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Ulysses was initially published in short serial forms until Sylvia Beach of Shakespeare and Company took a gamble on James Joyce and published it in full in 1922. This gamble payed off as Ulysses remains one of the most coveted and controversial works of 20th century literature. James Joyce perhaps provided the most elucidating legacy of Ulysses when he stated “I've put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant, and that's the only way of insuring one's immortality”
Art Imitating Life
In 1929 the Limited Edition Club commissioned artist Henri Matisse to create illustrations to accompany the text of Ulysses. The man behind this bold venture was George Macy who helped to produce lavish limited editions of illustrated classics in the 1930's and 40's. Macy’s most famous and audacious reproduction managed to bring together two artists who encapsulated the visual and literary Avant-garde movement of the early 20th Century.
Matisse’s mythical Nausicaa design is embossed in gold on the front cover, displaying four shapely nudes enclosed in a sphere with Roman numerals forming a celestial clock . The spine is gilt and is bound in a leather tome. Matisse’s etchings were inspired by the Odyssean allegories entrenched in Ulysses. Interestingly, Matisse signed all 1500 copies whereas the contrarian in Joyce signed no more than 250 copies once he found out that Matisse’s illustrations were inspired by his Odyssean interpretation of the novel. Senate House Library is proud to have one of the limited editions signed by both Joyce and Matisse.
Prior to publication, Joyce may have been excited for the collaboration but he was also worried that Matisse may not have his Irish details right. In a letter to T.W. Pugh, Joyce requested that copies of the illustrated Dublin newspapers of 1904 be sent to Matisse for consultation and inspiration . Like all great artists, inspiration and interpretation is key to the creative process. Upon seeing the sketches, Joyce was not happy with how Matisse interpreted his life’s work, believing that he did not actually read the novel. When asked why his drawings bore so little relation to the book, Matisse said frankly, "Je ne l’ai pas lu" meaning “I did not read it”.
It’s hard to argue the commercial value of such a unique reproduction, some critics have been less kind to the aesthetic value. John Ryder, who designed the 1960 Bodley edition of Ulysses, referred to this iteration as a ‘typographic travesty’ and ‘idiosyncratic’. Not all critics are of this opinion, David Brass, the internationally renowned antiquarian book seller, believes this edition is one of the most desirable and collectable illustrated books of the twentieth century and one of the few ‘livres de pientres’ of the pre-WWII era. Furthermore, a blog post by the Martin Lawrence Gallery in New York illustrates the extravagance of this edition: “beyond its precise and careful publication; it’s not merely a luxury object for collectors but a true piece of art, extended and taking the ancient Greek epic as its starting point”.
“Every life is in many days, day after day. We walk through ourselves, meeting robbers, ghosts, giants, old men, young men, wives, widows, brothers-in-love, but always meeting ourselves.” ― James Joyce, Ulysses
Ellmann, Richard, James Joyce, The first revision of the 1959 classic, Oxford University Press, 1982
Goodwin, Willard, “‘A Very Pretty Picture M. Matisse But You Must Not Call It Joyce’: The Making of the Limited Editions Club ‘Ulysses’. With Lewis Daniel's Unpublished ‘Ulysses’ Illustrations.” Joyce Studies Annual, vol. 10, 1999, pp. 85–103. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/26285793
O'Byrne, Robert, ‘Joyce’s Ulysses with Illustrations by Matisse at Mealy’s, Irish Arts Review (2002-), vol. 27, no. 1, 2010, pp. 46–46. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/25654708.