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WOID Review: Surrealist Books and Bindings at the Guggenheim Museum

SURREALISM: Two Private Eyes: The Nesuhi Ertegun and Daniel Filipacchi
Guggenheim Museum. Through September 12.
89th Street and Fifth Ave. (212) 423-3500

"One night recently, in my sleep, at an open-air market somewhere near
Saint-Malo, I found a rather strange-looking book. The spine of this book
was a wooden gnome with a white Assyrian beard coming down to his feet.
The width of the statuette was average, and did not in any way prevent
turning its pages, which were made of thick black wool. I eagerly took it,
and when I awoke I was sorry not to have it with me. It would be
relatively easy to reconstitute it. I would like to put in circulation a
few objects of this order, whose histories seem to me infinitely
problematic and disturbing... "

Andre Breton, the ringmaster of Surrealism, wrote this in 1924. It may
have been the first instance of a "Surrealist Object," a physical entity
that would embody some of the "fusing of opposites" the Surrealists
prized. One would imagine that books  - heterogeneous objects par
excellence - were the perfect vehicle for that.

It would be nice to report that the bindings on view at the Guggenheim (in
the fourth-floor tower gallery) live up to Breton's description. Few of
them do.

Certainly it's a wide selection, mostly culled (if that is the word), from
the collection of the French publisher Daniel Filipacchi. Filipacchi has a
good eye for literature, which is no drawback when it comes to Surrealism;
also, he is less interested in the visual. For those of us who see
Surrealism as a political movement, not an aesthetic one, that is no
drawback, either.

Unfortunately, the earlier bookbinders hired by the Surrealists saw
themselves mostly as designers or decorators. Their bindings are slick,
and boring: do we need another binding for a Picasso book that looks like
a cubist painting, in leather mosaic? "Unity of effect" may be the
dominant aim of traditional bookbinders, but it's precisely what the
Surrealists sought to undermine. Even a Man Ray cover, with real glasses
sticking out, is ho-hum. On the ramp, Paul Bonet's binding for "La Prose
du Transsibrien" merely sanitizes the original painted design by Sonia

Far more interesting are the "amateurs" Georges Hugnet, and Jean Benoit:
binders, more or less self-taught. Hugnet (who was not a binder, just a
Surrealist), designed an interesting cover for yet another of Bellmer's
perverse variations on the Doll: it consists of a couple of garter belts
under glass. Lucienne Talheimer is no amateur, but her one binding -
leather with metal inserts - is elegant and quietly disquieting. On the
ramp, a few cases by Benoit combine sculptural strength with a nasty
Surrealist sense of humor.

In contrast, the illustrated books are outstanding, especially the series
of illuminated manuscripts commissioned by the poet Rene Char. Wilfredo
Lam's book designs (for Char and others), have a delicate sense of
balance, though Picasso's illustrations to Aime Cesaire's, "Corps Perdu"
show Picasso "doing" the style of Negritude (Pan-Africanism). In the
process he shows Lam how to do a Wifredo Lam. Picasso seems to have
invented a new type of book illustration for himself, more abstract (that
is, more dependent on the overall space of the page) than anything else
he'd done. Magritte's take on Edward Lear and Medieval marginal
illustrations is hilarious. Not finally (but we'll stop here anyhow),
Andre Masson's illustration to "Poesie de mots inconnus" is an elegant
typographic balancing act.

The catalog is exhaustive for its illustrations, and a good buy at $45.00
for softcover. The text is indifferent and sloppy, though there is a short
overview of Surrealist bookbinding. The reproductions are of average

copyright Paul Werner, New York City

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