Category Archives: Art

Interview with Jim Burns

0

Posted on by

Facebook Twitter Email

Go here for my review of Jim Burns’ latest book The Art of Jim Burns: Hyperluminal.

Can you talk us through one of your paintings from concept to finished image – both in terms of the idea and the practical execution. My choice would be Tea From an Empty Cup or Crucible purely because of the stunning characterisation but please choose another if you prefer.

Tea From an Empty Cup

Tea From an Empty Cup

The process varies from painting to painting somewhat. It all depends on a bunch of factors from the outset as supplied by either the commercial client, the private client or, indeed myself – should it be a personal piece – the latter two categories becoming an increasingly large proportion of my output. Both the pieces you’ve chosen fit into the first category – were commissioned by publishers as cover images for books. This of course is the way most of my career panned out for the first 40 years but the weighting has shifted in the last few years more towards private commissions and personal pieces…which usually mean a different approach from the word go.

Tea From an Empty Cup was commissioned recently to cover a collection of stories by Pat Cadigan. The fee was modest – as most book jacket work is these days and as a consequence one is obliged to produce the image digitally as this can be turned around much more quickly…there is little commercial sense in spending weeks and sometimes a month or so slogging away at a painting – the economics of it simply don’t work. Also in the case of this particular job the design of the book jacket itself was highly configured before I even started work on it. Neither did I receive any reading material – which in the past was pretty much standard practice. I was simply given the cover template and asked to produce a feisty-looking female future warrior type in an appropriate SF setting. I have a growing reference library from model shoots I’ve had in the past and the woman in this image is based on one such shot. She (‘Teph’ the water gypsy) modelled for a couple of private commissions a few years back (see Planet of Peril, Days of Gloriana and Children of Forgotten Gods) and and I took the opportunity to take a whole bunch of extra shots whilst I had the opportunity. The initial design was passed in sketch form to the client for approval…which it gained  – and then the image itself was created entirely in Photoshop – utilising some Jupiter and  interior background I’d painted years and years ago for a different project altogether, played around with in Photoshop, the figure dropped into the image and her gear and clothing generally altered to fit the concept. In the ref photo her gun is my old Black and Decker drill..here changed to a futuristic rifle of some sort.

Crucible

Crucible

Crucible was painted a good few years ago for a Nancy Kress novel. This time I had the luxury of being able to read the book and to produce a painting as this was back in the days of ‘good fees’!! In the case of this particular novel the painted ‘moment’ is based pretty precisely on a passage described in the book (the manuscript having been helpfully supplied this time). The characters are all there to be found in the book and are based on a bunch of found, manipulated reference plus some material I shot myself. I have become quite adept at performing the old ‘Frankenstein act’ on found material…although these days I much prefer and almost always paint the main characters from my own photo sessions. Again there was a ‘sketch for approval’ stage – and the painting then, in a fairly ‘verbatim’ way turns that sketch into an acrylic painting. Acrylics have been my paint of choice for most of my career – although I’m currently considering getting back to oils..the medium I used up until the early 1980s. The painting in this case would have been painted on to a piece of previously gessoed board, this sanded to smooth it off but not so smooth that no ‘tooth’ was left. The process of painting for me, back then involved both the use of brushes and, of course the airbrush – which I’ve always found to be a hugely useful tool in my armoury. Finally I would have varnished the piece – although for varnish read ‘medium’ – the satin, matte or Gloss mediums for mixing with the paint working perfectly well as a good flat final varnish-like coat..and also allowing for further work on top should it be necessary.

The methods I use today on my own work and private commissions is diverting away somewhat from the methodology I’ve outlined above.

The Majipoor Chronicles

The Majipoor Chronicles

You seem equally at ease with machines, humans and aliens. Which do you prefer to paint/draw and why? What are the challenges of each?

I think I can honestly say that these days I like each equally! It wasn’t always the case. When I was much younger…before I ever became a ‘pro’ – it was the machinery I liked. The Foss approach! When I got my first commissions back in 1972 most of them were for historical romance covers and similar stuff. It was the ‘keep the wolf from the door’ period and work was work. By definition these covers almost always required human characters as their main element – so I gradually improved my figure work capabilities…and then when I started to get a lot more SF work the characters sort of crept into them too! And clients I think started to expect them to feature…and I found that nice niche where the human element always featured largely in my work.

Tertiary Node

Tertiary Node

I don’t find machinery a challenge as such…but I do like to push myself to suggest in the lines of a particular spacecraft for example…the sense of its designers having different species mind-sets – different aesthetics…forms born of alien propulsion systems etc. I like my vessels to look ‘designed’ within whatever bizarre parameters have been thrown up by the story or by my own imagination. I never want this stuff to be easy – that way lies laziness.

Aliens are always fun to do! Much the same ideas are brought to bear as with the machinery. Alien should look alien to my mind. I absolutely hate the idea – mostly here I blame Star Trek and its various spinoffs…of aliens being humans with funny looking foreheads.

You have a very distinctive use of colour – limited palette and high contrast. Can you tell us a little about how and why you choose your colour schemes and design your compositions?

I think I’ve grown towards the idea of the limited palette more and more as time has gone by. Gradually it seemed to me to be a lazy and rather unsophisticated approach to just chuck the entire spectrum of colour at a painting. In recent times I’ve studied the old, old Renaissance technique – that of the old masters – of ‘grisaille’, ‘brunaille’ and in particular ‘verdaille’. I employ it for slightly different reasons than they did but I like the potential richness it can bring through the use of transparent colour glazes laid over a monochromatic underpainting. The three terms reflect in order, grey, brown and green underpaintings…most of the tonal values – the light and the dark created at this time prior to the glazing. This speeds up the process (theoretically!) and also I’m able to fall back on my old airbrush skills for the glazing element…and of course I’m using acrylics for this which would not have been the case in the Renaissance. High contrast is not a deliberate thing with me…it just happens to turn out that way! I shall be endeavouring more and more to inhabit the middle tonal zones…use less Paynes Grey for a start!

Courtship Rite

Courtship Rite

Compositions for book jacket work were often very highly constrained by the format. Depending on whether a piece was a wraparound or front cover only , the main element would either tend to occupy the lower right corner (wraparound) or the bottom two thirds (front cover). Lettering and blurb considerations dictated this. In my own work I think I have a fairly good eye for balanced yet unusual compositions. I have no formal training for anything to do with technique or composition (that was art college for you back in the late 60s/early 70s…and I don’t think it’s any better now!)

His Conquering Sword600

His Conquering Sword

I think I see a strong Pre-Raphaelite influence in your own paintings (especially from artists like Edward Burne-Jones, Alma-Tadema and Dante Gabriel Rossetti). The Pre-Raphaelites were among the first of the manifesto artists. If you were to write an artists’ manifesto/SF artists’ call to arms what would it say? What would you call your movement?

Hmmm …people will start labelling me as ‘pretentious’ if I bite this bullet! What you have to remember is that I came at this business from a very distinctly commercial art perspective. I was never a man driven by artistic inner demons or some high falutin’, soul-searching, personally-driven motive. I had some skills as a painter, learned a few techniques and tricks as I went along, this much helped by a good imagination – and for a long time I was content to be simply that – an illustrator of other peoples’ words for a commercial purpose. Making a living with a young family to feed etc…And at no point did I ever regard illustration as some inferior art form. I always believed the best of it is as being as interesting and accomplished as art created for different purposes. It’s inevitably connected – but the notion of an ‘Illustrators’ manifesto’ is something that has never ever crossed my mind!

A Quantum Murder

A Quantum Murder

However, as time has gone by and illustration..well at least book jacket art within the genres of the fantastical has become more and more catered for by digital art..indeed some of us have moved sometimes reluctantly, sometimes enthusiastically into territory that one would have to admit aligns itself more with the the accepted baggage of the fine art world…namely gallery representation, private commissions and the time for our own creative juices to start flowing unencumbered by commercial considerations. And you’ll find that for those of us who like to paint our ‘fantastical’ subject matter in the traditional way…then the period dominated by the Pre-Raphaelites and various associated groupings of artists – mostly English and European – still strikes a chord.

So a visit to something like Illuxcon…’The Symposium of Imaginative Realism’ (yes…we are ‘Imaginative Realists now!) will demonstrate that those elements of the Pre-Raphaelite Manifesto interested in naturalistic detail, intense colour and busy composition, the natural world and Romanticism…those are still strong themes that thread through our work. Of course it has a modern take in terms of subject matter..although having said that I personally am becoming more and more drawn to mythological subject matter (perhaps with a contemporary twist!) and also Romantic poetry..in fact a piece I’m about to start on is based on a Keats poem – ‘Isabella, or the Pot of Basil’- frequently the subject of 19th century art…but  I want to give it a darker twist than the usually somewhat bland approach of yesteryear. The poem is after all pretty dark. My version will be called ‘Poor Lorenzo’ (probably) and instead of a wan English lass draped miserably over the pot of basil – will feature a beauteous dark haired Florentine girl caressing the semi-putrescent head of Lorenzo and maybe an empty pot, strewn basil and earth etc. It’s all there in the poem. On holiday last year in Symi I spied a gorgeous half Greek/half Mexican girl who I thought …there’s my Isabella!!..and I should hastily add, at my wife’s prompting..approached her. And got the reference material I needed.

colonel Kylling600

Colonel Kylling

The term isn’t mine – but more and more it’s becoming associated with the loose ‘fellowship’ I think I identify in the artists who gather at Illuxcon…so maybe ’The Fellowship of Imaginative Realists’ (if you insist!!) might do? Or even more pretentiously ’The Fellowship of the Fantastical’?

If you had the opportunity of working in the school of any artist from history, who would it be and why?

Oh gosh – what hard questions!!! I can’t think of a sensible serious answer to this!!! Of course it would be great to associate with those Pre-Raphaelite guys..in part because one would also be knocking around with a whole bunch of other artists associated with them and whose work I often find more interesting. Artists like Collier, Godward, Dicksee, Waterhouse and photographers like Julia Margaret Cameron. One could learn a lot! But there’s no getting away from the often kitschy, corny, sentimental, morbid, gutless aspects of some of the art of that time. I’d love to find a way to reinterpret some of their themes but in contemporary, darker ways and it’s that darker approach I find difficult. I know I have it in me – that darker streak! – but I find it hard to express it adequately in paint.

Artificial Things

Artificial Things

So let’s say I’m taking 6 months out to go and stand at the shoulder of a dead painter here…I wouldn’t go very far back..in fact I would go to the Polish studio of Zdzisław Beksiński the ‘Fantastic Realist’ who died in 2005 (horribly murdered actually!). He was apparently a man of generally quiet demeanour, shy but amusing and funny, liked company and good music both classical and rock and always worked with mostly classical stuff playing in the background…sounds like my kind of a man…but who successfully managed to trawl the darkest depths of some zone of his imagination somehow – even though the absolutely horrifying results…brilliantly horrifying results! – in no way reflected the apparently pleasant demeanour of the man himself. I would dearly love to find out if there’s a secret to finding this place within myself!!

What is wrong with contemporary art? Which contemporary artist/movement do you admire? Would you consider yourself to be a Stuckist?

Again – I really can’t feel myself to be strongly connected at all with the world of ‘Contemporary Art’. I’m assuming you are mostly referring to the Brit-Art style of self-indulgent, self-obsessed, largely meaningless (to my mind!), conceptual stuff in which the concepts themselves are usually trite and essentially meaningless?? And change hands for millions??

The Iceni Girl

The Iceni Girl

Well – one can get mired in this messy quicksand very quickly and I’ve tended more recently to acknowledge that this stuff exists, that it only has in common with what I and others like me create, one thing..namely the word ‘art’…that it has every right to exist – and I would always say of any artist trying to make a living in whatever style they choose..’good luck to them’ (although I rather resent the millions they get!!)..But it’s a world unto itself. Self-absorbed, ego-driven, contemptuous of ‘irrelevant’ traditional values, deliberately and contemptuously obscurantist..’If you don’t get it that’s your problem and I don’t need to explain it to you’ (usually meaning that the concept has either no meaning or that the meaning is so shallow and pointless that it is embarrassing to even attempt to define it). Its sense of superiority and entitlement does sicken me I have to say…and the sub-literate claptrap one sometimes has to listen to from its practitioners and adherents is particularly annoying because on the whole I find art that’s informed by intelligence more interesting. And really that’s the thing with me. I simply find contemporary art mind numbingly boring. It rejects technique in favour of trite conceptualisation…I can’t bear to look at most of it. And eventually it will vanish up its own vacuous fundament and – I suspect – something resembling a new Representationalism will find its way back into favour. A return to drawing and painting …indeed there are signs that this happening.

No I’m not a Stuckist per se!! I think there’s room for everything. The idea of demonstrations and the politicising of creativity strikes me as dumb. But I can sympathise with its ideals. And importantly…if you look at a lot of what gets labelled as Stuckist Art…well much of it is really, really horrible!!! A LOT of very bad painters subscribe to Stuckism. No – I’ll happily just keep ploughing my own little furrow and people can compare or associate me with whoever they like! I know so many artists who get constantly pissed off and angry at ‘other art’ – particularly when the dosh is all heading off in that direction! I don’t get angry about any of this. I suppose the words are ‘bored’ and ‘bemused’.

Seasons of Plenty

Seasons of Plenty

Finally – what would your advice to a young artist be?

Think twice!! No – that’s trite…but laced with a streak of common sense maybe!! It’s harder now than it was when I was starting out. The word ‘artist’ is somewhat loaded. I’ve always thought of myself primarily as an ‘illustrator’…and a commercial illustrator at that. And there is no question that the commercial arena…in particular ‘the worlds of the fantastical’ is populated hugely these days…mostly I think… by practitioners of digital illustration. Hundreds…thousands of them!! The competition is incredible and I suspect that the ‘shelf life’ of artists working in this way is limited. Those who prefer to work in paint will find it harder to make a living these days as fees are tiny in comparison to a decade or two ago…so making a living at this game is extremely precarious. I feel it’s presumptuous of me to offer advice really. It’s a different world from 1972 when I started out. Everything then was paint..and in the U.K. and U.S. I would guess that the total number of artists/illustrators making a living out of it back then was a very few dozen at most. (I’m talking specifically about SF art on book jackets here). I was lucky to be counted amongst their number and have been able to build a career and a reputation of sorts over 40 odd years. I don’t see how that state of affairs can exist nowadays. At least not in the world of cover artists.

Jim Burns

Jim Burns

The one bit of advice I don’t feel unsure about is that if you are enjoying exploring your creativity in pencil and paint…then never stop pursuing it as it will provide a dimension to your life that is not open to everyone. To be creative in any way is an enormously rewarding gift…but don’t expect it to necessarily pay the bills! Always have a Plan B! But go on drawing drawing drawing!!!

Thank you very much for taking the time to answer my questions!

Jim Burns – Hyperluminal

3

Posted on by

Facebook Twitter Email

Hyperluminal coverFor me the golden age of science fiction and fantasy paperback illustration in the UK spanned the 70s and 80s. While 60s covers often favoured a minimalist Pop/Art approach the following decade saw an explosion of wildly imaginative and entrancing art, dominated by a handful of painters, each with a very distinctive style. New English Library’s magazine Science Fiction Monthly (1974) provided poster-sized copies to stick on the bedroom wall and although it started off mainly as a promotional tool for their own catalogue they were happy to include works by artists working with other publishers, such as Chris Foss (Panther) and Patrick Woodroffe (Corgi). While US trade paperback art often looked repetitive and clunkily unimaginative, the UK seemed to be enjoying a renaissance in imaginative art.

Of all the artists to emerge from this era, Jim Burns stood out in my mind as an artist who was equally at ease with the human (or not so human) figure and the titanic and beautifully seductive imaginary technology of the distant future. Even the most famous occasionally struggled with people. Bruce Pennington’s inhabitants of his surreal futures could look sketchy and ill-proportioned. If David Hardy and Chris Foss added people to their paintings they were usually tiny specs dwarfed by planetscapes or massive starships. Jim Burns, on the other hand, filled his canvases with a stunning range of meticulously realised characters, brought squarely into the foreground and imbued with such life and personality you felt you could engage them in conversation.

Slant600

Slant

The Art of Jim Burns: Hyperluminal (Titan Books, 2014) is a gorgeously produced retrospective look at Jim Burns’ work from the 1970s to the present day. Still very active with commercial and private commissions, his paintings continue to hook the viewer into detailed and precisely composed alternate realities, usually dominated by one or more characters. Above all his work excels in capturing both a moment and a personality, and in this respect he is closest, in my mind, to the Pre-Raphaelite painters John Everett Millais and Edward Burne-Jones. There are three points of contact that I can see – composition and palette, the figure work itself and the idea of the tableau-vivant where a dramatic emotional moment is frozen in time.

homuncularium

Homuncularium – 2010

I’ve been lucky enough to secure an interview with Jim as a companion piece to this post, and I don’t want to pre-empt any of his comments, which are far more illuminating than mine. However looking through Hyperluminal I see a constant tendency towards a limited palette and high contrast colours. For example blue/gold in Homuncularium (2010) or his cover for Greg Bear’s Slant (1998). As with the Pre-Raphaelites this has the effect of giving the artwork an intensely decorative look, which makes the figure work and characterisation even more striking. Jim Burns’ people (and elves and aliens) are about as far away from the gormless cookie-cutter people inhabiting the paintings of (say) the Brothers Hilderbrandt. Dramatic characterisation in SF and Fantasy art can often end up looking like comic-book caricature, a fault that plagued even such talented artists as Kelly Freas. Jim Burns’ cast in any painting are instantly living grown-ups believable both as people (or creatures) and in whatever baroque or hyper-realistic future they find themselves in. In the Victorian theatre the tableau-vivant occurred at points of high drama when the whole cast would freeze into the living picture. There’s something about Jim Burns’ paintings that captures this unusual combination of intense emotion/action and stillness. Two good examples of this are Ancient Light (1988) and one of my own favourites – Crucible (2003) (see the interview where Jim talks about Crucible in detail).

Ancient Light600

Ancient Light

At a time when so much SF/fantasy paperback cover art smacks of derivative Photoshop clones of computer game box art (I’m getting tired of the endless copies of Assassin’s Creed), The Art of Jim Burns: Hyperluminal reminds us that, in the hands of someone who has clearly dedicated their entire professional life to perfecting a particular kind of vision and approach, the genre is as capable of producing great visual art as much as literature. It’s interesting that his work appears to channel so much Pre-Raphaelite sensibility as it was in that era when the distinction between Fine Art and Commercial Illustration was far more blurred than now. Great painters illustrated fantasy tales of King Arthur, Boccaccio and Shakespeare and the works they displayed at the Royal Academy were printed in the equivalent of coffee-table books for Victorian and Edwardian families to enjoy at home. In an age when art is dominated by sneering conceptualism – as much in hock to money as the most commercial art – Jim Burns’ paintings show that a meticulous attention to palette, composition and figure work can produce art of real beauty that is decorative and compelling as well as illustrative.

Jim Burns’ website is here where you can see some of his latest work and order prints.

Kate Bush: Before the Dawn.

13

Posted on by

Facebook Twitter Email
Before the Dawn Sunset

Kate Bush with her son Bertie as the artist in A Sky of Honey

Spoiler and bad language alert: If you are planning on seeing the concert and you don’t want any of it revealed then read no further.  Also Kate Bush swears like a trooper.

I planned on writing this straight after seeing the concert but it’s taken me about five days for my thoughts to marshal themselves into any form of coherent sense. There was a point in the evening where I realised I’d paid a couple of hundred pounds to watch a 56-year old woman whirl around in circles on a stage doing bird impersonations – and that it was one of the best things I’d ever experienced in my life and well worth every penny. I’m not going to spend the next few paragraphs gushing about how brilliant the entire performance was – plenty of other people have done a better job and I realise not everyone reading this is a dyed in the wool addict like myself. Even Kate Bush herself clearly still doesn’t understand the effect she has on people. The opening line of the program explains that one of the reasons she wanted to go on stage was ‘to have contact with the audience that still liked my work’ (my italics) as if her fan base was about the same size as the two dozen losers who turn up to see Spinal Tap play second fiddle to a puppet show, and not the 80,000 who bought her tickets within the first 15 minutes of them going on sale.

Before_the_Dawn_birds

This was more or less the part where she started making bird noises.

A good point to start is probably comparing it to her concert The Tour of Life 35 years ago, which I saw at the Manchester Apollo. At that time she had only two albums to her name, The Kick Inside and Lionheart so the two-hour set saw her go through her entire catalogue. She sang every song as a unique piece, changing costume for most, accompanied by a couple of dancers and the illusionist Simon Drake. As with Before the Dawn it was designed as a theatre piece in three acts, and everyone was supposed to sit down instead of leap out of their seats and pogo in the mosh pit like they did at all the other concerts. Kate Bush herself was 21 and by her own admission terrified, and didn’t interact with the audience at all, something which Charles Shaar Murray picked up in his damning review in the New Musical Express (his was a lone voice amid universal praise but then the resolutely pro-punk NME was a pretentiously grim slog at the time).

kate-bush-before-the-dawn

“You can’t fucking have bigger fucking waves!” – Kate Bush, 2014

In Before the Dawn she happily chatted with the audience, which on occasion was a bit surreal because she has a charmingly sweet, occasionally girly, voice, which contrasted alarmingly with (for example) scenes in which a puppet apparently batters a bird to death with a rock or she got chased round the set by fish skeletons. The two programs also make for an interesting contrast. The Tour of Life had very little in it and smacks of winsome theatre school artiness in its alternating poetry and stream of consciousness description of scampering through ‘rush-hour London, with … dancing clothes under my arm’. Before the Dawn, goes into fascinating detail about the concept, planning and execution of the two main dramatic pieces based on the The Ninth Wave sequence from the Hounds of Love album and A Sky of Honey from Aerial. It’s a wonderfully down to earth and often funny account of the herculean effort and massive attention to detail that made the evening such an incredible experience. In this prissy age I’d forgotten how sweary we all used to be in the 70s. Kate Bush clearly hasn’t (though to be fair she’d been submerged in a tank for 6 hours by this time and was suffering from mild hypothermia):

“You can’t have bigger fucking waves.” I said. “They go all over the fucking live vocal and they sound like a fucking bathroom, not the fucking ocean!”

“Well it doesn’t look right we need bigger waves.”

“You can’t fucking have bigger fucking waves!”

PX*7047283

It came as shock to see just how scary Kate Bush’s vision can be.

The concert was divided into three parts. For the first twenty minutes or so she sang half a dozen songs from Hounds of LoveThe Red Shoes and Aerial. It’s clear she’s put a dividing line between the first four albums, and the rest, and that she sees the core of her musical development in longer concept pieces from The Ninth Wave onwards – so no Wuthering Heights or Babooshka. To be honest if she’d just carried on working her way through a set at the front of the stage with the band behind her it still would have been a stunning concert, but then she switched into the first of the two theatrical pieces and the genius knob went all the way up to eleven. The Ninth Wave is a thirty minute journey through the mind of a woman floating in the sea after falling overboard, oscillating between fear, desperate loneliness, hope and finally a glorious reaffirmation of life. The piece combined film, TV, music, dance, lighting, creepy sets and costumes and a big helicopter-style machine that lowered over the audience.

Before_the_Dawn_very_scary_fish

Kate Bush carried off by terrifying fish skeletons

 

The second piece, after the interval, was taken from Aerial. It’s less of a narrative and more a linked mood-piece centred around images of a sunset, birdsong and painting. This part of the staging used the motif of a painter’s dummy come to life to wander through the scenes evoked by the songs. This is when it struck me that Kate Bush’s vision is often a lot more sinister than I’d previously thought. Like the best fairy tales her music, and the visions she constructs around them, have a very dark side that on occasion took me by surprise. I’d always listened to A Sky of Honey (one of my favourites) as a beautiful elegiac sequence evoking long summer evenings and love. As the puppet wandered around the stage, and birds flew across the projection screen, it constantly felt as if the whole piece teetered on the edge of a nightmare (it takes a lot to make an enormous slow motion blue tit look threatening). The fact that the band wore bird skulls for this part didn’t lighten the mood. In fact the whole concert peeled away layers from the songs so that even though I know them all inside out and backwards, I now look at most of them in a new light.

Kate Bush

It was clear from the very beginning that Kate Bush was having huge fun throughout the entire three hours. When she sang the penultimate song, the achingly beautiful  Among Angels from 50 Words for Snow, her voice was just as rich and pitch-perfect as at the beginning. As someone said she’s set the bar impossibly high now and shown everybody else up big time. Interestingly I saw the gig the same week U2 dumped their tired going-through-the-motions stadium-rock on the world’s iPhones and the contrast was just embarrassing.

So it was as expected – certifiably insane and meticulously beautiful. Five days later I’ve still got all her songs running on an eternal loop through my head in that voice, to the point where I can’t listen to anything other artist right now because she drowns them all out.

Sin City 2: A Dame to Kill For

1

Posted on by

Facebook Twitter Email

posterLast night I went to a Sin City double feature where I watched the original followed by the sequel in 3D. Very entertaining and well made, the 3d enhances the unique visual style of the original and yet, and yet… My biggest feeling after seeing the movies, and 300 as well (I haven’t seen 300: Rise of an Empire, but can’t wait after reading this wonderful review) is that of colossally wasted opportunities. Brilliant visuals and great actors are completely thrown away on shallow, ugly-minded content.

The Sin City movies are based on the comics by Frank Miller, a series of hard-boiled cinema-noir tales rendered in striking monochrome. Ground-breaking when they first came out, they followed the interwoven stories of a set of fantastically realised characters including Marv the lunky thug who Miller described as ‘Conan in a trenchcoat’ (Mickey Rourke in the movies), the tormented con trying to go straight Dwight McCarthy (Clive Owen in Sin City, Josh Brolin in Sin City 2) and exotic dancer  Nancy Callahan (based on screen time, played largely by Jessica Alba’s bum in both movies). The films cleverly maintain the intricacies of the comics by weaving together a handful of linked tales in each. Of all the main characters the one you end up gunning for the most is Marv, largely because he’s refreshingly untainted by the self-absorbed wee-small-hours-in-the-morning soul-searching of everyone else and is often downright funny – humour or any sense of irony is in woefully short supply in Frank Miller’s movies.

Marv - played by Mickey Rourke

Marv – played by Mickey Rourke

The most impressive thing about the films is the visual look and feel. Partly taken from the comics themselves, partly channelling the hard-boiled detective films of the 1940s with a massive dose of German Expressionism thrown in, almost every shot is fantastically composed and lit in dramatic monochrome. As a stroke of genius, the comic’s use of spot colour is replicated – a woman’s red dress, eyes glowing green etc. Rendering blood in white most of the time or, in one case, bright yellow, allows for lots of gore without the screen being filled incessantly with red (though in the second film blood reverts to its natural colour more often than not). Clever little touches include rendering props in white outline to add to the comic-book feel. This is particularly well done with glasses, dehumanising the characters at the point when their passions turn them into (usually) raging killing machines. The films back to back add up to a triumph of design and composition that still takes your breath away even after four hours and both films. Little Miho’s attack on the Roark Mansion at the end of Sin City 2 is particularly impressive, even in its silliest moments.

Little Miho - played by Jamie Chung

Little Miho – played by Jamie Chung

The problem with the Sin City movies, and 300, lies in the script. Part of the issue is that a certain type of comic dialogue doesn’t translate into film. Miller’s writing is an odd mix of film-noir internal monologue and the kind of portentous exchanges that used to dog Marvel Comics in the 1970s, where characters just made grandiose pronouncements at each other, instead of having conversations (“Now you two will be next to freeze and burn in the grip of Equinox the Thermodynamic Man!”). As every tale is ultimately one of vengeance against an utter, unredeemable villain set in the run-down foulness of Sin City’s slums then all the internal monologues follow the same pattern – a) Struggling to keep a grip/go straight, b) Her beauty hooked me in c) They beat me up d) We killed everyone in a murderous yet satisfying rage – rinse and repeat. Compared to the wit and intelligence of Howard Hawk’s The Big Sleep or The Maltese Falcon, whose wise-cracking scripts the movies are clearly referencing, this is like being hit over the head repeatedly with the sledgehammer used on Marv during one interrogation scene. On top of this the relentless violence and misogyny are extremely wearing. There’s been an interesting debate going on over here in Jane Dougherty’s blog about what makes a true ‘kick-ass heroine’. In Sin City it’s clear – prostitutes in thongs and fishnets with their tits hanging out and a machine gun in each hand. It’s essentially Chicks with Guns (I refuse to add a link, you can look it up yourself) meets the South Park episode Major Boobage – a 14-year old boy’s idea of what a ‘strong woman’ should be.

Dwight - played by Josh Brolin

Enough has been written on Frank Miller’s politics so I won’t re-tread old ground here. 300 nailed his beliefs to the mast in lurid primary colours when it recast the brutal and cruel slave-based Spartan state as champions  of some warped Tea-Party view of the American Constitution, as did his comments on the Occupy Movement. His comics are clearly capable of ground-breaking design and intelligence, yet none of that comes through in the films which end up being sub-Tarantino grindcore without any humour or wit. What I’d really like to see, for example, is the same stunning 300 bravura style being applied to the Oresteia of Aeschylus – that would be something worth seeing – or a Sin City with a script that captured all the smartness and sophistication of a Bogart/Bacall movie. At the moment all we seem to have is a tedious parade of boobs, bums and blood narrated by a crowd of self-absorbed bores. Except Marv. Marv is cool – he should have his own TV series.

Soviet Space Art

2

Posted on by

Facebook Twitter Email
Our triumph in Space is a hymn to the Soviet nation!

Our triumph in Space is a hymn to the Soviet nation!

Last week I was working in Russia. I attended a conference in Tver, halfway between Moscow and St Petersburg where I was set on fire. I was also asked to be one of the judges for a final graduation film for one of the students at the All Russian Cinematography University (VGIK for short). As a thank-you present I received a set of 25 posters from the Soviet space race, mostly dated from the early 1960s. Funnily enough on the plane there and back I watched the movie Gagarin: First in Space, a Russian biopic of the first spaceman released in 2013. It’s a fascinating yet oddly unsatisfying movie, largely because its an unashamedly hagiographic portrait of the man. Others have commented that it feels like a Soviet Realist propaganda film of the era, where the bold Cosmonauts can do no wrong in their dedication to the cause. Gagarin, who in real life was clearly a complex man frustrated by the fact he wasn’t allowed anywhere near a rocket after his one flight, comes across as so too good to be true you want to punch him. It’s not The Right Stuff, and lacks all that movie’s acerbic portrayal of inter-astronaut rivalry, political shenanigans and down-right ludicrous training scenes (which it clearly tries to copy). It also suffers from Realistic Space Movie syndrome, whereby crises tend to be involve people shouting things like ‘There’s no signal from KP-3′ at which point everyone goes white as a sheet and runs round panicking and pointing at ticker tapes until someone says, ‘There is a signal from KP-3′, everyone breaks down into tears of relief and the audience go ‘Huh?’.

In the name of peace and progress!

In the name of peace and progress!

Having said that, overall it’s a great slice of Soviet space history with some very cool effects showing the Vostok I capsule whizzing over the earth. It also shows two things that were never mentioned at the time. Firstly Gagarin’s capsule didn’t separate properly before re-entry and they had to rely on atmospheric friction burning off the back half of module before the whole assembly destabilised. Secondly Gagarin ejected from the capsule before it hit the ground. This was planned all along but hushed up because for the flight to be recognised as a proper space flight the astronaut was supposed to accompany the vehicle from point of take off to point of landing.

Anyway – film aside, the posters, produced in the set Space Will Be Ours! by Kontakt Publishers of  Moscow are a wonderful record of the optimism and enthusiasm of the space age seen from the Soviet perspective. I’ve chosen my favourites and here they are for you to enjoy:

 

Soviet Art017medium

Soviet citizen be proud! The way to the distant stars has been discovered!

Soviet Art004Medium

Long live the Soviet people – the space pioneers!

Soviet Art012medium

Long live the first woman cosmonaut!

Soviet Art020medium

We are born to make dreams come true!

Soviet Art024medium

We are creative, friendly and clever. We’re making Space peaceful forever!

Soviet Art019medium

Let’s conquer Space!

Soviet Art014medium

Long live the first cosmonaut, Yu. A. Gagarin!

Soviet Art013medium

For the glory of Communism!

Soviet Art011medium

Long live Soviet science! Long live the Soviet man – the first cosmonaut!

Soviet Art008Medium

Space is going to serve the people!

Soviet Art002Medium

The distance to the furthest planet is not that far!

Soviet Art001Medium

We’ll pave the way to distant worlds, and solve the mysteries of the Universe!

 

More Grotesque – the world of Bosch and Bruegel

1

Posted on by

Facebook Twitter Email

 

Good, spiritual angels battle fallen angels that look like the animated contents of someone's larder.

The Fall of the Rebel Angels by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, complete with typically grotesque devils.

This is the second post in a short series about the Grotesque, that sub-genre of Horror and Fantasy that’s characterised by physical distortion, dream imagery and the ordinary made monstrous. In this article I’m going to talk about the Grotesque during the Renaissance, specifically in the works of artists like Hieronymous Bosch and Pieter Bruegel the Elder. The history of the Grotesque is really odd because during this early period it was positive, whereas in the 19th and 20th century, in the hands of writers like Dickens and Kafka, and artists like Goya, it became relentlessly negative, dark and horrific. So why the change, and how can the Grotesque, which we associate with revulsion, be seen as the imagery of fun and playfulness?

Part of the problem is one of definition, and the difficulties of imposing modern ideas on the past. Language changes for a start, in Jane Austen’s day nice meant precise, rather than the modern meaning of blandly pleasant. Similarly grotesque has shifted in meaning, from a reference to amorphous decorative arts to the ugly and distorted. Secondly people often make simple value judgements, calling things grotesque because they don’t understand what they’re looking at. In the past grotesque was a lazy response to things that didn’t fit in with Western ideas of art and beauty. Nazi art critic Robert Scholz  typically referred to Modern Art as degenerate and ‘grotesque’.

Waiting for The Who to come on. Woodstock 1560 in Hieronymous Bosch's The Garden of Earthly Delights.

Waiting for The Who to come on. Woodstock 1560 in Hieronymous Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights.

We run up against this problem time and time again with the paintings of the 15th century Dutch artist Hieronymous Bosch, who was ‘rediscovered’ in the 1960s and 70s after being largely dismissed as a crude oik compared to contemporaries like Botticelli. In the Psychedelia age, swimming in LSD and suffused with ideas poached from Freud, Bosch’s paintings seemed the work of a visionary genius who’d somehow tapped directly into the world of dreams, especially his famous triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights, painted between 1490 and 1510. The middle panel, in which naked hedonists frolic on piles of enormous fruit and crawl in and out of strange alchemical vessels, is Woodstock as it Should Have Been, while the famous hell scene on the right (with its Portrait of the Artist as Weird Boat-Shoed Tree Trunk Thing) is the ultimate Bad Trip. Again, this is imposing modern Freudian theories on the past, twisting the original to fit a modern template of Nightmares from the Id instead of trying to put the artwork into its historical context.

Symbolism incomprehensible to us but probably as clear as a bell to the Brotherhood of Our Lady of 's Hertogenbosch

Symbolism incomprehensible to us but probably as clear as a bell to the Brotherhood of Our Lady of ‘s Hertogenbosch

Bosch’s imagery still has plenty of people scratching their heads because he was drawing on images and symbols from Dutch proverbs, Renaissance alchemy and the ideas of the mystical sect he belonged to, which had its own esoteric symbolism. We might look at a fish devil with an iron cauldron hat eating sinners and then pooing them out of a glass bottom, and wonder what this guy was on. Members of the Brotherhood of Our Lady in ’s-Hertogenbosch (the town where Bosch lived and worked) probably nodded sagely because they got the references and appreciated the moral lesson behind the image. Bosch’s paintings were also part of a wider, popular response to an increasingly ossified and corrupt Church of Rome and this is where the link between the Grotesque and the Carnival in Renaissance culture appears.

In the late Medieval and early Renaissance world established Christianity was a pretty unforgiving, ascetic and heavy-handed political tool run by a Church more or less in cahoots with the State. For the peasant it was all about putting up with misery and knowing your place in the Great Chain of Being (God and the angels at the top, King and Nobles in the middle, then you at the bottom, somewhere between Rats and Turds). The spiritual man denied the flesh and sought to achieve grace through a purity of soul and heart. The loutish villein wallowed in filth, understandably obsessed with the sinful cravings of the body – such as hunger, thirst and lust. Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s delightful painting The Land of Cockayne shows the peasant idea of heaven – a place of endless food and booze where cooked chickens run round in easy reach and one poor guy has passed out, spoon in hand, after eating through a hill made of pudding. So the lower orders fixated on everything below the navel, while the Church and the Spiritual focussed on everything above. For most of the year the aristocratic Head ruled the peasant Stomach, Privates and Bum, except on the day of Carnival.

The Land of Cokayne by Pieter Bruegel the Elder

The tradition of Carnival that Bosch and Bruegel knew stemmed from the Roman Saturnalia. Part of the festivities involved the inversion of the natural order. For one day the roles of slave and master were reversed (to a degree) and a King of Fools elected. This later turned into the festivals before Lent, where everyone feasted before giving up chocolate or the medieval equivalent in the run-up to Easter. For a brief period of time the world was turned upside down, and all the gross physicality of peasant life was celebrated at the expense of the ascetic. The glorification of eating, drinking, fornicating and passing out on the toilet was an 24-hour raspberry aimed at the Church, who were reasonably happy to tolerate a brief orgy of vice because it allowed people to let off steam before the chains went back on. Bruegel’s painting The Fight Between Carnival and Lent (1559) sums this up perfectly. At the bottom of a panorama of village life filled with people playing, eating and boozing two figures are having a joust. The guy on the right, gaunt and miserable with a bucket on his head, represents the Pope armed with what looks like a flagellant’s bat (for a bit of flesh-mortifying). His opponent, fat and jolly, rides a wine barrel, has a pie for a helmet, is armed with a BBQ skewer and has an eye-watering cod piece.

Detail from the Fight Between Carnival and Lent by Pieter Bruegel the Elder

Detail from the Fight Between Carnival and Lent by Pieter Bruegel the Elder

So in this context the Grotesque, with it association with exaggerated bodily functions, the destruction of the natural order and pagan amorphism, is an exuberant (albeit short lived) revolt against the asceticism of the Church and all its self-controlled pieties. Medieval religion would keep us all neatly compartmentalised in a chilling framework in which the soul and spirit triumphed over our nethers. Bosch and Breugel’s grotesque and funny depictions of daily life were part of a resistance to this grim world-view rooted in, and valorising, all those aspects of popular peasant life that the Bishops sneered at.

A reasonably restrained illustration by Gustave Doré from Gargantua and PantagruelThe Carnival Grotesque of Bosch and Breugel reached its apotheosis with the publication of Françoise Rabelais’s book Gargantua and Pantagruel, a five-book epic tale of absurd gluttony, excess and toilet humour first published (and then banned) in the early 16th century. Despite (or perhaps because) he was a monk Rabelais turned the crude nonsense knob all the way up to eleven. Here’s a representative quote:

The occasion and manner how Gargamelle was brought to bed, and delivered of her child, was thus: and, if you do not believe it, I wish your bum-gut fall out and make an escapade. Her bum-gut, indeed, or fundament escaped her in an afternoon, on the third day of February, with having eaten at dinner too many godebillios.

And on it goes, and on and on, like a not very funny edition of the UK comic Viz. After reading the first joke once it soon gets unbelievably repetitive – with endless grotesque absurdities liberally spattered in manure, vomit and fart humour. As a great work of humanist literature it’s perhaps not on a par with, say, Don Quixote, but it’s a perfect example of the Carnival Grotesque, where the earthy peasant world gets a brief chance to laugh in the face of sour-mouthed spiritualism, and fling a few choice turds at the vestments.

In the next article in the series I’ll have a go at explaining why this exuberant and comical grotesque culture switched into a far darker genre of madness, nightmares and monsters as the centuries progressed. In the meantime if you want to find out more about the Carnival Grotesque the definitive book on the subject is Mikhail Bakhtin’s brilliant study Rabelais and His World.

 

Patrick Woodroffe

2

Posted on by

Facebook Twitter Email

The Radio Planet by Ralph Milney-Farley, Ace Books

I’d already planned on doing an article on the fantasy artist Patrick Woodroffe when the news came in that he’d passed away and so, sadly, this has become my personal tribute to his powerful and often frightening imagination. Patrick Woodroffe was one of a small group of painters and sculptors working in the 1970s whose book covers stood out in a genre increasingly dominated by the Precisionist realism of Chris Foss and his many imitators. Woodroffe, like his contemporaries Ian Miller and Rodney Matthews, produced canvases that were an intriguing, and often disturbing, combination of fairy tale whimsey and twisted dream imagery. In his book Mythopeikon, published by Dragon’s World in 1976, he cited both Salvador Dali and the Dutch and Flemish Renaissance artists (Hieronymous Bosch and Peter Breughel the Elder) as among his main sources of inspiration. He was also working very much in the tradition of the Bohemian artisan creative of the 60s and 70s – local painters and sculptors scattered throughout the English countryside producing work that cleverly mixed together ideas from nature, folk lore, fairy-tale images and nursery rhyme nonsense shot through with doses of Freud and LSD. The narrative accompanying his early watercolour Masked Ball sums up this zeitgeist pretty accurately and could easily have been the sleeve notes from a Gong or Amon Düül album:

Patrick_Woodroffe_MaskedBall

“I’m a tiger!” says the girl with the platinum hair. Her borrowed pelt invites caresses. The Rainbow Man, meteordynamic, spirit of the storm, spins in at the double doors.”

The grim realities of the late industrial Victorian age gave rise to a peculiarly English type of fantastic nonsense, epitomised by the writing of Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll. It’s little wonder that the collapse of the wartime social consensus in the 1960s, and a Cold War marked by the long shadow of the Bomb, encouraged the same. Like the Pre-Raphaelites they identified with, 60s and 70s art ‘rebels’ in England turned back to the imagery of child-like carnivals mixed up with a large dose of Freud and the odd tab of Acid.  At its worst it could be self-indulgent and narcissistic, but at its best, as in the paintings of Patrick Woodroffe, it had a wonderfully lunatic vibrancy that cheerfully stuck two fingers up at The Man, and the harsh media landscapes of American Pop Art. Filled with imagery from nurseries and picture books (especially smiling sun and moon faces) his non commercial works manage to tread the very fine line between infantile fantasy and full-blown freaky nightmare that characterises grotesque art.

Patrick_Woodroffe_EverlastingCovenantHis 3D painting I’m Coming to Get You is a perfect example. With its benign sun and field of chirpy faces it looks like it belongs next to someone’s cot, but I wouldn’t want it in the house because I know it would give me nightmares for weeks. The fact that a lot of his work was in 3D doesn’t help – all it means is that it looks like all those strange creatures are emerging into our world where they really don’t belong. The Everlasting Covenant is just as bad, and the fact that it’s from a quote from Genesis doesn’t help much.

Patrick Woodroffe’s commercial cover art for publishers like Corgi stood out from the rest because of its sheer vibrancy, and the fact that he could give a book cover an incredible sense of place and character, even the images that don’t have strong single figure. The monstrous blue harlequin he created in 1975 for the cover of the Avon edition of Jack Vance’s The Gray Prince is a perfect example. Clearly influenced by Italian Renaissance portraiture the creature gives off a fantastic vibe of sinister, opulent evil combined with real tragedy. His triptych for Piers Anthony’ s Battle Circle trilogy (Sos the Rope, Var the Stick and Neq the Sword) has the same wonderful sense of both place and person.

Jack Vance, The Gray Prince, Avon Books

Patrick Woodroffe’s figure work was often exaggerated or distorted, not from lack of skill but rather from the overall fantastic aesthetic he brought to the image. His covers were characterised by bright, vivid colours, a meticulous attention to textural detail and the desire to fill each painting with a wealth of information which rarely overloaded the picture. His covers for the Quartet Corum: The Prince with the Silver Hand series, which he acknowledged were influenced by the fruit and veg portraits of the Milanese painter Arcimboldo, match the baroque intensity of the books themselves and act almost as an emblematic index to the tales of the Eternal Champion.

Sos the Rope

Inevitably given his interests and background, his spaceships were less assured. He also painted covers for such classic hard-boiled detective novels as Dashiell Hammett’s The Big Knockover and Red Harvest which, while unusual, look completely out of place in the context of the stories themselves.

Patrickwoodroffe

Patrick Woodroffe’s website is as quirky and original as the artist. His recent work saw a return to Flemish inspired wooden box triptychs filled with smiling suns and brightly coloured surreal iconography mainly inspired, it seems, by his own naturalist folk art take on Christianity. The dark scary edge has gone from most of the works and even to a grumpy old atheist like myself they represent a joyful and quite beautiful portfolio of works. It’s a real tragedy that Patrick Woodroffe passed away as his art would often lighten up a tired and derivative shelf of covers in W. H. Smiths in the 1970s and he rarely failed to do justice the fantasy books he illustrated.

The Grotesque

0

Posted on by

m4s0n501
Facebook Twitter Email
From Hieronymous Bosch - The Garden of Earthly Delights

From Hieronymous Bosch – The Garden of Earthly Delights

This is the first in a series of posts looking at the Grotesque in literature and art. It’s a subject that’s fascinated me for years (in fact I wrote my Masters thesis about it during the time of the Old Republic). I thought I’d kick off by trying to understand what makes something in writing or painting Grotesque, as opposed to fantastic or horrific. It’s probably a good idea to begin with the origins of the word itself.

Grotesque ornaments similar to those found on the walls of Nero's palace.

Grotesque ornaments similar to those found on the walls of Nero’s palace.

At the height of the Italian Renaissance explorers and enthusiasts of Classical Antiquity punched holes in the roof of Golden Dome at the then-buried villa of the Emperor Nero. Inside they found the ancient halls decorated with intricate patterns that combined human, plant and animal forms. They called this re-discovered style of decoration ‘grotesque’, from the Italian word for cave – grotta. Nowadays the word grotesque is used to mean something unpleasantly distorted to the extreme, but it also refers to a specific type of art or literature that hovers on the border between horror and fantasy, yet which really belongs to neither. It’s a rarely-explored sub-genre that lumps together Hieronymous Bosch with Charles Dickens, Kafka and Mervyn Peake. For some reason, during its long history it’s also transformed itself from something associated with peasant carnivals – an exuberant overdose of gluttony, sex and bodily functions that gleefully stuck two fingers up at the established church  – to an art form linked to 20th century alienation, Freudian nightmares and body horror, Kafka’s short story ‘The Metamorphosis’ (1915) being the classic example.

Peter Kuper's comic book adaptation of Metamorphosis

Peter Kuper’s comic book adaptation of Metamorphosis

There hasn’t been a vast amount written about the Grotesque in art, but what does exist offers a handy list of characteristics peculiar to the style, which give clues as to why it is both transgressive and disturbing.

1) Normal boundaries between people, animals and things are broken down. The frescoes in Nero’s hall display the decorative end of a spectrum that, at the other end, has Bosch building horrific monsters out of creatures combined with everyday objects. The helmet with human legs and a bird’s beak  at the top of the page is a classic example. God only knows what it’s supposed to be but it’s the stuff of nightmares, simply because those items are not supposed to be together like that, let alone threatening a bloke being kissed by a pig in a wimple.

2) People are described as objects, objects start to appear human. This is a favourite of Charles Dickens and, to a lesser extent, Mervyn Peake. The latter’s Grey Scrubbers who scour the flagstones of Gormenghast’s kitchens in Titus Groan take on the characteristics of the floor they clean – with little pebble eyes and mouths like the cracks between the stones. Gormenghast castle itself, on the other hand, becomes an almost living, breathing entity. Dolls that come to life are favourite and guaranteed to inject toe-curling terror into any tale. Lucy Clifford’s The New Mother (1882) with her glass eyes, doctor’s bag and articulated wooden tale is the grotesque escaped doll turned monstrous parent par excellence.

3) The body itself starts to disintegrate and becomes an object of disgust and alienation. Gregor Samsa turns into an enormous bug in ‘The Metamorphosis’, though his reaction, instead of being OHMYGODI’VETURNEDINTOAF*****GCOCKROACH, is to wonder how he’s going to get out of bed and get to work. In other tales, most famously Gogol’s ‘The Nose’ (1836), bits fall off and take on a life of their own. In Gogol’s tale the hero’s nose escapes and ends up as a senior civil servant

In Gogol's The Nose the hero's nose wanders off and joins the Civil Service.

In Gogol’s The Nose the hero’s nose wanders off and joins the Civil Service.

4) Scale becomes distorted, combined with sudden and disorienting shifts of perspective. Giants figure prominently in Grotesque tales, as do images of (chiefly) men lost in vast nightmarish landscapes. Orson Welles captured this rather well in his 1962 version of The Trial when in one scene Josef K (played by Anthony Perkins) steps through a door only to have it grow to an immense size when he’s on the other side.

Scale distorted in Orson Welles' film of Kafka's The Trial.

Scale distorted in Orson Welles’ film of Kafka’s The Trial.

5) The Grotesque is associated with the perspective of children. This is a characteristic of the later Grotesque and there is a suggestion that writers like Kafka or Dickens suffered from an ‘arrested childhood consciousness’ which made them feel that they were in a world with rules made for everyone else (i.e. adults) and in which they were helpless and child-like victims. I’ll talk about this in detail in a later post but it’s worth quoting Kafka’s ‘Letter to his Father’ (1919) where he hits this particular nail on the head:

Hence the world was for me divided into three parts: one in which I, the slave, lived under laws that had been invented only for me and which I could, I did not know why, never completely comply with; then a second world, which was infinitely remote from mine, in which you lived, concerned with government, with the issuing of orders and with the annoyance about their not being obeyed; and finally a third world where everybody else lived happily and free from orders and from having to obey.

So The Grotesque is a very physical art form that plays on disorientation and alienation – very different from fantasy or classic horror which makes a clear distinction between the normal and the fantastic or supernatural. Later on I’ll look at some examples of Grotesque art, starting with the early, more positive imagery linked to the idea of the carnival or satire, and then delving into the truly nightmarish worlds of Dickens, Kafka, David Lindsay and others.

The Folio Society and The Easton Press

0

Posted on by

Facebook Twitter Email
BradburyFolio

The Folio Society Fahrenheit 451

I’ve always been a sucker for beautiful books. Growing up in an arty/literary family meant that every member more or less had their own personal library covering at least one wall of their room. My parents collected  The Folio Society books in particular, so I was introduced them when I was about 7 years old. That one picture I could never bear to look at as a child was the illustration to ‘Count Magnus’ in the Folio collection of The Ghost Stories of M.R. James, so I hid the book behind the fire place so no-one could jump out and wave it in my face at an unexpected moment. I’ve since gone through phases of collecting The Folio Society books over the years, but they rarely published any SF or Fantasy, so a while back I turned across the pond to The Easton Press, who also specialise in swanky editions for collectors. They not only ran a Masterpieces of Science Fiction series but would also bring out occasional runs of other famous books, such as E.E. ‘Doc’ Smith’s Lensman series. For those of you who might be interested in these editions I thought it might be interesting to talk about the differences between the two companies and their approach to publishing classics (and SF/Fantasy).

If we’re completely honest there is a strong element of snobbery behind both companies. The Easton Press in particular seems to be targeting that dying breed, the wise old intellectual Republican patriot who fancies an oak-lined library filled with Harold Bloom’s The Western Canon. It may be hard to believe in the wake of the ignorant nonsense flooding the GOP at the moment, but there is a tradition of the learned establishment thinker or Harvard career academic of the 1950s for whom leather-bound copies of Plato’s Republic etc. are important pieces of cultural capital to be treasured. The books are designed to look like they belong in a dimly lit library with ladders, squishy armchairs and balloon snifters of brandy. They’re bound in real leather with raised bumps across the spine and 24 carat gold lettering. The pages are also edged in gold and you get a silk bookmark to keep your place in First Lensman or Newt Gingrich’s The Essential American (signed in crayon by the writer). Each book contains at least one colour illustration, often by a classic artist (Kelly Freas for Orwell’s 1984, Joseph Mugnaini for Fahrenheit 451). They are hefty tomes and it sometimes takes real effort to open one. You could stun a goat with some of these. The quality of the type varies, sometimes it’s nice and clear, sometimes it looks like it’s been lifted straight from the pages of Planet Stories.

easton_press

From the Author’s library. Three volumes from The Easton Press Lensman Series rub shoulders with The Folio Society Gormenghast Trilogy.

The nice thing about The Easton Press is that they produced a fantastic Masterpieces of Science Fiction series of about 75 volumes covering most of the major works plus a few unexpected and interesting titles. Frustratingly they printed the first three in Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun series, but not the fourth, so my Citadel of the Autarch is a scrappy paperback stuffed next to cowhide and gold splendour like a poor relation at a wedding. The Masterpiece series is no longer in their catalogue, which is a shame but they also occasionally bring out collections of classic stories (a three volume anthology from Astounding Stories with all the original covers and illustrations, the complete Tom Swift etc.) as well as the aforementioned Lensman books. Although the size of the books varies, overall The Easton Press goes for high-quality uniformity and the kind of construction that means the tomes will last for thousands of years in whatever vault you bury them in. They aren’t cheap, Anne Rice’s The Vampire Chronicles (if you’re into that kind of thing) comes in at an eye-watering $395. Sadly their catalogue seems reduced these days but it’s worth keeping an eye out for their sometimes quirky SF and Fantasy releases.

From The Folio Society Ghost Stories of M. R. James. This gave me the heebie-jeebies for years.

From the Folio Society Ghost Stories of M. R. James. This gave me the heebie-jeebies for years.

The Folio Society, on the other hand, is still going strong and looks like it’s got the largest catalogue it’s ever had. It was forged in the same crucible of snobbery as The Easton Press, appearing in 1947 as a reaction against the rise of the post-war mass market paperback, though its target audience was more the metropolitan intellectual elite (Bloomsbury set or Guardianistas, depending on how old you are). For many years they were happy to advertise themselves with a quote from that grand old dame of reactionary pomposity Malcolm Muggeridge claiming that The Folio Society books were so much better than the tawdry pap bought by commoners in airports on the way to their grubby little holidays in Ibiza or wherever. Thankfully they’ve shed the earlier taint of elitism, mainly by producing books that are real works of art. Unlike The Easton Press, whose conformity of production gets a bit dull after the fortieth cowhide brick thumps onto the mat, The Folio Society designs each volume (or series) from the ground up, making sure that all the elements – binding, illustrations, typography and general look and feel fits in with the book. For example, their Marlowe’s Dr Faustus is a slim evil looking thing in black and red, while the three-volume Steven Runciman History of the Crusades is done in wonderful sand, blue and gold covered boards with fantastic reproductions of medieval art inside.

A nightmare for the obsessively  tidy - every Folio book is unique.

A nightmare for the obsessively tidy – every Folio book is virtually unique.

I’ve already written about their edition of the Oxford Bestiary elsewhere but it’s worth pointing out the sheer variety of production, though it plays merry hell with any attempt to keep your books tidy. The Folio Society has always faced the dilemma of finding the right balance between printing nice editions of classics that will sell, and bringing out lesser known and therefore less commercially viable works. They’ve managed to find the right balance and sometimes you end up with a completely unusual and rare left-field choice bought purely because the book looked so lovely – in my case Saint Exupéry’s record of his time flying across the Sahara in the 1930s in Wind, Sand and Stars. One of their greatest coups was the Northanger Novels series printed in the 1960s, the once and only reprinting of seven rare Gothic novels mentioned in Jane Austen’s classic tale, including such marvellous titles as Horrid Mysteries and The Castle of Wolfenbach.

Jack Schoenherr's classic illustration of Baron Harkonnen from The Easton Press Dune

Jack Schoenherr’s classic illustration of Baron Harkonnen from The Easton Press Dune

The Folio Society books aren’t always as sturdy as The Easton Press volumes, and sometimes sheer bulk makes them impractical to read in bed. In fact you need a lectern for some. Their Gormenghast Trilogy is beautifully designed but appears to be created to look like three large bricks prised out of the wall of the Tower of Flints. In the past their choice of translations also seemed a bit dodgy – they appeared to favour Victorian translations of writers like Herodotus (possibly because they were out of copyright and therefore cheap) and while they had that tendentious charm of fusty 19th century classics authors there are far better versions available. Having said that they’ve just released the definitive Lattimore and Grene translations of The Complete Greek Tragedies in a five volume set, so all is forgiven. Right now they have more SF and Fantasy in their catalogue than ever before. Without the ghost of Muggeridge to hold them between finger and thumb at arms length with a peg over his nose, Bradbury, Huxley, Ballard, Wyndham and Asimov are all there in their own wonderfully unique editions.

One of Alex Wells's specially commissioned illustrations for The Folio Society's Foundation Trilogy

One of Alex Wells’s specially commissioned illustrations to The Folio Society’s Foundation Trilogy

In the end I prefer The Folio Society, even if The Easton Press has produced some brilliant editions of Golden Age SF. It’s exciting getting a Folio Society book because each one is unique. They also are very responsive to their customers – they replaced a couple of flawed copies I received without question. They also listen to feedback. I might be kidding myself but I once sent them a letter suggesting they print Mervyn Peake’s Titus trilogy and a year later there it was. The Folio Society books are marginally cheaper than The Easton Press ones, averaging at around £30 a book. In the past they weren’t that much more than ordinary hardbacks, but the gap seems to have widened. They run sales though, and you have to be quick because all their editions are limited and out of print copies of some books are hard to find.

Tove Jansson – the Truth about the Moomins

2

Posted on by

Facebook Twitter Email

Tove_Jansson_in_1967A while back I wrote a post about Tove Jansson’s last Moomin book, Moominvalley in November (1971), pointing out that behind the innocent guise of a charming children’s tale lurked a masterpiece of Nordic existentialism. I had no idea. I’ve just finished Boel Westin’s biography of the author Tove Jansson: Life, Art and Words, translated into English for the first time this year, and now all my Moomin books are under a bucket at the bottom of the garden with several large bricks on top.

If Westin’s book is anything to go by (and it’s hard to fault any of her meticulously researched arguments) the entire chronicle of those fluffy-tailed, big-nosed cuddly toys is a masterpiece study of the relationship between the artist, family, existence, the universe and consciousness to rival anything by Sartre, Kafka or Camus.

In many ways Tove Jansson’s life is a text-book essay in How to Be a Bohemian Artist. Her father was a sculptor, her mother a graphic designer, and they come across as wackily creative and avant-garde as you would expect, along with their immediate circle of relatives and friends. Tellingly holidays often consisted of sitting in tents on islands in the middle of thunderstorms, an image of the eccentric family simultaneously defying and flourishing from disasters and tempests which she would return to time and again in her books. She took Art at several colleges. By her own admission her studies followed the all-too familiar pattern of Dull Classes – Rebellion against Traditional Teachers – Creating a Bohemian Colony of Free Art with Fellow Students – Rinse and Repeat. For most of her career in her own mind she was always, first and foremost, a painter, not a writer of children’s fairy stories. What is interesting is that instead of hating the Moomins for the colossal distraction they became (at one point she was receiving hundreds of fan letters a day, and replying to most if not all), she used them to work through her own psychological responses to the world around her, which is why the series of books (and comic strips) grow so decidedly odd as the saga progresses.

Watercolour with Black Moomintroll, 1934

Watercolour with Black Moomintroll, 1934. One of the first appearances of a Moomin, painted in Nazi Germany.

It’s very tempting to assume that the Moomin family is just a fantasy version of her own family and friends. Moomintroll himself first appeared alongside her signature in the Swedish satirical magazine Garm, for which she drew many cartoons (including a controversial cover showing the European powers trying to appease a cry-baby Hitler). Yet with a couple of exceptions there isn’t really a one-to-one correspondence between the inhabitants of Moominvalley and the people who influenced her. Her first partner the larger-than-life leftwing intellectual Artos Wirtanen, who she almost married, appears as both Snufkin and the doleful philosopher Muskrat in Finn Family Moomintroll. Having eventually acknowledged and embraced her lesbianism, Jansson introduced the real love of her life, the artist Tuulikki Pietilä as Too-Ticky in Moominland Midwinter. Jansson claimed that Moominmamma was her own mother, Ham, but in fact, as with all the other creatures in the tales, she becomes another aspect of her creator’s psyche as it wrestled with the artists relationship with art and existence. In fact the Moominvalley bestiary reads as though someone had emptied Tove Jansson’s unconscious mind out onto the table and then used the contents to make a series of fluffy toys.

From left to right: Existentialism, the Id, the Self and Other, Nihilism confronting the Infinite, the Soul of Art etc...

From left to right: Existentialism, the Id, the Self and Other, Nihilism confronting the Infinite, the Soul of Art etc…

The Moomin books fall into three distinct groups. Comet in Moominland (1946), Finn Family Moomintroll (1948) and The Exploits of Moominpappa (1950) are tales of a Bohemian commune facing challenges and threats from outside, returning each time to the safety of Moominvalley and the tower-house of the Moomins. Architecture played a huge role in Jansson’s life. She fought tooth and nail to acquire a number of wonderfully unusual studios, all characterised by vertical spaces in which she would build ‘nests’ to live. Outdoing just about every other free-thinking creative she ended up building her own house out of stones with her bare hands on an island in the middle of nowhere, desperately searching for the solitude she revelled in, and felt was a profound catalyst for her art. Inevitably the famous Moomin author in her house on an island was a magnet to thousands of fans who would cheerfully row out for a look and even a chat. She accepted most with good grace, though apparently hurled rocks at some on the occasional bad day.

Tove Jansson the Artist

Tove Jansson the Artist

In the second group of books, Moominsummer Madness (1954),  Moominland Midwinter (1957) and, to a lesser extent, Tales from Moominvalley (1964) the family is uprooted from the familiar landscape of home, either because they wake up in the wrong season to find everything changed, or a great big flood whirls them away. Westin argues that this is partly Jansson’s moving apart from the family that had defined her, and her own uneasy relationship with her father who, traumatised by the wars and political upheavals of the early part of the century, had embraced an ugly nationalism that Jansson hated.

And then it gets really weird. In the last two books – Moominpappa at Sea (1965), and Moominvalley in November it’s not just the family that starts to disappear, but the whole notion of the artistic consciousness built into the stories fragments. Moominpappa has a mid-life crisis and turns into an obsessive, dragging the whole family to a lighthouse while the nihilistic Groke hovers in the background. Moominmamma, always the secure lynch-pin of the group, goes all quiet and pointless, paints a big fresco and promptly disappears into it. She watches the others get on with their lives in the real world with a kind of melancholy satisfaction. For Jansson she was a painter first and foremost, and life became a search for the silence and solitude that would allow her to get on with her art. Disappearing into a painting on an island in the middle of nowhere probably had huge appeal. Being one of the most famous authors of children’s books in the entire world made this a wee bit tricky.

A metaphor and then some. Moominpappa's mid-life crisis and his enormous lighthouse in Moominpappa at Sea

A metaphor and then some. Moominpappa’s mid-life crisis and his enormous lighthouse in Moominpappa at Sea

I won’t go over Moominvalley in November, you can read my thoughts on the last book here. Suffice to say the Moomintrolls are not even in the story, they’re away on their island pondering on the nature of existence and losing themselves in paintings. Eventually Jansson turned from painting to writing, producing a series of adult books that tackled the same themes of identity, art and the uneasy relationship between consciousness, creation and, in this case, words. Her books have a beautiful economy of style, but no Moomins, and despite the praise and awards heaped on them they never gained the immense traction of her supposed tales for kids. Yet Tove Jansson was never a victim of her success, the author or painter desperate to create Great Art but tragically tied to her one commercial triumph. Her Moomin tales, cartoons, operas and songs represent a constant internal dialogue in which she tried to understand and work through her relationship with her own artistic identity.

TOVE JANSSON WITH MOOMIN CHARACTERS - 1988

Westin’s biography is a fascinating read. It suffers occasionally from hagiography in its praise of its subject and her work, though it’s entirely understandable given that Tove Jansson was such a remarkable woman. The portrait created is so compelling it makes you wish she’d been a friend you could have spent fascinating days with. The passages in which Westin (Professor of Literature at the University of Stockholm) slips into academic mode are less interesting. Given that the Moomin books are a rigorous essay in self-analysis, layering more on top seems over egging the pudding a bit. Appeals to Freud come across as a bit obvious – Moominpappa and his Great Big Lighthouse, nudge nudge etc. But these are minor quibbles. Anyone interested in the Moomins, Existentialism, the Artist and Art or Jansson herself should read this.

1 2 3 4