Tag Archives: Mariette Lydis

Mariette Lydis – Dreams and Destiny

Mariette Lydis

As a fearless artist at the height of her powers in the 1920s Mariette Lydis is as much an artist for the 2020s . We are proud to be assembling a comprehensive collection of her early books, prints and drawings in London, for the first time.  You can see the largest collection of her books ever publicly exhibited, from 2-13 October 2023 (12-6 pm) at 14 Mason’s Yard, St James’s, London, SW1Y 6BU. A full-colour catalogue will accompany the show.

Mariette Lydis rarely appears in  standard works of art history — a familiar fate of artists who were women and who chose to illustrate books.

Mariette Lydis 1925
Mariette Lydis 1925

Mariette Lydis, Criminelles, 1927

Criminelles 1927

Lydis’s career spanned the middle years of the twentieth century and intersected with several well-known figures of European modernism. Exhibiting in Europe, England and the United States in the twenties and thirties, she was reviewed in the company of Tamara de Lempicka and Marie Laurencin and achieved both success and notoriety. With artist’s books like Lesbiennes (1926) and Criminelles (1927) she provoked strong reactions.

Mariette Lydis, Lesbiennes, 1926
Lesbiennes 1926

‘More than one Parisian critic hailed Mariette Lydis as an angel, whilst others would burn her as a witch’ one commentator wrote at the time. Lydis never subscribed to the formalities of -isms but her work spanned Austrian Seccessionism, German Expressionism and French Surrealism and Abstraction.

Mariette Lydsi, Orientalisches Traumbuch, 1925
Orientalisches Traumbuch, 1925

Born Marietta Ronsperger in 1887 to a prosperous Jewish family in Vienna, the artist’s early life was spent in progressive circles, though painfully little has been discovered of its details. It is tempting to see her origins as comfortable, but certain details of her later family life suggest that material circumstances were not the only key to her art. Her sister, an opera librettist, committed suicide in Florence in 1921, while her brother’s mental illness led to his permanent committal to an asylum. The sense of displacement and disorientation typical of the post-Great War ‘Lost Generation’ is discernible too in Mariette’s restless travels from Vienna to Athens, Italy, Berlin, North Africa and to Paris, the city she described as ‘the heart of Europe and the only place where it is possible to forget the brutality of men.’

Mariette Lydis, Oracle, 1931
Oracle 1931

Marietta had renounced her Jewish identity and her name in 1910 on marrying a Catholic Viennese businessman, Julius Koloman Pachoffer-Karny. She was to marry twice more, once to a Greek shipping entrepreneur, Jean Lydis (1917) with whom she lived near Athens and again to Giuseppe conte Govone (1934) an important patron and her partner in publishing several books. By the time of her marriage to Govone, the couple were confirmed in their fluid sexualities and lived openly as such in the libertarian atmosphere of twenties and early thirties Paris. Lydis is habitually described as a bisexual or lesbian artist, but that is to reduce her art to no more than a convenient shorthand.

Mariette Lydis, Litanies de la Vierge, 1934
Litanies de la Vierge, 1934

Mariette Lydis exhibited in London’s St George’s Gallery in 1928 and this contemporary review gives a flavour of her work and its context:

‘In less than two years, by two exhibitions, the last at the Galerie de l’Art Contemporain, she has won the great admiration of Paris. Four of her pictures have been bought by the State. Yet she owes nothing to French art or to any art save perhaps Byzantine or Japanese. Her work shows evidence of temperamental rather than technical influence, of the Greece of Sappho and Sophocles; and of Freud.

There is a ring of those

‘…born to strange sights

Things invisible to see,’ [John Donne]

to which Mariette Lydis belongs. Dante, El Greco, St. Teresa, Blake, Dostoievski, Hoffmann, Rilke, Odilon Redon are her kinsfolk. Her versatility is bewildering: fascinating animals, portraits, strange visions like the Revenants … spirits of children, girls and women, women saints and women criminals (with almost similar expressions, thus stressing the resemblance between the aspects of different psychical states), illustrations of the ‘Koran’, ‘Le Jardin des Supplices’, ‘Goha le Simple’, and works of Mac Orlan, Carco and Delteil. One goes from her exhibitions as from the cave of a magician who has complete mastery over colour, form and spirit. One searches in vain for something to condemn. The only legitimate reproach could be that she is too ‘cerebral’. Yet in each of her pictures the subject may be ignored. The painting alone satisfies; emerald green, red, blue, copper, black and gold lavishly used, and the drawing, too, vigorous or delicate …

Mariette Lydis, ‘Maternité’, 1921
Maternité 1921

More than one Parisian critic (Francis de Miomandre, Henry Jacques and Delteil) hailed Mariette Lydis as an angel, whilst others would burn her as a witch. Whichever she be, she is certainly a rare thing in art; a woman painter who follows no one, with much to say that is really worth saying’ (Thyra Clark, Artwork, 1928).

Mariette Lydis has recently featured prominently in the best-selling novel by Argentine author María Gainza, translated as Portrait of an Unknown Lady (Penguin 2022). We look forward to bringing her to a wider audience in the English-speaking world.

Justin Croft

What did Leopold Bloom look like?

The earliest Ulysses illustration rediscovered.

James Joyce's sketch of Leopold Bloom, 1926, now at McCormick Library of Special Collections, Northwestern University (IL)

If you search online “what did Leopold Bloom look like?” you’ll immediately find the sketch above made by James Joyce in Paris in 1926. Joyce was recovering from one of his many eye operations, and the sketch is rough to say the least, but in a few smudges Joyce drew out Bloom’s essential hat and moustache. Joyce had earlier told Sylvia Beach that Bloom resembled the English journalist and bibliophile Holbrook Jackson (who sported unruly hair and an unmistakeable moustache) but Joyce’s sketch has been universally considered Bloom’s earliest representation. It is preserved at the McCormick Library of Special Collections, Northwestern University (IL).

Mariette Lydis, illustration, 1925, from the journal "900" Autumn 1926

We have recently come across a published illustration bearing a date at its bottom right-hand corner ― 1925 ― which is likely to be not only the earliest surviving depiction of Bloom but also the earliest published illustration for Ulysses. It is by a remarkable Austrian-born artist Mariette Lydis (1887-1970), whose career encompassed Vienna, Berlin, Paris, Winchcombe (briefly) and Buenos Aires. Her illustration, which accompanies a French translation from Ulysses published in the Italian journal “900” in 1926, has been entirely overlooked by Joyce scholars until now. It shows a crumpled everyman figure, with black hat and moustache and accompanies the ‘Calypso’ episode in which we are introduced to Bloom (and his enthusiasm for kidneys). Its original has not been traced.

Mariette Lydis, illustration, 1925, from the journal "900" Autumn 1926

Ulysses has been peculiarly resistant to illustration. Its first illustrated edition of 1935 included etchings by Matisse, but his stylish illustrations have more to do with the classical Ulysses and certainly don’t show Bloom. Matisse probably never even read Joyce’s novel. British pop artist Richard Hamilton pursued a long quest to illustrate the novel over several decades from 1948 but the project was left unfulfilled. More recently John Vernon Lord has published one of the only complete sequences of Ulysses illustrations, for the acclaimed Folio Society edition of 2017.

With such a dearth of iconography for such an iconic literary figure it seems extraordinary that Mariette Lydis’s illustration has so completely eluded study by Joyce scholars. It’s a complicated image ― what are we to make of the background details (a brazier, a spider’s web and holiday posters for the Dutch resort of Ostend) which don’t bear much relation to Ulysses? One might object that it’s just any crumpled man in a black hat, except that it has been placed so deliberately with the Ulysses text in “900” (a journal of which Joyce was, at least nominally, a joint editor). It is clearly labelled ‘Illustration’, where the other images in the journal by other artists are simply described by their media (‘dessin’) and bear little relation to the texts. Somehow then, this image stands for Bloom and is almost certainly the first to do so.

There was clearly a connection in the mid-twenties between artist and author, via the Italian writer Massimo Bontempelli, who was then Lydis’s lover and editor of “900”. Whether they had met before 1925 is probably not known, though a pencil portrait of Joyce made by Lydis in Paris is dated 1926 (see Cheng, James Joyce Broadsheet, 11, October 2018).

There is a story here to be uncovered. What influence, if any, did Joyce have over Mariette Lydis’s Bloom? Had she read the episode? Perhaps more interestingly, what influence did her illustration have on Joyce’s own conception of his character and on future interpretations? It has even been pointed out that Joyce’s partially-sighted scrawl of 1926 is merely a bad copy of Lydis.

There is clearly much more to say about the prospect of this ‘new’ iconography for Bloom ― already nearly 100 years old.

This new discovery was noted in the Times Literary Supplement on Bloomsday 2021.

Mariette Lydis, illustration, 1925, Ulysses excerpt, from the journal "900" Autumn 1926 The journal "900" Autumn 1926