Inspired Pairings

An awe-inspiring collection of art and writing legends come together at the UA Museum of Art

Just before the onset of the 20th century, an actor strode onto a stage in Paris and uttered the single word merdre.

Not quite merde--French for "shit"--but not too far off, either. The first word in Ubu Roi, Alfred Jarry's absurdist play, merdre was a sound that signaled the coming artistic revolution, against plot in literature, against realism in art. By attacking rules, propriety and convention of all stripes, Ubu Roi presaged all the rebellious isms that would follow in the first turbulent decades of the 20th century: futurism, cubism, surrealism, dada. (And the 1896 Paris audience understood what Jarry was up to. Throughout the performance, battling traditionalists and avant-gardists screamed themselves hoarse, and the production was shut down the next day.)

Those heady days are revisited, perhaps surprisingly, in Livres d'Artistes: Selections From the Ritter Collection, a bracing exhibition at the University of Arizona Museum of Art. Artists' books flowered in Paris of the early 20th century. Revolutionary modernist artists collaborated on them with ground-breaking writers, each inspiring the other. The Ritter Collection has an all-star list of artist innovators--Picasso, Matisse, Braque, Chagall--teamed up with luminous poets of the likes of Guillaume Apollinaire and Paul Eluard.

Joan Miró, a Catalan painter who moved to Paris in 1920, gamely took on Jarry's Ubu Roi. For his livre d'artiste, Miró made 13 crayon-bright lithographs in shocking orange, yellow, red and blue-green; they were printed in a limited edition of 180. (The volume belonging to Mel Ritter, a longtime Tucsonan whose collection is on display, is No. 15.)

Most of the artists' books are unbound, their separate leaves of paper collected into a box. For the show, curator Lisa Fischman has dipped into the containers and pulled out a representative sampling of assorted prints and printed pages, displayed under glass. She's pulled out two of Miró's Ubu prints. One accompanies the opening page of the play, wherein Père Ubu, an absurdly loathsome bourgeois, pronounces the word merdre and then listens to his wife, Mère Ubu, declare that they ought to murder somebody. The second Miró print illustrates Père Ubu's revelation that he has decided to poison the king and become king--Ubu Roi--himself. (The play is partly a savage dis of Shakespeare's Macbeth.)

Miró's strangely twisted organic figures in brilliant colors make a fine match for the wild Jarry. His lithos are exhilarating kaleidoscopes of curving lines and interlocking shapes, in fireworks of pungent color. They're loose and instinctive, yet not as random as they seem. If you look closely, you can detect the repellent lines of Ubu's head and grasping hands, his snakelike tongue, and even a yellow royal crown floating just within reach.

Like the Miró book, the Picasso volume provides a gratifying précis of a famous artist's style. Picasso made 10 aquatints in black for Sable mouvant, a book of poetry by French poet Pierre Reverdy. In two of the three prints, Picasso made rounded sculptural figures, gleaming white against a black background. They're naturalistic nudes, along the lines of some of his early, classically oriented paintings. But in the third print, he jumps into more familiar cubist territory, picturing a pair of fractured female nudes. Drawn in delicate lines, one woman's face is seen both in profile and full face; both women's bodies are reshaped to display their genitalia vertically--and accessibly.

Georges Braque, Picasso's partner in cubist crime, teamed up with Apollinaire for the sumptuous Si je mourais la-bas (If I died over there), a love poem written in time of war. In the poem, Apollinaire begs a woman named Lou not to forget their "instants de folie," the mad moments of their young love. Braque's wood engravings dance exuberantly across the pages of this love story, bold and simple figures that could almost be Matisse cutouts. (Curator Fischman aptly calls the images calligraphic.) An orange abstraction leaps across the cover; inside, geometric shapes in deep blue and charcoal and black careen over the sheets.

On one page, Apollinaire begins three successive lines of verse with the letters of his true love's name--"La nuit descend / On y present / Un long, un long destin de sang" (night falls, we're here, a long destiny of blood). Here, Braque makes one of his loveliest graphics, a blue-black design outlined in light. Its two long supple colored lines suggest human figures, their faces locked in a gaze, their bodies locked into one.

Matisse, as always, is a delight, cheerfully taking on the sentimental love poems of an early 19th century Frenchman, Charles d'Orléans. Most of the artists in the show carefully selected elegant typefaces to complement their artwork, but Matisse wrote out the poems himself in a lovely round-lettered script, transferred to the page via lithography. The artwork is flowery and delicate, a reminder of how beautifully Matisse could draw. The features of the lover who speaks in the poems--his frown, his Roman nose, his curled lips--are rendered in just a few deft strokes. French fleur-de-lis are colored a pale and gentle green, and simple pigmented curlicues embrace each poem on its page.

The show is 46 works strong, with plenty of other inspired pairings. Alexander Calder teams with French poet Jacques Prévert for a cheerful parade of primary-colored triangles and circles that could have tumbled right off a Calder sculpture. (Prévert even playfully praises his collaborator in one of his poems, writing in French, "Mobile above / stabile below / such is the Eiffel Tower / and so is the artist Calder.")

Marc Chagall takes on the poet Paul Eluard; Salvador Dalí takes on Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. And Ritter has not neglected later artists who experimented with artists' books; the show includes Helen Frankenthaler collaborating with William Carlos Williams, Jasper Johns with Samuel Beckett, Fritz Scholder with Leonard Baskin.

Pop artist Jim Dine even collaborated with God, you might say, making an artist's book of The Apocalypse in the New Testament. This fulsome text of revelations, replete with galloping horsemen, quickened corpses leaping from their graves, has long been a favorite of artists, and Dine more than does it justice. His book is loosely bound, but Fischman has opened it to a particularly dazzling page.

The line on the left page reads "The Mystery of the Seven Stars," the verse on the right, "Which Thou Sawest in My Right Hand." In gorgeous, bold woodcuts in black and white, Dine has rendered a pair of muscular hands, open-palmed, with the fingers flung out. And at the tip of every finger is a shooting star, zooming out into infinity.