The Library of Babel by Érik Desmazières

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The print work of French artist Érik Desmazières has featured here on several occasions, and I’ve also had reason to mention more than once his aquatints and etchings which illustrate Jorge Luis Borges’ celebrated short story The Library of Babel (1941). The prints were produced in 1997 with a small book edition being published in 2000. Copies of that volume now sell for upwards of $100, and at a mere 36 pages this somewhat exceeds my acquisitiveness threshold. Hence this post which gathers some of the better online reproductions, one or two of which have only come to light in the past couple of years.

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Borges’ description of the architecture of the universe-size Library is sketchy so Desmazières opens out some of the spaces to give a Piranesian sense of space to what would otherwise be little more than views of the same small rooms and corridors, endlessly repeating. MC Escher could have made something of those infinite perspectives—the hexagonal chambers are the closest to the story descriptions—but the larger rooms convey without words an impression of colossal spaces filled with nothing but people and an infinitude of books. The volumes in Borges’ Library don’t contain illustrations but one of them at least would describe this very book. Another would describe this book with a minor variation in one of the plates; another would describe MC Escher’s depictions of the Library, and Piranesi’s, and Salvador Dalí’s, and on and on…

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Leonardo’s warrior

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Bust of a warrior in profile (c. 1475–80) by Leonardo da Vinci.

A recent interview question reminded me of this splendid Leonardo piece when I was discussing early artistic influences. One crucial influence for me was the example of my mother who’d been an art student during the 1950s specialising in ceramics and textile design. From an early age I was fascinated by her student sketchbooks, and by one drawing in particular, a very careful copy of this work by the young Leonardo. The British Museum has the original, about which they tell us:

The drawing shows Leonardo studying the art of his teacher, Andrea Verrocchio. Giorgio Vasari’s biography of Verrocchio in his Lives of the Artists (1550 and 1568) mentions two metal reliefs with profile portraits of Alexander the Great, leader of the Greeks, and Darius, the Persian king. They were sent by Lorenzo ‘il Magnifico’ (‘the Magnificent’) de’ Medici, ruler of Florence (1469–92), as gifts to the king of Hungary. This drawing is probably based on one of these lost works by Verrocchio.

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Casque d’apparat (1981) by Erik Desmazières.

Memories of the Leonardo drawing always follow the exaggerated logic of childhood and inflate its splendour and detail; I’d never seen anything like it and for years used to hope that Leonardo had produced many similar works. He hadn’t, of course, so it’s to other artists we have to turn for more of the same. French artist Erik Desmazières has produced a number of etchings depicting elaborately helmeted figures which are perhaps inspired by Leonardo’s warrior. Of the three in Imaginary Places, a 2007 collection of his work, the one above is my favourite. I have a feeling I’ve seen derivations by other artists but nothing is coming to mind. As usual, if anyone knows of further examples, please leave a comment. Elsewhere there’s Leonardo’s Diary (1972), a short film by Jan Svankmajer in which the haughty figure is subject to some typical Svankmajerian distortions.

• See also: Erik Desmazières at the Fitch-Febvrel Gallery.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Les lieux imaginaires d’Erik Desmazières
Jan Svankmajer: The Complete Short Films
The art of Erik Desmazières

The art of Pierre Clayette, 1930–2005

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The Library of Babel (no date).

Another French artist who specialised in fantastic architecture, Pierre Clayette’s work came to my attention via the picture above which illustrates a Borges story. This leads me to wonder once again what it is about French and Belgian artists which attracts them more than others to this type of imagery.

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Whatever the reason, there isn’t a great deal of Clayette’s work online and biographical details are few. This page (the source of the untitled picture above) reveals that he worked as an illustrator for Planète magazine, the journal of “fantastic realism” founded by Jacques Bergier and Louis Pauwels in the early Sixties. Some readers may know that pair as the authors of a { feuilleton } cult volume, The Morning of the Magicians (1960), whose vertiginous blend of speculative and weird fiction, occultism and futurology Planète was intended to continue.

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Clayette also worked as a theatre designer and book illustrator. Le Chateau (above) is an illustration from Songes de Pierres, a 1984 portfolio depicting scenes from Pierres by Roger Caillois. That writer has his own significant Borges connection, being responsible for introducing Borges’ work to France via his editorship of the UNESCO journal, Diogenes. (Pauwels and Bergier later published Borges in Planète.)

Finally, there’s a less extravagant Flickr collection of some Clayette covers for Penguin Shakespeare editions. All of which only scratches the surface of what was evidently a prolific career; I’ll look forward to more examples of his work coming to light.

Elsewhere on { feuilleton }
The fantastic art archive
The illustrators archive

Previously on { feuilleton }
The art of Michiko Hoshino
The art of Erik Desmazières
The art of Gérard Trignac
The Absolute Elsewhere

Les lieux imaginaires d’Erik Desmazières

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Labyrinthe II (2003).

This is very late notice but I only just discovered that there’s been a major exhibition of etchings by Erik Desmazières running at the Jenisch Gallery in Vevey, Switzerland. The exhibition, which ends on September 9th, includes these more recent works among over 100 other pieces covering the extent of the artist’s career. Sounds like the catalogue for this would certainly be worth ordering. There’s also a 40-minute documentary film being shown there, Le Paris d’Erik by Bertrand Renaudineau and Gérard Emmanuel da Silva.

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Théâtre de géographie (2007).

Elsewhere on { feuilleton }
The etching and engraving archive

Previously on { feuilleton }
The art of Erik Desmazières

The art of Erik Desmazières

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La Place Désertée (1979).

Yet another French artist specialising in etchings with a focus on imaginary architecture. No dedicated website, unfortunately, so I’ve posted more images than usual. Of note is Desmazières’ illustrated edition (now out of print) of the Borges’ ficcione, The Library of Babel, published by Les Amis du Livre Contemporain in France and David R Godine in the US.

Erik Desmazières was born in Rabbat, Morocco, son of a French diplomat. He spent his childhood in Morcco, Portugal, and France. Desmazières studied at the Institute d’Etudes Politique, political science and took an evening art course at the Cours du Soir de la Ville. After graduation he decided to pursue a career as an artist.

Considered to be one of the finest printmakers of his generation, Desmazières was strongly influenced by artists such as Giovanni Piranesi and Jacques Callot. Erik Desmazières work is represented by galleries in Europe, the United States, and Japan and is collected by important museums worldwide.

Update: Erik Desmazières at Velly.org.

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Exploration (1984).

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