than the explosive premiere of Sergei Diaghilev and Igor Stravinsky’s ballet The Rite of Spring, vividly described by Mary Ann Caws and Blaise Cendrars in the texts that follow.

Mary Ann Caws

Distinguished Professor Emerita, Graduate School of the City University of New York

Mary Ann Caws is the author of more than 40 books, including The Surrealist Look: An Erotics of Encounter (1997), and Picasso’s Weeping Woman: The Life and Art of Dora Maar (2000).

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The cacophonous Rite of Spring was the centerpiece of a simultaneity of sound, color, and movement. Nijinsky danced its May 29 premiere for Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in Paris’s Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, and the spectacle provoked a celebrated pandemonium. Igor Stravinsky’s discordant music touched off outrage from the more conservative audience members, with others equally vehement in its defense. This riot against modernism, to put it bluntly, conferred on the piece more glory than anything positive could possibly have done—riots led to revelry in the long run.

Sergei Diaghilev with Igor Stravinsky
Sergei Diaghilev (left) with Igor Stravinsky Toggle Caption
A woman nearby, covered by diamonds, but the music of Stravinsky drove her crazy, tore out a brand-new folding seat and smashed me over the head with it, so I had to spend the rest of the night drinking champagne in Montmartre with Stravinsky [and] Diaghilev ... still wearing the folding chair like a horse collar. Blaise Cendrars, radio interview, 1950
Detail of La prose du Transsibérien et de la petite Jehanne de France by Sonia Delaunay-Terk and Blaise Cendrars

III The Book

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A sad poem printed on sunlight. Blaise Cendrars
Detail of La prose du Transsibérien et de la petite Jehanne de France by Sonia Delaunay-Terk and Blaise Cendrars
Detail of La prose du Transsibérien et de la Petite Jehanne de France by Sonia Delaunay-Terk and Blaise Cendrars, 1913 Toggle Caption

The book is a vortex of convergent and oppositional energies, an environment created for a remarkable reading experience. When folded it is roughly four by seven inches, and just over an inch thick. It can be read by unfolding the accordion-fold “pages” one segment at a time. Alternatively, one can unfold it to full length, more than six feet, on a long table. That way the entire design and text can be apprehended—not, as Apollinaire said, at a glance, but by following the poetic narrative as it weaves through splashes of color.

Read an English translation of the Poem
Chevreul color wheel
Color wheel by Michel-Eugène Chevreul, 1839 Toggle Caption

Light and Color

Mary Ann Caws explains a source for Robert and Sonia Delaunay’s experiments with chromatic simultaneity.
La prose is at once a simultaneous riot of colors, as both painter and poet intended, according to the authors' acquaintance with the theories of Michel-Eugène Chevreul, author of De la loi du contraste simultané des couleurs (The Laws of Contrast of Color), 1839. Chevreul experimented with a color wheel, and his discoveries had a great influence on the Impressionists and the Post-Impressionists, and, in turn, on the whirling colors of this brightly-lit scroll of a poem. Mary Ann Caws, 2017
Windows Open Simultaneously 1st Part, 3rd Motif by Robert Delaunay
Robert Delaunay’s shaped canvas Windows Open Simultaneously, 1912 Toggle Caption

Painting Sunlight

Blaise Cendrars describes the kind of experimentation Robert and Sonia Delaunay were undertaking at the beginnings of modernist abstraction in painting.
[Robert Delaunay] closed the shutters and shut himself up in his dark room... He made a little hole in the shutter with a brace and bit. A thin ray of sunlight filtered into the [room] and he began to paint it... to analyze all its elements of form and color. Without knowing it, he was doing spectrum analysis. He worked for months like this... reaching the sources of emotion without any subject matter whatever. Blaise Cendrars, Aujourd’hui, 1931

Marjorie Perloff

Professor Emerita, Stanford University and the University of Southern California

Marjorie Perloff is the author of many books on poetry and poetics, including The Futurist Moment: Avant-Garde, Avant-Guerre, and the Language of Rupture (1986), which deals extensively with artists and poets in the years leading up to World War I.

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La prose du Transsibérien is a text full of contradictions. The title, for starters, is odd: it should be “le prose” and, even then, why call a lineated lyric “prose”? Cendrars declared that he used the word “prose” so as to open up the discourse; then, too, the poem is “dedicated to the musicians”—evidently those new musicians of the period, such as Eric Satie or Igor Stravinsky, who were avoiding all conventional rhythms. The long free-verse lines, with their paratactic structure and repetition, remind one of Walt Whitman, but the voice of this poem is hardly Whitman’s oracular one. Rather, Cendrars stresses immediacy, nervous energy, and excitement:

Read more from this essay by Marjorie Perloff
Detail of La prose du Transsibérien et de la petite Jehanne de France by Sonia Delaunay-Terk and Blaise Cendrars

IV The Making of the Book

In creating an authentic facsimile edition, artist and educator Kitty Maryatt has conducted exhaustive research into the production processes of 1913.

Typography

Kitty Maryatt has identified 30 separate typefaces used in the typographic composition for the poem. The book was printed at Imprimerie Crété, then the largest printing facility in France. Cendrars provided detailed instructions for the compositors, most likely by consulting Crété’s type-specimen catalogue.

Photo of type compositors at Crété
Type compositors at Crété Toggle Caption

Art

Sonia Delaunay first painted the image for La prose on mattress ticking. The image was reproduced for the edition by pochoir, a stencil process, with color applied by hand using prescribed brush strokes, exacting manipulation of stencils, precise registration, and consistent color matching. It is likely that the pochoir was performed at Crété.

Microscopic view of La prose du Transsiberien used to analyze fiber composition
Paper conservator Victoria Binder used a microscope to analyze the fiber composition of the copy of La prose in the Logan Collection at the Legion of Honor. Toggle Caption

Structure

The book appropriated the form of a folded map, with the poem unfolding to more than six feet vertically. A map of the route of the Trans-Siberian Railroad was included at the top corner of the layout. It was designed to first unfold with only the blank back side showing so that it could then be dramatically opened to expose the contents all at once, in keeping with the precepts of simultaneité. It is thought that only 30 copies were enclosed in a hand-painted vellum cover.

Edition

There were to be 150 copies in total, but it is likely that only about half that many were produced. A prospectus announced eight deluxe copies printed on vellum, 28 on Japon (imported Japanese) paper, and, for the standard trade copies, simulated Japon (similé Japon). Maryatt has identified the Logan copy at the Legion of Honor, with its crisp letterpress printing, as one of the rare copies on Japon.

Detail of La prose du Transsibérien et de la petite Jehanne de France by Sonia Delaunay-Terk and Blaise Cendrars

V Contemporary Relevance

The forward-looking nature of La prose has many parallels in our time.

The 1950s: Cendrars and Kerouac

In some respects, the poem resembles Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. In composition, they share a common conceit: the illusion that they were composed, or narrated, in a single sitting, the intimate testimonial quality of a tale of alienation and transgression drawing the listener or reader in. Both are road-trip stories, with socially marginalized traveling companions, that move across vast landscapes. Both are simultaneously life-changing inward journeys. And anyone who has seen the Kerouac manuscript, the scroll, will immediately recognize the physical resemblance. With visual art, though, the two reading experiences diverge, and it is the hybrid nature of what we are looking at that distinguishes La prose as a unique and transcendent experience for the reader and viewer.

The 1960s: Light, Color, Motion

The interplay of colors and the synesthetic illusion of movement in Delaunay’s pochoir has an uncanny parallel in the psychedelic light shows of the 1960s, where bright, pulsating, liquid forms merged with an experience of rhythmic sound, as the rhythms of Cendrars’s lines—dedicated, as he said, “to the musicians”—seem to emerge from the artist’s abstract color-forms.

Still from Kinetic Light Painting by Bill Ham
Still from Kinetic Light Painting by Bill Ham Toggle Caption

Book Art Now

The steady growth of the field of book art in recent decades finds an iconic predecessor in La prose. Its unique appropriation of structure and its hybrid nature have made it an influence on succeeding generations of artists and writers who take the book beyond the limits of conventional form. For his spectacular Nature Abhors, Philip Zimmermann used a structure devised by influential book artist Hedi Kyle—seen here in an animation by Radek Skrivanek.

Detail of La prose du Transsibérien et de la petite Jehanne de France by Sonia Delaunay-Terk and Blaise Cendrars

VI About the Collectors

Photo of David and Reva Logan
David and Reva Logan Toggle Caption

The Reva and David Logan Collection of Illustrated Books

Over a period of 20 years the Chicago collectors Reva and David Logan built one of the great private collections of artists’ books, and in 1998 donated that collection to the Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts, home of works on paper at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

With more than 400 carefully assembled titles, the Logan Collection contains many of the most important works in the genre, with significant artists’ books representing virtually every major art movement dating from the beginnings of the livre d’artiste in the late nineteenth century. Augmented by important works already held by the Achenbach Foundation, the Logan gift established the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco as stewards of one of the most historically significant collections of artists’ books in the United States.

Photo of David and Reva Logan
The Reva and David Logan Gallery of Illustrated Books at the Legion of Honor

This Project

As the only works of art that must be handled to be fully experienced, artists’ books present a challenge for an institution charged with their conservation and display. The current project, funded by a generous grant from the Reva and David Logan Foundation, addresses this challenge by making contents of, and related information about, selected books from the collection available online using the capabilities of digital media. The project aims to raise the profile of the collection and create greater public understanding and awareness of what critic and historian Johanna Drucker has called arguably “the quintessential twentieth-century art form.” This project intends to make significant works by many of the most important artists of the century available for public access in their entirety for the first time.

Find more resources related to this project

La Prose