Le cornet à dés

Year: 1948

Author: Max Jacob (1876 - 1944)

Artist: Jean Hugo (1894 - 1984)

Publisher: NRF

Le cornet à dés, cover

Max Jacob was a man of many faces: a Jew converted to Catholicism, a writer who wrote about his visions of the Saviour in all seriousness while simultaneously producing parodies with venomous wit, a mystic, and a clown. He lived in Paris amidst famous artists and writers, only to withdraw to a monastery afterwards. He occupied himself with cabbala and Bible explication, and wrote a collection of Breton songs under the name Morven de Gallique. He worked as an art critic under the pseudonym Léon David, while also working as a piano teacher and store clerk. He was subversive, theatrical, comical, unhappy and distinctly inimitable.

Organised chaos

His work is equally full of contrasts. Deep thoughts and witticisms, prose and poetry, mysticism and triviality all come together in it. Jacob's most frequently read, most important work is Le cornet à dés from 1917, a collection of 300 prose poems written by Jacob between 1903 and 1910. The pun-filled poems can be considered a form of organised chaos, systematic coincidence, similar to roulette or dice- which is why the title refers to the cup used to shake the dice. According to the author, the composition of this collection is as random as the results of a game of dice.

Colour wood-engravings

This reference to games is also programmatic: the poet juggling with language. Le cornet à dés cannot be placed within a single movement: there is a surrealist influence, it refers to cubism, and many saw similarities with the work of Apollinaire. The collection is certainly innovative and experimental. Max Jacob's preface 'Préface de l'édition de 1916', in which he introduced the concept 'situation', became almost as famous as the poems themselves.

In 1948- Max Jacob had died of pneumonia in concentration camp Drancy during World War II - Gallimard published a new edition of Le cornet à dés. Taking 130 gouaches by Jean Hugo as their point of departure, Jules Germain, Robert Armanelli and André Marliat produced colour wood-engravings. Jean Hugo, husband of Valentine Gross and great-grandson of Victor Hugo, had studied literature, but taught himself how to paint, and worked as an artist. His work, which is often described as 'naïve', brings to mind that of another autodidact: Henri Rousseau le Douanier. But there is clearly also a surrealistic influence. Hugo seems to have inherited a predilection towards romance and fairy tales from his famous ancestor. He also produced costumes and sets, and illustrated about one hundred books.


Book illustration was more than a side activity for Jean Hugo: it was his passion. He placed himself in an age-old tradition of book illustrators, most of whom toiled anonymously over their drudgery. His illustrations are therefore strongly reminiscent of old-fashioned miniatures: small, carefully produced, bright pictures that are placed between the texts. Most of his work as an illustrator was done on books by his friends, so that they could discuss the way the book would be produced together. In this fashion, he also created illustrations for works by Pierre-André Benoit, Cocteau, Radiguet and Maurois.

Jean Hugo also knew Max Jacob, if only professionally: they would run into each other at exhibitions. In 1947 Hugo produced two paintings that referred to Max Jacob: 'The House of Mme Persillard where Max Lived 15 VIII' and 'Rue Max-Jacob at St. Benoit, 1947'. In a number of ways, Jacob and Hugo could be considered each other's opposite: Hugo broke with religion, while Jacob converted; Jacob's art is systematic, while that of Hugo is personal. But in spite of their different ideas about art, this edition of Le cornet à dés is extremely harmonious.

Bibliographical description

Description: Le cornet à dés / Max Jacob ; ill. par Jean Hugo de 113 gouaches gravées sur bois, en couleurs, par Jules Germain, Robert Armanelli & André Marliat. - Paris : NRF, 1948. - 210 p. : ill. ; 27 cm

1st edition: 1916

Printer: Jourde en Allard (Paris)

Edition: 422 copies

This copy: Number 96 of 422 on Lana

Typeface: Bodoni

Bibliography: Bénézit 7-249/250 ; Monod-6298

Shelfmark: Koopm L 493


  • Pierre Andreu, Vie et mort de Max Jacob. Paris, La Table Ronde, 1982
  • *Jean Hugo: **Une rétrospective*. Arles, Actes Sud, 1995.
  • *Max Jacob,**poète et romancier*. Pau, PUP, 1995
  • Sydney Lévy, The play of the text: Max Jacob’s Le cornet à dés. Wisconsin, The University of Wisconsin Press, 1981