by Scott Brown

Art in the Book

A Sphinx's Field Guide to Questionable Answers

Art and books have gone together since the Middle Ages in Europe. Scribes routinely illustrated manuscripts. Gutenberg left spaces in his 1455 Bible for hand decoration, and many of the earliest printers incorporated woodcuts into their texts. For example, the Nuremberg Chronicle, a massive history of the world printed in 1493, has more than 1,800 illustrations. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the illustrated book reached its peak when artists like Pierre-Joseph Redoute, John James Audubon, and John Gould produced magnificent books filled with exquisite depictions of flowers, birds, and other wonders of nature. They are now some of the most sought-after and expensive books - a complete first edition of Audubon's Birds of America has sold for as much as $8.8 million.

In the 20th century, art moved into abstraction, and the livre d'artiste took over. Livres d'artiste, French for artist's books, blossomed during the Surrealist movement, when Pablo Picasso, Max Ernst, and Salvador Dali, and many other artists made etchings and aquatints to accompany poetry written by their friends. These books can be extremely expensive. The deluxe editions often included original drawings by the artists, but the standard editions can be the most affordable way to obtain original works by these important artists.

Another excellent source of artists' books is the Limited Editions Club, a book club for bibliophiles that issued hundreds of famous books with illustrations by noted twentieth-century artists. Most books had print runs of 1,500 copies, almost all of which went to book collectors. As a result, many of them are quite common and affordable, especially given the quality of the books. The exceptions are those illustrated by the most famous artists, like Picasso and Henri Matisse.

In recent years, Andrew Hoyem's Arion Press, based in San Francisco, has been the most prominent publisher of contemporary livres d'artiste. Arion Press has published books illustrated by painters like Richard Diebenkorn, woodcut specialists like Barry Moser, and even architect Michael Graves. At their best, these illustrated books combine fine book design with the visual impact of fine art. They are one of the best ways to marry a love of books and art.

Eleven Collectible Books of Art

Pablo Picasso

Les Yeux Fertiles

Picasso made etchings for dozens of books. Those he signed, like the Limited Editions Club Lysistrata, are expensive ($6,000 to $12,000). The pictured 1936 book by French poet Paul Eluard, is not. From $450.

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Joan Miro

Bouquet de reves pour Neila

This Spanish painter's work might be described as abstract surrealism. The organic geometry of his paintings is immediately identifiable. He illustrated many books, particularly French poetry. Bouquet de reves pour Neila, with 18 lithographs, is typical. From $2,500.

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Salvador Dali

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

This Spanish surrealist illustrated a number of books at the height of the livre d'artiste movement in the 1930s. Late in his career, he turned to classics of literature, illustrating Dante's Divine Comedy (in 12 volumes) and, most appropriately, Lewis Carroll's madcap children's novel, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. From $5,200.

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Arthur Szyk

Book of Job

Arthur Szyk, a Jewish refugee from Nazi Europe, made a name for himself in the United States with his caricatures mocking the Axis leaders. He illustrated a number of books after the war, before his untimely death in 1951. His Limited Editions Club (LEC) version of the Book of Job, signed by the artist, costs less than $300. A bargain considering other Szyk books have sold at auction for up to $59,000.

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Arion Press


San Francisco's Arion Press published one of the top fine-press books of the century: Herman Melville's Moby-Dick, illustrated by Barry Moser. Arion also published a letterpress lectern Bible, as well as many books illustrated by contemporary artists. Depicted here is a book of poems by Seamus Heaney illustrated by the late Sol Lewitt. From $800.

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Jean Dubuffet


French artist Jean Dubuffet, born in 1901, developed a singular style of dark lines enclosing spaces filled with vibrant colors. He sometimes seems more a New York graffiti artist than a contemporary of Salvador Dali. Here's an unusual item, a limited edition deck of cards designed by Dubuffet. From $2,500.

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Henri Matisse


Matisse is one of the most popular twentieth-century artists, and he is also the author of the most sought-after livre d'artiste, the 1947 book Jazz (rarely available, except in facsimile editions). He also illustrated this deluxe edition of James Joyce's Ulysses, published by the Limited Editions Club. From $5,500.

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Donald Sultan

Bar Mitzvah

This modern collaboration between artist Donald Sultan and playwright David Mamet tells a story about a boy who learns a lesson about life on the night before his bar mitzvah. The original edition is illustrated with 20 silk-screened plates. A commercially printed edition soon followed. Fine art edition, $5,000. Trade edition from $1!

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Marc Chagall


Chagall, a Russian Jew who settled in the United States during the Second World War, produced many lithographs and prints and illustrated a number of books. Maternite, by French poet Marcel Arland, is typical of his early work. This 1926 book includes five original Chagall etchings. From $1,800.

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Sonia Delaunay

La Terra Impareggiabile

A Ukranian who lived in France, Delaunay often worked in textiles, an influence that shows in the books she illustrated. This book, completed when she was well into her eighties, includes two original etchings that illustrate works by Nobel Prize-winning poet Salvatore Quasimodo. From $2,200.

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A Recent Livre d'Artiste

A Sphinx's Field Guide to Questionable Answers

Some modern artists are using the format of the livre d'artiste for less serious ends. Michael Kuch's A Sphinx's Field Guide to Questionable Answers is just such a book, exuberantly illustrated with woodcuts and printed using 19th-century wooden type. From $1,000.

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