ART VIEW; Flair for the Grand Gesture: Celebrating a Magazine
By John Russell
Published: October 9, 1988
In every decade there is a review of literature and art that could have come out at no other time, so neatly is it buttoned into the spirit of the age. This was true before 1900 of The Yellow Book in London and of La Revue Blanche in Paris. It was true of the Blue Rider Almanac in Munich in 1911 and of Blast in London in 1914-15. As run by Scofield Thayer in this country in the 1920's, The Dial had just that character.
Even a blind man would know those publications one from another - by format, by touch and by smell. The same was true of Art & Literature, edited in the 1960's by John Ashbery, Anne Dunn, Rodrigo Moynihan and Sonia Orwell. In its chunky little pages - so plump, so white - many an invaluable text still deserves to be sought out. Every generation has its own mode of expression in these matters, and a visit to the shop called Printed Matter Inc., 7 Lispenard Street, will show that the urge to show and tell in new ways is very far from being extinct.
Fifty years ago in Paris, the magazine to look for was Verve, which first came out in December 1937 and kept going in one form or another till 1960. That first cover (by Henri Matisse) sang out from the other side of the street in a way that made us run across the road to look at it more closely. And when we turned its pages, Verve had a bosomy, full-fleshed, slightly slithery quality that this former subscriber would know in his sleep.
The 50th anniversary of the first appearance of Verve is being celebrated with no more than minimal delay in a book called ''Verve: The Ultimate Review of Art and Literature.'' Edited by Michel Anthonioz, it is published in an English version by Harry N. Abrams at $95. By using the original first cover, the book gets away to a start that even Carl Lewis would rate as brisk. Thereafter, it epitomizes the noble format, the luxurious presentation and the flair for the grand gesture that marked the magazine in its great days. As a book to look at and look through, this one is in a very high class.
With covers by Matisse, Braque, Bonnard and Rouault and special issues devoted to Picasso, Braque, Matisse, Bonnard and Chagall, Verve hewed to what today seems a consistently safe line. But we have to remember that 50 years ago those painters had by no means the mandatory importance that they came to have later. Nor were they pushed into print by people who couldn't wait to make a fortune out of them. Auctions of contemporary art were virtually unknown. Prices had been stable for a long time, and the major artist was still a private person, unharried by the media.
For these reasons, Verve was really bringing the news when, in its first issue, it printed Dora Maar's historic photograph of ''Guernica'' in Picasso's studio. It also brought the news when it persuaded the great old men of the School of Paris to let it reproduce not just one or two new canvases but a whole corpus of recent work. After World War II, and before the exhibition industry had got fully under way, virtually the only way to keep in close touch with what was being done by Matisse, Picasso, Braque and Chagall was to grab the relevant issue of Verve. What may look today like automatic choices had at that time a revelatory quality.
But Verve was not simply a magazine that put the best possible face on the senior masters of the School of Paris. It was powered in its earlier years by a wild range of editorial fancy that came as a continual suprise to most readers. There was no knowing what would come next - a 16th-century doll from the Himalayas, a bust of Louis XIV by Houdon, an essay on ''Fire'' by John dos Passos, an essay on the sculptor Henri Laurens by his colleague Alberto Giacometti, a detail from Giotto's ''St. Francis Receiving the Stigmata'' in gold and color photogravure, a daguerreotype of Edgar Allan Poe by the American photographer Matthew Brady, an illustrated account by Fernand Leger of the Paris Exposition of 1937, a still life by the 17th-century Spanish painter Sanchez Cotan or an early extract from Andre Malraux's ''Psychology of Art.''
James Joyce and Ernest Hemingway were early contributors, and the still young Jean-Paul Sartre made his debut as a writer on food (Neapolitan cuisine, to be precise). Matisse and Bonnard spoke off the cuff to Verve about whatever was on their minds; John Rewald allowed Verve to publish some letters from the young Cezanne to Emile Zola. Meyer Schapiro introduced Chagall's illustrations to the Bible, and in the 1950's the English novelist and reporter Rebecca West was invited - not with the happiest of results - to write on both Braque and Picasso.
Among the traits that marked Verve in its beginning as a child of the late 1930's were an interest in French 18th-century visionary architecture, a delight in Oriental myth and legend and a taste for Indian miniatures (no matter how rough). It was on to the ''Mahabharata'' many years before Peter Brook produced his monumental staging of it. It was on to cartoons and calligraphers that dated from not long after the Middle Ages, and it was on to the memorable photographs of British housemaids that Bill Brandt took in London around the time of the coronation of King George VI. Altogether, it was an astonishing mixture, the like of which no one had ever seen. Fundamentally it was a hedonistic publication. Marvels, not monsters, were its first field of interest. But the late 1930's had more than its fair share of monsters in life, and the very first number of Verve had an illustrated feature called ''In the Blood of the Martyrs'' that reminded the reader, however obliquely, that in more than one European country martyrs were shedding their blood at that very moment.
ART VIEW; Flair for the Grand Gesture: Celebrating a Magazine
Published: October 9, 1988
(Page 2 of 2)
When the worst scenario turned out to be true, and the German armies overran France in 1940, Verve did not refer to it directly. The cover of the issue dated ''Summer 1940'' was once again by Henri Matisse, and once again Matisse made color and form dance for him as they danced for no one else. (Twenty-six print runs were needed to get the colors right, by the way.) But what distinguished that cover was the sumptuous funerary black of the ground on which those colored shapes danced. Unique in Matisse's output was the predominance of that grief-laden and premonitory black.
A one-man publication in its every detail, Verve owed everything to its publisher and editor, E. Teriade. Once again, Teriade was not a star editor in our contemporary mold. But even in a Paris that prized individuality and knew how to cherish it, Teriade stood out. Greek by birth, and the nursling of a cosmopolitan, many-tongued circle in Mytilene, Teriade was born Efstratios Eleftheriades in 1897. From that thicket of consonants, and from his native city, he escaped as soon as he could and arrived in Paris in 1915 as E. Teriade.
It was not until he was 40 that he got to be his own master, in professional terms. But he could hardly have founded Verve with better credentials - assistant to his fellow-countryman Christian Zervos on ''Cahiers d'Art'' (1926-31), art critic for the newspaper L'Intransigeant (1928-33), artistic director of Minotaure (1933-36) and co-founder (1935-36) of a short-lived periodical called La Bete Noire, whose function was to provoke, to annoy and to ridicule the stuffed shirt in his every form.
Never a natural subordinate, Teriade tailored Verve to suit his own image, which was that of a portly, benign, amused and amusing man who had been in and out of the Parisian art world for many years and is not known to have made an enemy. Unlike some of his former associates (on Minotaure, especially), he never showed his sharp teeth (and was widely believed not to have any). What he wanted was for the artists he liked best to realize themselves completely in Verve. He also wanted Verve to be as rewarding to read as to look at.
In later life he appeared to have no regrets and never to have suffered disappointment (not least, in his conspicuously happy private life). He never boasted. If asked about this or that among his many achievements, he would feign to remember nothing. ''You know so much more about all that than I do,'' he would say, while sitting the long afternoon through in a luxuriant garden that overlooked the sea at St. Jean-Cap Ferrat.
To condense Teriade's activity on ''Verve'' into a single volume is not easy. Teriade's sense of rhythm, as an editor, was both perfect and personal. ''Highlights from Verve'' may sound very well, and in many ways it looks rather good, but in reality it falsifies the character of the magazine. Verve was not a picture book, and it was conceived as a work of art in its own right, not as a treasure house of reproductions.
Many of the texts that appeared in the magazine are merely ''excerpted'' in the book. Here and there a wonderful phrase comes to the surface, as when the poet Pierre Reverdy says of Matisse that ''the final syllable of his name hisses slightly, like a soaring rocket, the flash of light above the soil in a dazzling flower bed.'' The Belgian poet and painter Henri Michaux has some apt and memorable things to say about the ''inconceivable delirium'' that affects every observant visitor to India. But the book as a whole has a jerky, restless, unanchored structure that is the very reverse of what we find in Verve the magazine. The reproductions of Matisse's late cut-paper works have a high shine that is totally false to the matte character of the originals. To call Verve the ''ultimate review'' could be said to be an exaggeration, given that so many of the big-name writers were running on empty when they sent in their contributions. But what images Verve had, all the same!
Photos of two Verve illustrations: ''Death of Bali,'' an 18th-century lithograph (based on a 13th-century manuscript) that accompanied an essay on idolatry by Henri Michaux, and Matisse's ''De la Coleur,'' the cover for the November 1945 issu