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Joyce and Matisse Bound: Modernist Aesthetics in the Limited Editions Club Ulysses

From: ELH
Volume 67, Number 4, Winter 2000
pp. 1055-1081 | 10.1353/elh.2000.0033

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ELH 67.4 (2000) 1055-1081

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In 1935 the New York based Limited Editions Club produced an edition de luxe of James Joyce's Ulysses, illustrated by Henri Matisse. The idea for the edition was an innovation of the club's founder, George Macy, whose lifelong mission was "to reissue the world's great classics; to maintain the highest standards of literary excellence in the choice of the titles and in the texts themselves; to achieve these ends by enlisting the talents of the world's ablest book designers, illustrators, printers, and binders." Conceived, designed, and produced by Macy himself, the edition represents a rare example of a text in which both author and illustrator occupy an important position in the canon of their respective arts. Emblematic of the complexity of aesthetic thinking in the early twentieth century, the edition illuminates the dynamic (and sometimes antagonistic) relationship between received notions of aesthetic tradition and the social role of artistic production at play in the work of literary and visual artists commonly associated with modernism as a movement. Specifically, the book and the circumstances surrounding its production indicate that Joyce and Matisse were concerned with maintaining a personal control over their work that emphasized rather than elided their stylistic idiosyncrasies, while at the same time attempting to establish the validity of their methods for the tradition from which they seemed to constitute a break. Occasioned by new information about the edition contained in the recently released Paul Léon papers and important new work on the cultural impact of early American book clubs, this essay reexamines the edition's contribution to our understanding of both modernism and early twentieth-century cultural history. The result is the revelation of at least one case in which modernist art, far from being removed from the world, rose out of specific tensions felt between fellow artists, between the artists and the art establishment (in this case a publisher), and more generally, between the artists and their audience.

I.

The circumstances surrounding the book's production are not entirely clear. Until quite recently, the promising fact that the book was produced while Joyce was living has attracted little attention due to the absence of any real evaluative statements from Joyce concerning the project. Two comments in particular have led many Joyceans to disregard the edition altogether. The first is Joyce's final remark on the edition, in a letter to Harriet Shaw Weaver in 1935:

As to the Illustrations for the U. S. edition they are yours for ever and ever. Amen. If they had been signed L. J. instead of H. M. people would have had a different tale to tell. I am only too painfully aware that Lucia has no future but that does not prevent me from seeing the difference between what is beautiful and shapely and what is ugly and shapeless. As usual I am in a minority of one.

As this assessment is clouded by Joyce's obsession with his daughter's growing mental illness, to read his comments as a true condemnation of Matisse would be to overlook the evidence that he was intractable in his praise for Lucia. Yet, in his biography of Joyce, Richard Ellmann nonetheless interprets Joyce's comments on the Matisse etchings as unequivocal: "Joyce insisted again that Lucia's initial letters were beautiful, far better than what Matisse had done for the limited edition of Ulysses." Ellmann's account of the second damaging statement, this time from Matisse, further dismisses the possibility of any collaboration between Matisse and Joyce: "Matisse, after consulting briefly with Eugene Jolas, went his own way, in the late summer and early fall of 1934; when asked why his drawings bore so little relation to the book, he said frankly, 'Je ne l'ai pas lu.' He had based them on the Odyssey."

Though Matisse did base his etchings on The Odyssey, it is now clear that he did so with Joyce's full knowledge and consent. Letters from Léon to Macy in the Paul Léon papers (now in the National Library of Ireland) indicate that Joyce was actively involved in the planning of the edition, including having...



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