The Story

1928

Le Metamorfosi di Ovidio

In 1928, at the age of 24, Alberto Schira – born in 1904 in Geneva to a family of Italian origin who had moved to the French-speaking part of Switzerland for work – Gallicised his name and founded, in Lausanne, the company Albert Skira- Livres d’art. Its first, very modest office was a little room within the Hôtel de la Cloche. The young Skira engineered an encounter with Pablo Picasso, whom he had persistently courted with a view to making a splash with what would be his first publication. He patiently waited almost three years before, in 1931, the painter handed over his 30 etchings for Les Métamorphoses d’Ovide. Those highly carnal etchings, overflowing with sensuality and dominated by the theme of death, would compose Skira’s first volume: only 145 copies were printed, on fine paper, and issued on 25 October 1931, the day of the artist’s fiftieth birthday. Between Picasso and Skira, a long-lasting friendship would be interwoven with an intense partnership: the Spaniard would inspire, amongst others, Minotaure, the Surrealist magazine that was to revolutionise the horizons of the art journal and those of art itself. In 1948, one of the first books in the contemporary section of the series Les Trésors de la Peinture française, with an essay by Tristan Tzara, was given over to Picasso. Skira and Picasso would continue to meet up, often in the artist’s Paris studio, until 1973, the year in which both of them passed away. 

 
 

Gli anni Trenta

Albert Skira con Pablo Picasso

When Skira requested that he illustrate the poems of Stéphane Mallarmé, Matisse was over 60 years old. The book, illustrated with 29 rarefied etchings, came out in 1932 in an edition of 145 numbered copies. A mainstay of all of Skira’s early publishing endeavours, Matisse contributed to the magazine Minotaure, for which he drew an unmistakably pared-down cover, and designed series as well as artist books. He was also responsible for the 126 plates of the ambitious Florilège des amours de Ronsard, conceived in 1941 but printed seven years later. As it did for Picasso, Skira dedicated one of the first volumes of the contemporary section of the series Les Trésors de la Peinture française to Matisse, with a memorable essay by Louis Aragon entitled “Matisse. Apologie du luxe”.

 
 

1948

Testa di donna - Henri Matisse

With Albert Skira not yet 30 years of age, 1933 saw the appearance of the first issue of Minotaure, on the pages of which the entire Surrealist movement found an outlet for absolutely free expression. Together with the two mentors André Breton and Paul Éluard, contributors included Miró, Giacometti, de Chirico, Magritte, Tanguy, Matta, and Man Ray; Picasso, Matisse, Dalí, Derain and Balthus were the main inspiration behind the magazine. Minotaure was a wide-ranging publication that expressed and interpreted the contemporary intellectual scene, taking in everything from art and psychoanalysis – it was here that Lacan’s earliest essays were published – to literature, music, archaeology, architecture, and photography. In July 1934, Skira issued an edition of 210 copies of Lautréamont’s Les Chants de Maldoror, one of the Surrealists’ favourite books, illustrated with 42 etchings by Salvador Dalí. Albert Skira wanted the Trésors de la Peinture française to be a sort of “library cum museum” bringing together a selection of the main masterpieces of the French school; these large-format volumes were enriched by memorable reproductions that rendered them much more than mere artist books. The debut came in 1937 with Jean-Antoine Watteau and would be followed by around 20 titles covering all of the centuries – from the primitives to Toulouse-Lautrec, Henri Rousseau and Maurice Utrillo. After the brief lifespan of Minotaure (11 issues over the course of 6 years), the intellectual debate continued in the pages of Labyrinthe, the first issue of which appeared in 1944, based on a concept by Alberto Giacometti: to create “a bridge between the artists and intellectuals of today and those before the war” in order to escape from the maze. Labyrinthe was an understated monthly publication, issued in tabloid format and featuring gorgeous black-andwhite illustrations. The editorial committee included such high-calibre names as Paul Valéry and Simone de Beauvoir. In 1948, Skira celebrated its twentieth anniversary with the publication of a small catalogue; the cover was dominated by a female head drawn by Matisse, which would go on to become a sort of logo for the Geneva-based publisher. The introductory essay was penned by Paul Éluard. As the booklet demonstrated, over its first two decades Skira had showcased work by the leading artists, men of letters and thinkers of the Francophone world, consolidating its position as one of the principal players in the field of French arts and culture publishing. Albert Skira had the ability to establish fruitful relationships with prestigious intellectuals, artists and writers, who remained loyal to him as his publishing house grew, constituting a “network” before the term was coined. From Aragon to Tzara, a plethora of the leading lights of twentieth-century French culture had very close links to this Swiss publishing house.

 
 

Gli anni Cinquanta e Sessanta

Albert Skira tra le sue opere

The 1950s and 1960s marked the growth of Skira on the international scene. Publication began of the renowned Grandes Livres, with the plates applied, reproduced and printed at a level of quality hitherto considered unthinkable. The various series being published were well-structured and ambitious, ranging from histories of the great schools of painting (Italian, French, Flemish) to the treasures of the Eastern civilisations, while also casting an eye on the emerging phenomena of the contemporary world, such as the American art scene. Numbering among Skira’s authors were the foremost art historians of the time, from Lionello Venturi to André Chastel and Giulio Carlo Argan, as well as literati and poets such as Louis Aragon, Roland Barthes, and Jacques Prévert. Skira’s distinctive logotype, with its elongated capital letters, had by now become something of an “appellation d’origine contrôlée”: no other publisher on the international scene could rival its output. Skira published under its own brand in all languages – a brand that became synonymous with art books of the highest quality around the world. 

 
 

1973

Skira con Pablo Picasso

1973: Albert Skira died prematurely, in the same year as his friend Picasso. His family, and especially his wife Rosabianca, daughter of Lionello Venturi, endeavoured to keep the business flourishing along the lines set down by the founder, returning to the formulas that had first led to the publishing house’s international success. But the publishing world was undergoing a profound transformation in terms of content, technologies, and distribution. While the Skira brand remained an illustrious one, the operations and, indeed, the ambitions of the publishing house were gradually scaled back. Twenty years on from the death of the founder, the company was bringing out no more than 10 new books a year, still glorying in its legendary catalogue that had resisted the merciless ravages of time.

 
 

1996

La sede di Skira, Palazzo Casati Stampa a Milano

Giorgio Fantoni and Massimo Vitta Zelman acquired from the family first the Skira logo and then the entire company. The holding company remained in Geneva, in tribute to the long-established roots of the publishing house, but the headquarters were transferred to Milan and specifically to the sixteenth- century Palazzo Casati Stampa, where a highly specialised team, led by Stefano Piantini, was based. In just a few years, the new Skira multiplied its output from 10 to 200 new titles per year and returned to publishing and distributing in several languages, thus rediscovering the global outlook that had made it the first truly international art publisher. The scientific committee was comprised of high-ranking academics and cultural luminaries including Federico Zeri, Carlo Bertelli, Vittorio Gregotti, Germano Celant, Emilio Tadini, and Pierluigi Cerri, the latter being responsible for the brand’s new corporate image. Alongside the traditional specialisation in the visual arts, the company began to publish books on architecture and design, archaeology and primitive art, with photography assuming ever-greater importance. The Archives of Modern Art series features the great catalogues raisonnés of the main nineteenth- and twentieth-century artists and have become reference publications for scholars and students, collectors, and the market. Three new essay-based series were launched, including Skira Paperbacks – essential tools for an understanding of the debate on the contemporary art scene. Skira made a grand entry into the field of exhibitions, becoming in short order the leading publisher of catalogues for major Italian and European exhibitions. Since the late 1990s, the publishing activity has been complemented by the high-profile exhibitions that Skira itself has conceived, organised, and staged in partnership with Italian public-sector bodies, dealing with their entire production chain. The publishing house also entered the field of museum services, gaining major concessions and rapidly making a name for itself as one of the key players in the sector. Skira is the main presence in almost all the museums of Milan and Venice but it has also made significant inroads into other cultural hubs such as Padua, Mantua, and Genoa. With their wide range of titles and merchandise, the Skira bookshops set up at exhibitions and museums in Italy have become a favoured haunt of art enthusiasts and those who visit the country to soak up its artistic heritage.;

 
 

2002 - 2012

In 2002, the RCS Group became a shareholder in the company, giving rise to a partnership with the Corriere della Sera daily paper in the collateral products sector. This venture reached its apex with the extraordinary success of the Classici dell’Arte series: the 90 monographs realized by Skira and distributed with the Corriere racked up a total of 20 million copies sold in the newsstands. The publishing house also entered into two international joint ventures: Skira Flammarion in Paris and Skira Rizzoli in New York (with Skira being the main shareholder in both), so carving out an important role for itself in the French and American museum systems. In 2013, following a restructuring of the RCS Group, which sold Flammarion and was preparing to sell off its Italian publishing operations, Massimo Vitta Zelman bought back the stake that he had previously sold to the Group and once again assumed total control of Skira’s shares. Also reacquired was the 100% stake in Skira Flammarion, which changed its name to Éditions Skira Paris.