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1923: Charles Martin

 

This week I'm thinking about Charles Martin's illustrations for the 1923 publication of Erik Satie's Sports et divertissements. But that's neither jazz or comics, I can hear you (or rather, my internal critic) complain: Modernist piano compositions, however insouciant and playful, aren't jazz, and pochoir illustration, however simplified and intertextually referential, isn't comics.

Maybe not; but I'm more interested in holistic continuums of practice than in any essentialist definitions which hairsplit the arts into their own impermeable silos, and Charles Martin certainly was a cartoonist in addition to being a highly sought-after illustrator and fashion-plate designer; in 1914, when he was first approached by Satie to make these illustrations, his work was appearing in bastions of elegant French cartooning like Le Rire and La Vie parisienne as well as in the sumptuous fashion plates of Lucien Vogel's Gazette du Bon Ton. And whether or not Satie is jazz is, I think, the wrong question: rather, jazz was an expression of the same modernist impulses that drove his work, and certainly his musical ideas would be deeply influential on the avant-garde jazz of the 1950s and beyond.

At any rate, the result of this collaboration between composer and illustrator was one of the most beautiful collaborative art books in the modernist canon, like Blaise Cendrars' and Sonia Delaunay's La prose du Transsibérien et de la Petite Jehanne de France or Vasily Kamensy's and the Burliuks' Tango with Cows. The whole thing is reproduced at the Bibliothèque National de France's Gallica site, and if you can read music and/or French (or even if you can't) it's worth spending time leafing through the virtual pages. For one thing, you can click through to much more detail than you'll get below.

Wikipedia's history of the book's publication is (for once) exemplary, so I won't reproduce it here, except to note that Martin's updated 1920s illustrations (you can see one example of his original 1914 draft here) don't just borrow from the faux-primitivism of Cubism, but from Japanese woodblock prints, illuminated manuscripts, Greek vase art, and American comic-strip simplification. His geometric shapes, thin, precise line, and most stunningly, the pochoir colors by the Jean Saudé studio, whose technicians hand-painted each of the 900 editions originally printed by Vogel, are so exquisite that I can easily lose hours in rapt contemplation. If the Twenties represent, in my mind, a kind of perfection of elegant frivolity, it is not because of the actual human Twenties, which were as dull and disheveled as any other period, but because of idealizations like these.

 
 La balançoire (The Swing)

La balançoire (The Swing)

 La chasse (Hunting)

La chasse (Hunting)

 La comédie italienne (Commedia dell'arte)

La comédie italienne (Commedia dell'arte)

 Le réveil de la mariée (Waking the Bride)

Le réveil de la mariée (Waking the Bride)

 Colin-maillard (Blind Man's Buff)

Colin-maillard (Blind Man's Buff)

 La pêche (Fishing)

La pêche (Fishing)

 Le yachting (Yachting)

Le yachting (Yachting)

 Le bain de mer (Sea Bathing)

Le bain de mer (Sea Bathing)

 Le carnaval (Carnival)

Le carnaval (Carnival)

 Le golf (Golfing)

Le golf (Golfing)

 La pieuvre (The Octopus)

La pieuvre (The Octopus)

 Les courses (Horse-Racing)

Les courses (Horse-Racing)

 Les quatre-coins (Puss-in-the-Corner)

Les quatre-coins (Puss-in-the-Corner)

 Le pique-nique (Picnicking)

Le pique-nique (Picnicking)

 Le water-chute (The Water Slide)

Le water-chute (The Water Slide)

 Le tango (The Tango)

Le tango (The Tango)

 Le traîneau (Sledding)

Le traîneau (Sledding)

 Le flirt (Flirting)

Le flirt (Flirting)

 Le feu d'artifice (Fireworks)

Le feu d'artifice (Fireworks)

 Le tennis (Tennis)

Le tennis (Tennis)

 

I suppose the frequency of Art Deco nipples in these drawings might make them NSFW by a strict definition; but thankfully, Martin's depiction of non-white musicians in the "Tango" print isn't as racist as it very easily could have been. It's still very much a fantasy of the wealthy at play, and self-consciously so; Lucien Vogel, the publisher who commissioned it, was best known for his high-fashion magazines aimed at the French elite and distributed in the U.S. by the equally elite Condé Nast, whose VogueVanity Fair and later New Yorker borrowed many of Vogel's concepts and even artists. (Charles Martin provided decorations for Vanity Fair under Frank Crowninshield's editorship.) But though the frivolous rich represented by the cardboard figures who populate these prints would quite rightly be first against the wall come the revolution, Martin's cartoonist's eye maintains a satirical distance (as does Satie's music and notation) — Sports et divertissements is light-hearted, but it is not servile.

 
Jonathan BogartJazz Comics