La pieuvre

Year: 1944

Author: Victor Hugo (1802 - 1885)

Artist: André Masson (1896 - 1987)

Publisher: Éditions des Lettres françaises

La pieuvre, cover

La pieuvre (the octopus) was originally part of Victor Hugo's lesser-known novel Les travailleurs de la mer (1866), a book that focuses on man's victory over nature. This part compares the octopus to mythical creatures such as the sphinx, and it states that nature is rife with death: 'waste is nourishment' (pourriture, c'est nourriture), and therefore man is a grave for other creatures (nous sommes sépulcres).

André Masson

Artist André Masson, who produced eight pen drawings for this edition of La pieuvre, experienced the horrors of the First World War firsthand. The themes of death, violence, and later eroticism are therefore most prevalent in his work. Masson joined the surrealist movement in 1924. But he went his own way from 1929 onwards, becoming extremely popular as an illustrator who worked on the borderline between Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism. He illustrated books by famous contemporaries and friends such as Antonin Artaud, Michel Leiris and Robert Desnos. He also contributed to the magazine Acéphale, which was founded in 1936 by his friend Georges Bataille, for whom he illustrated several works, including the pornographic novel Histoire de l'œil. He stayed in America with his family during the Second World War.

  • Pentekening door André Masson (p. 7)

The editor: Roger Caillois

Like Masson, writer Roger Caillois (1913-1978) would not spend the war in France. He was invited to move to Buenos Aires (Argentina) by Victoria Ocampo in 1939. She was wealthy, had a passion for literature, and headed Sur, the Argentinian version of La nouvelle revue Française (NRF). Ocampo helped Caillois found the famous magazine Lettres françaises in 1941, which should not be confused with the eponymous clandestine magazine founded by Jean Paulhan in France under the Vichy regime. Buenos Aires proved to be a favourable environment for a French magazine about literature, art and politics, because it contained a large French-speaking community.

Éditions des Lettres françaises

In 1942, Caillois produced a remarkable edition via his magazine: this was the collection of poetry Exil by Saint-John Perse, who was admired greatly by Caillois. The Éditions des Lettres françaises only published two artist's books through the intervention of publisher Roger Caillois: Fata Morgana (1942) by André Breton, and La pieuvre by Victor Hugo in 1944.

Bibliographical description

Description: La pieuvre / [Victor Hugo] ; avec 8 dess. à la plume d'André Masson pour ill. Victor Hugo ; [publ. par les soins de Roger Caillois]. – Buenos Aires, Éditions des Lettres françaises, 1944. - 39 p. : ill. ; 29 cm

Printer: Francisco A. Colombo (Buenos Aires)

Edition: 345 copies

This copy: Number XVII of 10 (numbered XI-XX) on Coat Skin

Bibliography: Bénézit 9-331 ; Monod 6174 ; Skira 250

Shelfmark: KW Koopm K 38


  • Jean-Paul Clébert, 'André Masson', in: Dictionnaire du Surréalisme, Paris, Seuil, 1996, p. 362-373
  • Odile Felgine, Roger Caillois: Biographie.Paris, Stock, 1994
  • Victor Hugo, Notre-Dame de Paris, 1482, Les Travailleurs de la mer. Paris, Gallimard, 1975
  • Michel Leiris, André Masson et son univers. Genève, Éditions des Trois Collines, 1947