In the late 1950s, Gustavo Gili Esteve — scion of the illustrious Barcelona publishing dynasty, Editorial Gustavo Gili — visited Pablo Picasso at his home in Cannes. The publisher had a proposal for the world’s most famous painter: a collaboration on a new edition of La Tauromaquia, Goya’s celebrated series of bullfighting scenes published in 1816.
Gili Esteve suspected that the proposal would tempt Picasso, a lifelong lover of the corrida de toros — not least because Picasso had already agreed to the project decades earlier. Commissioned in 1928 by Gili Esteve’s father, Gustavo Gili Roig, the artist had produced six plates before the project foundered, interrupted by the Spanish Civil War.
‘Gili Esteve was looking for a big name for Ediciones de la Cometa [the publisher’s imprint, later Estampas de la Cometa, which issued livres d’artistes ] — someone who would lend it international appeal,’ explains Claustre Rafart i Planas, the author of several books on Picasso. But what began ‘in a purely professional manner deepened into a true friendship’.
Picasso agreed to revisit the work for Gili Esteve, and the pair’s relationship would not only give rise to one of Picasso’s most iconic livres d'artistes, but also the evolution of the Picasso Museum in Barcelona in 1963, during which Gili Esteve played a key role as a mediator between the artist and the city.
‘In La Tauromaquia, Picasso achieved an unprecedented degree of freedom in intaglio printmaking,’ observes Murray Macaulay, head of Prints & Multiples at Christie’s in London. ‘Picasso executed all 26 plates working directly onto copper. The cover, the only plate executed in drypoint, features a kite (cometa in Spanish) flying over a bull — a visual pun on the name of the imprint, Ediciones de la Cometa. Where Goya highlights the brutal struggle between man and beast, Picasso’s Tauromaquia evokes the poetry of their encounters.’
Editorial Gustavo Gili had been founded as a publisher of scientific and technical manuals in 1902 by Gustavo Gili Roig. Under the direction of Gustavo Gili Esteve from 1945, there was a stronger emphasis on art books. With the additional contribution of Gili Esteve’s son, Gustavo Gili Torra, Ediciones/Estampa de la Cometa produced a range of livres d'artistes whose exceptional production values, elegant typography and exquisitely designed covers set them apart. La Tauromaquia, published in 1959, would be one of the imprint’s most significant collaborations.
On 19 September, Christie’s will offer 80 lots from the Gili archives as part of the Prints & Multiples sale in London. Published between 1959 and 1977, these pieces span the two decades when Editorial Gustavo Gili was at its pinnacle as a fine art imprint, and include numerous printer’s proofs and bon à tirer impressions — often with extensive artist’s annotations.
In the early 1960s, Gili Esteve also embarked upon a relationship with Barcelona-born painter Joan Miró. Over the following decade Miró collaborated with the Gilis on numerous projects, of which the most ambitious was Càntic del Sol. Published in 1975, it stands as one of Miró’s most important livres d'artistes.
In a Christmas card from 1970, illustrated with a vivid hand-drawn red orb (above), Miró wrote (below): ‘May 1970 be a dazzling Song to our Sun’. He was alluding to the Càntic del Sol, production of which had begun in earnest in 1969.
The Càntic del Sol (The Canticle of the Sun), is a 13th-century hymn written by St. Francis of Assisi, in which he expresses the unity between man and nature by addressing the four elements — earth, water, air, fire — as brothers and sisters. ‘For Miró, an artist with an almost reverential view of the Catalonian landscape, St. Francis’s vision must have resonated deeply,’ says Macaulay.
In a 1963 letter to Gili Esteve, Miró sets out his vision for the book: an interplay of text and image that would parallel the architecture of a cathedral, ‘with typography, both elegant and austere… like the columns that support the nave… contrasting with the richness of St. Francis’s vision, and the illumination from the stained-glass windows that I envisage for my illustrations.’ In all, Miró made 32 etchings to accompany the text.
‘Both my grandfather and my father wanted to publish the highest-quality livres d'artistes,’ says Gustavo Gili Galfetti, son of Gili Torra and grandson of Gili Esteve. ‘Initially, they sought out Picasso and Miró because they wanted to work with established artists. At the same time, they were always looking to take a bit of a risk.’
In the 1960s and 1970s, the Gilis began to collaborate with a new generation of artists, producing print series by Eduardo Chillida, Lucio Fontana, Antoni Tàpies, Manolo Millares and the artist collective Equipo Crónica, among others. 'Spain in the 1960s was quite a closed country, with a dictatorship and a relatively conservative art scene. But there was an emerging group of artists who were more avant-garde. I think what drew my father to them is that they had no special place in the publishing panorama. There was also a generational affinity — they were about the same age. My father became good friends with [Spanish artist] Antonio Saura.’
‘This material testifies to the relationships my father and grandfather developed with these artists’ — Gustavo Gili Galfetti
After the 1970s, Estampa de la Cometa stopped making livres d'artistes. ‘In the end, they moved away from these kinds of books because it was a huge effort,’ Gili Galfetti explains. ‘They were expensive and didn’t always correspond to the local market. So these editions actually represent something relatively rare.
‘This material really testifies to the special relationships my father and grandfather developed with these artists,’ he continues. ‘Producing a true livre d’ artiste is not just a simple question of giving an artist a plate and putting the result on paper — it’s a much more complex and collaborative process.’
Ultimately, the Gili family feels an obligation to share these archives with the world. ‘There is no point in having all these treasures hidden in a drawer,’ Gili Galfetti explains. ‘It’s important for us to know that the works will reach a wider audience, and will be appreciated by art enthusiasts.’