The English-speaking world tends to think of Jean de La Fontaine as a children’s writer, a French version of Aesop, but many of his verse Contes et nouvelles have an erotic flavour, rather in the manner of Boccaccio. The lavish Martin-illustrated production uses ‘pochoirs’, hand-stencilled and coloured illustrations, rather than etchings, an art deco style very much in fashion during the 1930s. There are 64 plates, half of them in colour, illustrating the same number of long and short poetic stories.
Some of the etchings are deliberately titillating. For ‘La chose impossible’ for example, in which a woman outwits the Devil by challenging him to straighten out a pubic hair, one illustration shows her with her head modestly lowered and her private parts covered, but in a second she lifts a wild froth of petticoats to reveal all.
The range of illustrations demonstrates Martin’s mastery of composition, line and colour. He is not afraid to fill a large part of the page with almost pitch black, place the action in one corner, or use a daring and unconventional perspective.
The Martin-illustrated La Fontaine was published in two volumes by the Librairie de France, in a limited numbered edition of 3,415 copies.