May 20, 2010
It’s next time again.
One of the most satisfying aspects of doing this Blog is getting great comments from extremely bright people who get turned on by the topic. This month, I’m delighted to say, the articulate Art Historian, Henry Adams, has discovered the under-appreciated bounty in his own book collection! He took the time to share his renewed enthusiasm for the covers of these books with the rest of us.
Henry writes: I’ve often buy books simply for their covers. Somewhat perversely, I suppose to justify the expense, I often then sit down and read what’s between the covers, but very often the cover is the thing that spurs me to make the purchase. In part this is a result of my art historical interests. For example, I can’t afford a painting by Thomas Hart Benton or Grant Wood, but it’s fun to collect books for which they made cover designs.
One of my favorites is Benton’s paper cover for Thomas A. Edison: A Modern Olympian by Mary Childs Nierney, 1934. I have a copy with a cover that’s completely untorn, although I suspect that the color that now reads a gray was one a rich indigo blue. The design show’s Edison’s first generator, the “long-waisted Mary Ann,” next to a modern generator, and his first cylinder phonograph next to a “modern” disk phonograph. The jazzy design closely relates to Benton’s famous mural of America Today and Benton clearly worked hard on it.
When he was done he commented that he would rather cover fifty feet of wall space than work again within book-jacket dimensions.
Grant Wood also did several designs specifically to serve as book-covers. My two favorites are Plowing on Sunday by Sterling North of 1934, with a farmer swigging from a jug; and O, Chautauqua by Thomas Duncan of 1935 by Sterling North, with a aerial view of a circus tent which is remarkably modern and reminiscent of the photographs of Moholy-Nagy.
Around the turn-of-the-century it was common to produce very beautiful cloth book covers, which are often wonderful works of art in their own right.
The tradition goes back at least to the work of the great English designer William Morris, who made a magnificently decorative cover for an edition of the Vollsunga Saga that he translated from the Icelandic in 1870. As it happens, the birds and foliage on the cover have nothing whatsoever to do with the contents of the book, but they a certainly beautiful in their own right. One of the most prolific cover designers of the 1920s was Margaret Armstrong, who did several striking designs for books by Henry Van Dyke, such as The Golden Key of 1926. While her work was produced mostly in the ‘twenties, it’s basically art nouveau in character.
Perhaps the greatest master of this sort of design was Aubrey Beardsley, the great master of art nouveau, who made a number of remarkable covers. My favorites are his wonderful creepy design of what I take to be poppies for Oscar Wilde’s Salome (first published, I believe in 1892, although my copy was printed in 1927; and possibly even better, his cover for the last book he illustrated, Ben Jonson’s Volpone of 1898. The Volpone design I find particularly fascinating since it’s a wonderful example of art nouveau and yet at the same time, its free-form scattering of elements is strangely similar to the paintings of Jackson Pollock. This is surely one of the great 19th century designs, in any medium.
Some other enjoyable covers:
A book cover by the great English architect Charles Rennie MacIntosh for A Book of Sundials, by Launcelot Cross, published in Edinburgh in 1914.
An anonymous book cover for Robert Louis Stevenon’s Island Nights’ Entertainments, 1893, which is modeled on a Polynesian tapa cloth and next to it wonderful multi-colored design of a knight in armor by the noted illustrator J. C. Leydenecker, created for a boy’s adventure book of 1926, The Crimson Conquest by Charles Bradford Hudson.
Finally, let me propose a candidate for the title of the greatest cover design ever. It’s Matisse’s drawing of a ballerina for the cover of a book by Boris Kochno, Le Ballet, published by Hachette in 1954. Kochno was the secretary and lover of Serge Diaghilev, the founder of the Ballets Russes; and he also had an affair with Cole Porter. His text (in French, of course) provides an excellent survey of the history of the ballet, with an emphasis on the extraordinary achievement of Diaghilev and his troupe. But what’s most marvelous about the book is the extraordinary photographs of dancers, and the wonderful costume and set designs by figures such as Picasso and Matisse. It even has an original Picasso lithograph as a frontispiece.
Somehow my parents picked up a copy of this book during one of their trips to France in the 1950s, and it was a major influence on me: the book that introduced me to modern art. I was particularly fascinated by the line drawings of Matisse and the idea of trying to make a completely satisfying work of art with the most minimal possible means. The cover demonstrates Matisse’s mastery in accomplishing this. While the drawing is not precisely accurate in a photographic sense, it perfectly captures the physique and movement of a ballerina. People often say that Matisse’s drawings are flat, but what’s interesting is that the effect is far from flat. It captures the physicality of the figure; it nicely evokes a sense of movement; and of course it’s beautifully placed on the page—or perhaps I should say, on the cover. As I’ve said, it’s my personal candidate for the greatest cover design ever. In its way it’s a perfect work of art.