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Zervos Redux

9 December 2013

The publishing industry is forever engaged in discussions about its own future. No wonder, when the economic climate since the crisis of 2008, and the effects of rapid technological change, have brought the viability of traditional publishing models into acute doubt. But less tends to get said about the place of art books in the digitised, conglomerated, Amazonified world which publishers and booksellers are facing.

A symposium held at the New York Public Library in February this year on ‘The Future of Art Book Publishing’ aimed to redress this situation, and Ian McDermott and Erin C. Dunigan have subsequently written up the discussions in an article published in the Fall number of the journal Art Documentation, published by the University of Chicago Press.

Participants discussed the severe difficulties faced by bricks-and-mortar booksellers since 2008, and the attempts of publishers to find new markets for selling: in high-end gift stores, pop-up stores and at art fairs. Will art books be saved by being sold in bulk at the boutique Anthropologie, colour-coded to match the season’s frocks?

The challenge of adapting art books to digital formats was also much discussed. The slowness of art books to go digital is partly due to the ill-suitedness of most e-readers for high-resolution image reproduction, and for handling the ‘multi-modal’ format of the art book. A straightforward linear text like a novel works much better on a Kindle than a book where the plates, the captions, the essays, even the end-papers are all an important part of the reading experience.

These might seem like unpropitious circumstances in which to launch a book which has 33 volumes and costs $20,000 – or a mere $15,000, if you get in before December. Especially when that book is a reprint of a work whose first volumes were issued more than 80 years ago, and which is largely comprised of black-and-white photographic plates of paintings mainly done in vibrant colours.

This is ‘the Zervos’, the complete catalogue raisonné of Picasso’s works written and compiled by Christian Zervos and published between 1932 and 1978 by Cahiers d’Art, the publishing house and journal Zervos founded himself, which has been bought and revived by Swedish collector Staffan Ahrenberg. The Zervos Picasso Catalogue is exclusively available through Sotheby’s (just in case you were thinking of putting that Amazon voucher you got for your birthday towards a copy).

Christian Zervos is one of those figures whose centrality to mid 20th-century culture lies not just in their own writings but in the way they pop up in the midst of so many other people’s stories. I came across him most recently in Robert Fraser’s wonderful biography of the English surrealist poet David Gascoyne, Night Thoughts (2012). Gascoyne, who had his first writings on surrealist art published by the Cahiers d’Art journal, described him as ‘short, tough, costaud’ – that is, beefy, bullish – ‘with strong, thick, white hair’. Gascoyne’s biographer calls him ‘an energetic, if not exactly a glamorous, figure’, who ‘resembled a well-dressed docker or perhaps nightclub owner’, but he records too that Zervos ‘let nothing stand in the way of the artists he believed in, and was largely responsible for Picasso’s growing reputation in France’.

I spent a few hours in the British Library last week looking at the enormous hardback volumes of the first edition of the Zervos, bound in maroon leather. They are magnificent things: the sort of books for which you need a trolley to carry them back to your seat, an exhibition cradle to rest them in, and two hands to turn the pages. It feels like you should be wearing white cotton gloves. The black-and-white plates are beautiful and arrayed with exceptional elegance. The British Library copy of volume I (1895–1906) is number 5 of the 500 numbered copies. It is wonderful that any reader with the desire and a spare day in London can walk in and look at it for nothing.

The Zervos Redux is really a throwback, a part of the art books world that is totally shielded from the general difficulties faced by trade publishing through its luxury status. To republish more than 16,000 black-and-white photographs in book format, in the era when the BBC’s Your Paintings initiative is trying to make all the oil paintings in public collections in the country available for free online in good quality colour images, seems like a folly, a status symbol pitched squarely at the 1%. But in the age of Jeff Koons’ 60 million dollar Balloon Dog, it is an unusually classy, elegant, old-world folly.

‘Pablo Picasso par Christian Zervos’ is published by Cahiers d’Art and is available for pre-order through Sotheby’s.

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