In the Library

A selection of livres d’artiste from the twentieth and twenty-first centuries is on temporary display in St. John’s College Library. It has been drawn from the college’s collection of such books, a collection which Dr Peter Hacker built when he was the Library Fellow at the college. In the glossary of French Livres d’artiste in Oxford University Collections, Eunice Martin defines the livre d’artiste as “a book illustrated with original prints in which the text, illustrations, typography (or calligraphy), paper, cover and other features are designed to produce a total work of art”. Dr. Hacker developed an intimate understanding of print-making during the time of his friendship with Stanley Hayter, whose two books, Death of Hektor and Poèmes d’amour = Love poems form parts of the exhibition. Some of the most important artists of the twentieth century analysed their methods by following the piecemeal process of print-making. Jackson Pollock invented the method of his ‘drip’ painting after rigorously working in print. Hayter had guided him at Atelier 17, the workshop which he founded in Paris in 1927 and moved to New York in the early 1940s. Mark Rothko and Willem de Kooning were also great American artists who used Hayter’s workshop. The delay which occurs between the engraving of the copper plate (or wooden block) and the printing of the ink on the page, had become an occasion for the automatic creativity of the Surrealists in the 1920s.

'Three Wishes', an original print by Hector Saunier
‘Three Wishes’, an original print by Hector Saunier

By the permission of the artist

Prints illustrate the livres d’artiste in ‘Not An Illustration’; they do not illustrate the texts of those books exclusively.  The relationship between each of the prints and its books is structured as a relationship between a metonym and an object. This is nothing unique, of course; it is just more obviously true of the relationships between each of the books and the prints on display in the exhibition, than it is true of similar relationships in most other illustrated publications. An artist has given a great quality of decoration to each one of the books in ‘Not An Illustration’. The prints demand that we recognise the collaborative endeavours of the writers, the craftspeople and the artists who have been collectively responsible for the books.

A page opening in 'Ecstasies', a loose-leaf livre d'artiste by Geoffrey MacEwan
A page opening in ‘Ecstasies’, a loose-leaf livre d’artiste by Geoffrey MacEwan

By the permission of the artist

The basis of the selection is that the livres d’artiste are illustrated with non-figurative pictures. This is a strategy for claiming that all illustrations are abstract. We are used to defining illustrations in the terms of our assumption that they bear physical or concrete relations to specific objects. This is how we say that they are the images of objects, texts, events, collaborative artworks, etc. We rarely acknowledge that they are parts of those things. Most illustrations are figurative pictures. The selection of livres d’artiste has been made in the hope that the audience will see the illustrations – pictures which can be drawn-off from the books – in a strangely familiar way. That would be the perception of new historical equivalents to – not illustrations of – the artists’ experiences.


Rosalind E. Krauss. ‘Reading Jackson Pollock Abstractly’, in: The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 1986): pp. 221-243.

Eunice Martin. French Livres d’Artiste in Oxford University Collections (Oxford: Bodleian Library, 1996): p. 64.

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