In February 1939, publisher Philippe Gonin released a prospectus in which he announced a new edition of the classic text 'The Georgics'. Of the 100 envisioned wood engravings by sculptor Aristide Maillol, Gonin believed that fifteen had already been finished, and that the rest would be completed within a month. This turned out to be overly optimistic: it would be years before the book was published. In order to promote it, Gonin wrote that Maillol cut his own wood blocks for this edition, but that was not the case: his sight was too poor (his eye disease had forced him to abandon carpet weaving in 1895, and he turnedto sculpting instead). Maillol drew sketches on the plate, which were then cut under his supervision by expert engravers. Les géorgiques would be the third book Maillol produced for the Gonin brothers: he illustrated Ovid's L'art d'aimer (1935) and English and French translations of Lungus' Daphnis et Chloe (1937-1938). This successful collaboration would prove beneficial for the brothers Philippe and André Gonin, as they had a difficult start as publishers in the 1920s. Their motto was an expression of willpower: 'Labor improbus omnia vincit' (hard work conquers all obstacles). The publisher was based in Paris from 1925 to 1939, after which the business was continued in Lausanne.
It was not the first time that Maillol had illustrated Virgil's work. In 1905, the German patron Harry Graf Kessler had mediated the sale of a monumental statue by Maillol for a German collector. In Weimar one year later, Kessler published his first remarkable book. His press was to develop into the most important European private press of the twentieth century, the Cranach Presse, for which he would assemble English punchcutters and artists, Belgian designers, German authors and French artists. It was self-evident that he would ask Maillol – with whom he had travelled through Greece in 1908, accompanied by the German poet Hugo van Hofmannsthal – to produce illustrations for an edition of the 'Bucolica' (shepherd's poems or 'Eclogae') by Virgil. In 1912, Maillol completed the 43 wood engravings for this book, which was not to appear until well after World War I, in 1925. The fact that he provided Virgil's sophisticated text with tender and 'naïve' wood engravings was criticized by some. Maillol's response was that he had not illustrated Virgil, but the paper, and therefore the lost paradise that Kessler had envisioned for this 'Gesamtkunstwerk'. Maillol derived his figures, scenes and nature studies from his own environment, in the surroundings of his birthplaceBanylus-sur-mer.
By 1914 Kessler had already formulated a plan for an edition of the 'Georgics', but it never developed beyond the proofs for a German-Latin edition. At that time no woodengravings were available, and although Maillol produced at least one wood engraving during that period ('Les épis de blé', ca. 1915), he did not start work on a series of engravings for Les géorgiques until the Gonin brothers encouraged him seriously in 1939. The wood engravings illustrate the didactic poem on agriculture, which was never intended to be used as an agricultural manual. It was an ode to life in the country, divided into four books on agriculture, forestry and winery, livestock-farming and beekeeping. The myth of Orpheus and Eurydice was referenced in the last part. The epic, written in hexameter, alternated descriptions of agricultural practices with lyrical passages. It was translated into French in 1769 by Abbot Jacques Delille (1738-1813). His translation was written not only for art lovers or classicists: his intention was to present the 'Georgics' to a wide audience. Voltaire considered this to be impossible, but the translation became enormously successful, thanks in part to a renewed interest in agriculture (between 1750 and 1820) and the establishment of scientific academies.
The 121 wood engravings were printed on a hand-press by Philippe Gonin. The two-volume edition consisted of 750 copies – numbered on the press – on rag paper bearing a watermark (a nude seated above the names Maillol and Gonin) that strongly resembles the Cranach Presse watermark of the first Virgil edition. The French text has been printed on the left pages, opposite the Latin text on the right. Line numbers and initials for each verse appear in the margins, in black, like the rest of the text. This is a strikingly homogenous black-and-white artist's book: no distracting colours have been used, and the density of the wood engravings has been adapted throughout to the text block. The lines are those of a sculptor bringing to life the rounded shapes of human figures through contrasts in width, and who allows his instrument (the gouge) to be recognized in the angular and occasionally interrupted lines of his wood engravings. Many of the wood engravings are close to 10 cm square. The images are made up of sketched line drawings (for instance the outlines of sheep), more elaborately detailed landscapes (like the dancing peasants or erotic nudes and Poussin-like shepherd scenes), or detailed studies of crops, sometimes accompanied by their names (such as 'laurel'). Maillol noticed that Virgil had omitted the fig tree in his didactic poem, and added an illustration of it to his series of wood engravings.
Maillol did not live to see the publication of this edition: the book only appeared in print six years after his death. The handsome layout of the Gonin edition, with its sober rather than decorated initials,its well-considered balance between the Latin and French texts, and its two volumes with half-parchmentcovers, can certainly vie with the books from Cranach Presse. If the Cranach 'Eclogae' has been chosen as one of the 100 finest books of the twentieth century, then Les géorgiques must surely be number 101.
|Description:||Les Géorgiques / Virgile ; texte latin et version française de Jacques Delille ; gravures sur bois de Aristide Maillol. - Paris : Gonin, 1937 [i.e.1950]. -  p. : ill. ; 34 cm|
|Printer:||Dumoulin (Paris) (text)
Philippe Gonin (wood engravings)
|This copy:||Number 27 of 750 on pure rag paper, with watermark Maillol Gonin|
|Typeface:||Copy of a fifteenth century typeface|
|Bibliography:||Bénézit 9-32 ; Monod 11339 ; Strachan 337|
|Shelf-mark:||Koopm K 312-313|
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- John Dieter Brinks, Das Buch als Kunstwerk. Die Cranach Presse des Grafen Harry Kessler. Laubach, Triton, 2003
- Paul van Capelleveen, Sophie Ham, Jordy Joubij, Voices and visions. The Koopman Collection and the Art of the French Book. The Hague, Koninklijke Bibliotheek, National Library of the Netherlands; Zwolle, Waanders, 2009
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