Mallarmé and the Book Arts at Scripps

by Eric T. Haskell

The best exhibitions tell a story, and this telling requires a host of skills, not the least of which is sound scholarship. This is indeed the case of A Throw of the Dice: Variations on Mallarmé’s Visual Poem, [on exhibition at Scripps College’s Clark Humanities Museum, January 16 through March 9, 2007]. The story here is eloquently and elegantly told. By selecting to display the same page of Mallarmé’s text as seen by various artists, the viewer is able to form comparative and contrastive dialogues of meaning. This, in turn, allows illustration to honor its original intent of illumination. The shedding of light onto the text is, of course, the way in which the artist can perform the role of critic by making us rethink the words in the context of the images that accompany them—and often extend their sense.

The relationship between art and literature has long been a field of interest to scholars. However, interpreting illustrations, not only in order to understand their meaning but also to decipher their interface with the text that they accompany, is a relatively new area of inquiry. How illustrations can be deciphered, decoded, or even “read” in order to shed light on the text and facilitate, even enrich, our understanding of it, is central to this inquiry.

The history of book illustration is an intriguing terrain. Traditionally, “good” illustrators retell the story in detail as they offer a precise pictorial view of what transpires textually. “Bad” illustrators stray from the author’s intentions, misread the text or represent it inaccurately. During the latter part of the 19th century as literature shifted towards modernity, artists followed suit. Importantly, their work, too, transcended mimesis as it moved from representation towards abstraction.Thus, artists broke the shackles of mere “retelling” in order to think about texts in visual terms.The livre de peintre and the artists’ book are the results of this rethinking.

The period at which this verbal-visual revolution took place is precisely that of Stéphane Mallarmé. His experimental poem on which the exhibition at the Clark Humanities Museum is based lies at the very threshold of this shift towards modernity. Un Coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hazard (A Throw of the Dice), first published in 1897, is indeed a monument of modernity. On June 20, 2006, the first draft of the poem, containing substantial corrections by the poet, was sold at auction in Paris for 185,000 euros (almost $200,000). The Bibliothèque Nationale pre-empted the sale and acquired this draft as a sort of national treasure. Thus, over a century after its publication, the text is still recognized for its avant-garde artistry, reigning supreme as a modernist icon par excellence. Its innovative typography and page design propose a pioneering step toward blurring the differences between verbal and visual presences. Rightfully so, co-curators Renée and Judd Hubert have called it “a dramatic score staging a typographical spectacle.” They have also noted with verve that “in a sense, Mallarmé has attempted to reach the millennium by staging a revolution within representation itself.”

Under the spell of Un Coup de dés, others have joined the cause. As the exhibition clearly demonstrates, the work of artists such as André Masson, Ellsworth Kelly, Christiane Vielle, Albert Dupont, Ian Tyson, and Gary Young bring a new component to the poem by adding images or new typographical elements and, through them, proposing further layers of textual interpretation. Through an array of artistic media, from lithographs and aquatints to woodcuts and embossings, they enrich the typographical oeuvre already in place by Mallarmé, extending it in ways almost as innovative as the initial gesture of le prince des poètes. In terms of the Mallarméan page and what the Huberts have called its “spectacular whiteness,” its realm of possibility was the leitmotif of the poet’s creative sensibilities, haunting him until his demise. But in terms of the book, Mallarmé gave the following very telling statement: “Le monde est fait pour aboutir à un beau livre” (“The world was made to culminate in a beautiful book”). As evidenced here, the exhibition at the Clark Humanities Museum is an ode to the very book that Mallarmé had in mind. As such, the exhibit allows us to comprehend the larger implications, fortuitous interactions and memorable intersections that profound images so often evoke when interaced with potent texts.

Eric T. Haskell is professor of French studies and humanities; director, Clark Humanities Museum; and chair of the Department of French.