Tzara and Picasso: A Modernist Take on the Historic Volvelle

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Last week Margherita Palumbo wrote about the fascinating use of volvelles in scientific texts. From the Latin verb “volere,” meaning to turn, these circular devices use paper wheels as dials to calculate or chart information, usually pertaining to astronomy, mathematics, or navigation. As Palumbo discusses, printed volvelles have been in use since Regiomontanus’s Calendarium, published in Nuremberg in 1474. Since then, their use has broadened considerably: as books became more readily available, their content likewise became increasingly accessible, and by the nineteenth century volvelles were incorporated into books intended for much wider audiences; for example, children’s books in the Victorian era often featured numerous volvelles among their lavish illustrations (Leslie A. McGrath, This Magical Book: Movable Books for Children, 1771-2001, Toronto 2002, 24-26).

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In 1958, the Romanian-born poet, writer, performer and organizer Tristan Tzara (born Samuel Rosenstock, 1896-1963) incorporated the volvelle in a novel way in La Rose et le chien: poème perpétuel, a “livre-objet” made in collaboration with Pablo Picasso and published by Pierre-André Benoît. Here Tzara included textual fragments on three superimposed disks with cut-out “windows.” Two of the text disks are mobile, such that, upon rotation, different combinations of words are formed, hence the title of a “perpetual poem”: the reader can create a seemingly endless number of “poems” through rotations of the wheels. The volvelle is completed by a fourth superimposed disk which Picasso engraved with short, scratch-like marks. According to Benoît, a secret note is written underneath the engraving, but to read it would require damaging the book (Patrick Cramer, Pablo Picasso. The Illustrated Books: Catalogue Raisonné, Geneva 1983, 234). The volvelle as a whole is mounted on a full-page engraving, also by Picasso, with markings similar to those on the engraved fourth “disk.”


La Rose et le chien is a fine example of Tzara’s interest in the deconstruction of poetry and mixing of genres, an interest evident in his early days as a co-founder of Dada. Founded in Zürich during the First World War, Dada was a revolutionary anti-war literary, artistic, and intellectual movement which sought to disturb acquired systems of knowledge and dismantle traditional values associated with “high art” in order to promote new forms of art, performance, and poetry. This often led to absurd, nonsensical creations that relied heavily on chance, as Tzara wrote in section VIII of his “Dada Manifesto on Feeble Love and Bitter Love” (1920), in which he provided instructions for making a Dada poem:


To Make a Dadaist Poem


Take a newspaper.

Take a pair of scissors.

Choose an article as long as you are planning to make your poem.

Cut out the article.

Then cut out each of the words that make up this article and put them in a bag.

Shake it gently.

Then take out the scraps one after the other in the order in which they left the bag.

Copy conscientiously.

The poem will be like you.

And here are you a writer, infinitely original and endowed with a sensibility that is charming though beyond the understanding of the vulgar.


In January of 1920, Tzara moved to Paris where he was hailed as a sort of messiah by avant-garde artists, especially those affiliated with the Surrealist review Littérature, including Louis Aragon, André Breton and Philippe Soupault. The Dadaist emphasis on chance and reaction against rationality gained in symbolic weight as Dada transitioned into Surrealism and began to incorporate Freud’s psychoanalytic theories to investigate the nature of the unconscious. Tzara helped articulate the Surrealist agenda in the 1930s, when he also grew closer to the Communist Party and became friends with Picasso. As Tzara’s work progressed, he grew increasingly concerned with the nature of humanity and art, an emphasis sensed here in his use of an interactive text which relies on reader input in the creation of meaning. In this light, Picasso’s etched lines come to read as the vague outline of a hand and the upper circular disk as suggestions of a palm.

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Picasso also created a frontispiece engraving for La Rose et le chien which suggests an imaginary being through a few arcs and jagged lines, along with a “face” with a hole for a mouth, a “V” for a nose, and two more holes for eyes. Another imaginary being occurs at the colophon, in the fourth engraving: this is circular again with a sort of stylized spider and a white circle in the middle. The cut-outs, which become pure white spaces on the final print, create an intriguing collage-like effect, perhaps a play on Picasso’s own pioneering papiers collés; in fact, Tzara was an important collector of these works and regarded his own poetry as a logical continuation of Picasso’s achievements in this realm. Picasso would return to this cut-out technique in other Benoît-Picasso collaborations, for example in René Char’s L’Escalier de Flore, published later that same year. In total, he collaborated with Tzara on four books, this being the last.

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The copy of La Rose et le chien: poème perpétuel presented here is enriched with an extremely rare additional suite of all four etchings printed in red, as well as a proof impression of the frontispiece printed in black. It is but one example of the remarkable collection of Picasso’s livres d’artiste on display at a forthcoming exhibition at PrPh.

Julia Stimac