Read Maryatt's 2016 article about La Prose

A Bookmaker’s Analysis of Blaise Cendrar’s and Sonia Delaunay’s La Prose du Transsibérien et de la Petite Jehanne de France

By Kitty Maryatt

The 1913 book La Prose du Transsibérien et de la Petite Jehanne de France was radically different from any other livres de peintre produced at the turn of the century. The format was unprecedented, the poetry, typography and painting were avant-garde, and the imagery was actively integrated with the text. The book was self-published and in control of the makers, unlike the livres d’artistes published by Kahnweiler and Vollard at the time.

This edition was poet Blaise Cendrars’ third self-published book and artist Sonia Delaunay’s first book. They adhered to the typical formula of publishing a deluxe edition and regular edition. Blaise (born Frédéric Louis Sauser) and Sonia met at the home of Apollinaire in January of 1913 and decided to do a project together immediately after they met. 1 Blaise was finished with his poem La Prose du Transsibérien at the end of February. By April of 1913, they were sending out publicity materials (a bit prematurely), announcing an edition of 150 copies on vellum (8 copies), Japon (26 copies) and simili Japon (116 copies). They set the prices of five hundred francs for vellum, one hundred francs for Japon paper, or fifty francs for simili Japon. The first few copies were ready by November 1913, but the entire edition was never completed. What happened? How many did they actually make? It has been widely assumed that only 60 copies were actually made, since Sonia many years later said that they split the edition of 60. However, M. Antoine Coron, Director Emeritus of the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris, stated in 2013 in a letter to Sotheby’s that so far he has found 73 copies.2

From the point of view of a bookmaker, one knows that many factors can derail or delay a book project, but scholarly literature about this book seems never to have been written from this viewpoint.3 Thus started my investigation several years ago into possible reasons for the shortfall by looking at the actual making of the edition. If one could identify the typefaces, the number of print runs, and replicate the pochoir techniques by making at least a partial facsimile, then a possible production timeline might be constructed.4

Sonia had her hands full in 1913: she had a two-year-old child, she was binding books by her favorite avant-garde authors, painting in oils, gouache and watercolors, looking for commercial work (like the artist Cassandre), creating dancing outfits to wear at the Bal Bullier, holding Thursday night salons for the avant-garde, helping her husband Robert Delaunay with at least twelve exhibits in 1913, as well as exhibiting her own work, helping with exhibition catalogs, and painting everything that did not move in her domicile.

Blaise had founded the review Les Hommes Nouveaux in 1912 and published three issues (1912-13) as well as Les Pâques à New York in 1912; he published both Séquences and La Prose in 1913 under the imprint Éditions des Hommes Nouveaux. But he had no steady work except in making translations and writing articles under several pseudonyms. He lived very simply in a rented apartment, writing in cafes, and spending his time at many lunches and dinners chez Delaunay during the year. He had just spent several months in New York with his girlfriend Féla Poznanska, where he wrote Les Pâques; he returned to Paris in spring 1912 (she returned in early 1913). Féla briefly took over sales of La Prose when Blaise left for the war in August 1914.

The book itself is captivating with its colorful and painterly pochoir (French-style stencil), so unlike stenciled copies of artwork at the time. The colors seep from the painted side into the poem on the other side. Was the primary reason for the incomplete edition the excessive length of time it might take to complete the pochoir process, assuming that the pochoir was the final procedure before binding? Did World War I intervene? Were there exhibits of the book, any reviews, any publicity at all? Were the sales disappointing? Did they run out of money?

Over the years, several institutions in the United States have allowed me to take extensive digital photographs of their copies of La Prose.5 I first worked on the pochoir section, mixing up gouache color samples to identify all the colors used in the artwork, and returning to see if I could get a close match and then to compare colors at the various institutions. It was quite helpful to have the 2008 Yale University facsimile of La Prose with me everywhere I went.6 I made a tracing of every color area in each panel (using the Yale facsimile) to help with identification of the colors. I determined that seventeen stencils are needed for the first of the four panels, each a different color, or tint of a particular color. The most beguiling part of the painting is the brushwork, which often swirls and changes color within stencil areas. I needed to find out if this was a challenge, or normal to the pocheurs in 1913; did Sonia direct the colorists to stretch beyond normal practices in following her gouache maquette?7

After extensive research, I found Atelier Coloris in Ploubazlenac in France, the last remaining pochoir company in France that continues to make pochoir copies of artwork using original techniques. Owners Nathalie Couderc and Christine Menguy worked for many years at Jacomet in Paris, the venerable firm started by Daniel Jacomet in 1910.  Nathalie agreed to help with my project, and we worked together for a week in July 2015 making a facsimile of the first panel. We compared my color tests to the photographs I had brought, while looking at several printed books and at the British Library’s “zoomable” digital scan for differences in technique.8 Nathalie helped me decide on the final colors for the facsimile and demonstrated how to cut the aluminum stencil plates.9 I then cut seventeen metal stencils and made five copies of the first panel with the large pochoir brushes (pommes) I had brought with me.10 There was extensive discussion with both Nathalie and Christine about the swirling and color-change techniques in the artwork. They were puzzled by at least one area, but the rest of the artwork did seem to use the usual techniques of the time.

With this test, I determined that the entire pochoir process might take four and a half months if one person was working on the project, but fewer if there were many colorists, as was often the case.11 Blaise was having the book printed at Crété in Corbeil,12 where his second book, Séquences, had been printed while Blaise was working on La Prose.13 Crété had a team of colorists for pochoir, common to large printers at the time, so the pochoir for La Prose may have been done there.14 In this case, the pochoir could have been completed in perhaps a couple of months, a reasonable amount of time to finish the project.15 But the project could have been stopped due to lack of money to continue with the pochoir.  

The type identification process was challenging; though I had taken really good close-up photographs of the poem, the printing on simili Japon was heavy-handed, making type identification difficult. I wasn’t allowed to take photographs of Apollinaire’s copy of La Prose on Japon at the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, but I must say that the type was much clearer on Japon paper. In fact, the entire book is astonishly more brilliant, and it makes one wish that they had only completed copies on Japon. It folds up so much better than the simili Japon.

Arthur Cohen in his 1975 book, Sonia Delaunay, had stated that there were twelve fonts, which was repeated by nearly everyone writing about the book; my study shows that there are thirty-eight distinct typefaces. These were printed in four colors, a decision made by Sonia herself, requiring sixteen print runs on the four sheets of paper. The process of printing all the copies would probably have taken a month or two at the large printing plant, once the final proofs were approved.16 The printing would have been completed before the pochoir started.

How and why did Cendrars choose those thirty-eight typefaces? Many of the unusual fonts selected were to indicate the different cities mentioned in the poem. It’s romantic to imagine Blaise wandering amongst the type cabinets, choosing faces from the cases, but that was not likely at an enormous firm, the largest in France, with hundreds of cases.17 It’s probable that Crété had a house type specimen book for their extensive type library; thus Cendrars could have specified each typeface right on his own typed pages. The proofs of the type were given to Cendrars by Crété as is the usual practice, and he made corrections on them. The originals of the final proofs had been given to a friend and were published in book form, but they are now lost. The type measure is less than seven inches wide (forty picas in fact), so the many galleys holding the six feet of type would have been long ones.

The decision to present Cendrars’ poem in a vertical format instead of on discrete pages in codex form (as in his former two books) is intriguing. Is it possible that when Blaise and Sonia were discussing the possible format of the book that they were inspired by the type proofs, and decided to forego normal codex pages and let the poem run vertically? Is this how Sonia decided to make her oil painting (on mattress ticking) accompanying the poem vertical? In this case, they would have needed to know the entire length of the type, including leading, before Sonia could even start her painting. Blaise certainly started the typesetting shortly after he finished writing the La Prose poem, probably in late February of 1913. On the other hand, could she have painted the painting before the typesetting got underway? In that case, Blaise would have had to do careful copyfitting and figure out how to fit the poem to the painting, which is not as likely. Again, note that the oil painting is a different size, slightly longer, than the final edition.

Who did the final binding of the edition? Crété had an extensive binding section for books and magazines. But Mme. Miriam Cendrars (Blaise Cendrars’ daughter) stated in her 1993 book, Blaise Cendrars, that Blaise brought home all the copies (that hadn’t been already subscribed) before they were glued together and folded. The binding consisted of overlapping and gluing the four sheets, folding the more than 6-foot-long sheet in half, and then folding that into twenty-one panels. But the extant copies vary from eighteen to twenty-two panels, strongly indicating that a number of different people may have folded the book at different times. Note that this folding would have not been a straightforward task. Since Sonia knew basic bookbinding, she might have decided to cut, glue and fold them herself to save money. 18 She certainly painted the leather or vellum outside folders in oils for the vellum and Japon copies herself. Possibly the slow sales in late 1913 and early 1914 prompted them to forego having professional binders finish the edition and left the binding for Sonia to do.19

Finally the issue of money: my conclusion is that the project was probably not derailed by the pochoir, or the war, but presumably by lack of money. Blaise had borrowed money from his (future) wife Féla to get the project started at Crété.20 The book was not exhibited at all in Paris before the war21 and there was never a review of the book in the newspapers by anyone who had actually seen the book.22 The least expensive edition at fifty francs was in line with other limited edition books of the time. But the books did not sell well: there had been nothing like it before. Its fate was sealed long before the war started in August of 1914.


1 They experienced what Blaise called “un coup de foudre de l’amitié.” Blaise gave Sonia a copy of his book Les Pâques à New York, and she ran out the next day to buy materials to bind a new cover for it.
2 I have been making my own census of the numbered (and unnumbered) copies and have identified 40 to date. Blaise was the one who numbered all the books, but he used a quite haphazard numbering system for the books (several books have the same edition number), which indicates poor record-keeping. It’s probable that most of the books weren’t sold and were possibly not even bound until after World War I.
3 The best scholarly article I have read is by Katherine Shingler, University of Nottingham: Visual-verbal Encounters in Cendrars and Delaunay’s La Prose du Transsibérien, in e-France: an online Journal of French Studies, Vol. 3, 2012, pp. 1-28.
4  In 1987, the scholar Antoine Sidoti published Genèse et Dossier d’une Polémique, having meticulously combed the archives of the Bibliothèque Nationale for information about the making of La Prose.
5 Many thanks to the Getty Research Institute, Yale University, and the NY Public Library.
6 The 2008 Yale University facsimile is out of print; copies are now going for more than $1000.
7 Stanley Baron (in collaboration with Jacques Damase) states in his 1995 book Sonia Delaunay, The Life of an Artist, that Sonia made a watercolor maquette as well as an oil painting. Since the painting is several inches longer than the final version of the book, it makes sense that she would have to have made a translation of her painting for the pocheurs. The gouache maquette is now in the Cabinet d’Arts Graphiques, Musée d’Art et d’Histoire, Geneva.
8 Google La Prose du Transsibérien British Library for the zoomable copy.
9 Metals for pochoir plates used in Paris in the 1910s included copper, tin, pewter and aluminum. For an explanation of early pochoir technique, read the 1925 book by Jean Saudé called Traité d’Enluminure d’Art au Pochoir. In 2013, Havilah Press commissioned an English translation of two sections of Saudé’s text, and published this, in a limited edition, accompanied by an introduction outlining the history of pochoir, two pochoir illustrations, and a list of references.
10 I had taken a pochoir workshop in the early 1980s where we used pommes; I asked Talas last year to start importing these pochoir brushes in several sizes.
11 The usual practice for pochoir in 1913 was for the master (usually male) to cut the plate and decide on the final colors, and the colorist (always female) to brush on the color, staying with only one color at a time and finishing all copies of that color. If many women worked at once, naturally the project would be completed more quickly.
12 Corbeil is 117 miles from Paris. Cendrars did go to Crété often according to postcards sent to Sonia from there, but Crété also had an office in Paris.
13 Séquences was published in June 13, 1913; in the section titled Du Même Auteur, La Prose is listed as sous presse (in the process of being printed).
14 M. Yves Peyré states that Atelier Richard, 45, Rue Linné, Paris did the pochoir for La Prose, but he has not produced any evidence, only that Atelier Richard did the pochoir six years later for Cendrars’ edition of La Fin du Monde, in 1225 copies.
15 No copies printed, but without pochoir, have ever been found; all copies extant have pochoir, which might indicate that the pochoir process was curtailed by Blaise and Sonia, possibly for lack of funds, and perhaps the others were discarded.
16 Note that there were three substrates to print on. The vellum would have required a specialty printer, which may not have been Crété. Antoine Sidoti found a postcard from Blaise to Sonia in the Bibliothèque Nationale that shows that Blaise was looking for a vellum printer in Paris. We do not know who printed on the vellum.
17 Blaise was capable of typesetting: he said that he typeset half of his first book, Les Pâques, in 1912.
18 Most of her many (now fragile) bindings are kept at the Bibilothèque Nationale.
19 It is quite probable that the bulk of the edition did not even get glued by the time Sonia left for Spain just before the war started in August 1914; after World War I was over, Sonia was no longer involved with the project; many extant copies are unglued and unnumbered, and the edition numbers on the simili Japon are erratically assigned by Blaise. Most of the copies were signed with Cendrars’ left hand (he lost his right hand during the war) and were numbered randomly, indicating that he probably signed most copies after the war. Very few copies are signed by both Sonia and Blaise.
20 According to Mme. Cendrars, Blaise did not receive an inheritance from an aunt, which is what he told Sonia and Robert Delaunay; there’s no evidence that Sonia contributed any money.
21 Robert Delaunay made an announcement that exhibitions showing La Prose were going to be held in 1913 in Paris at the Salon d’Automne, in Berlin (the Herbst Salon), and in New York, London, Moskow, and St. Petersburg. The book was shown in Berlin in 1913 and St. Petersburg in 1914, but not in Paris.
22 In September and October, Sonia and Blaise sent prospectuses to a list of art editors in publications, which caused much confusion, since no one had actually seen the book.

Reprinted by permission of the Book Club of California. A slightly different version of this article was originally published in The Quarterly Newsletter (Fall 2016).

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