Category Archives: Illustration

Jerry Saltz’s abandoned illuminations for “The Divine Comedy”

The following is a combination of quotes from the critic Jerry Saltz’s article “My Life as a Failed Artist.”

“Before I became a critic, I was an artist, and for about ten years, beginning in the early 1970s, I feverishly devoted myself to a single, gigantic project: illustrating the entirety of Dante’s Divine Comedy — starting with Inferno.

“These are the gates of hell. The famous inscription appears above the portal, the one that begins, in first person, “I Am the Way Into the City of Woe, I Am the Way to a Forsaken People.” There are no doors on the Gates of Hell because anyone who ventures too close can easily enter. Around the gate are ten diagrammatic spinning spheres, one for each of the levels of hell.”

[Why Dante?] Dante is a paradigmatic figure of the canon — therefore a perfect picture of the dream of artistic canonization — but he’s also a weirdo Boschian fantasist and so satisfied my obsession with hermetic traditions, indexes, myth, archaic cultures, and mystics and visionaries like William Blake. This late-medieval universe freed me from making choices; the story and structure told me exactly what to do, what to draw, where to draw it, what came next, what shape things should be, everything, even sometimes governing colors, as with making Virgil blue and Dante red according to past art. Without knowing it but in desperate need, I’d contrived a machine that allowed me to make things that I couldn’t predict; I still think of this as one of an artist’s first jobs.

“These are the gates of the citadel of Limbo, the First Circle of Hell, the Virtuous Pagans. Here Dante meets Homer, Aristotle, Plato, Horace, Ovid, Lucan, Hector, Aeneas, and many others whose only punishment is to live without hope. The gold, silver, and bronze spheres represent the souls of those who Dante meets there.”

The project was meant to take me 25 years, but I only made it to the fourth canto by the time I quit; nevertheless, in that time I had developed an unbelievably intricate language that would allow me, a technically poor draughtsman and even worse painter, to depict Dante’s complex narrative.

“A large diagrammatic drawing of the Opportunists being blown in all different directions in the tempest of hell.”

[Oscar Wilde] wrote that art that’s too obvious, that we “know too quickly,” that is “too intelligible,” fails. “The one thing not worth looking at is the obvious.” This sort of art tells you everything in an instant and can only tell you the same thing forever. My work had the opposite problem. It was vague, arcane, and therefore obsolete. Only I could decipher it.

I often judge young artists based on whether I think they have the character necessary to solve the inevitable problems in their work….Oscar Wilde said, “Without the critical faculty, there is no artistic creation at all.” Artists have to be self-critical enough not to just attack everything they do. I had self-doubt but not a real self-critical facility; instead I indiscriminately loved or hated everything I did. Instead of gearing up and fighting back, I gave in and got out.”

You can find more images from this project here.

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Great Illuminated Classics

Tales of Mystery and Imagination illustrated by Harry Clarke

Tales of Mystery and Imagination illustrated by Harry Clarke

Moby Dick illustrated by Matt Kish

Moby-Dick illustrated by Matt Kish

Fahrenheit 451 illuminated by Tim Hamilton

Fahrenheit 451 illuminated by Tim Hamilton

The Four Holy Gospels illuminated by Makoto Fujimura

The Four Holy Gospels illuminated by Makoto Fujimura

The Lord of the Rings illustrated by Alan Lee

The Lord of the Rings illustrated by Alan Lee

Inferno illustrated by Gustave Dore

Inferno illustrated by Gustave Dore

Frankenstein illuminated by Gris Grimly

Frankenstein illuminated by Gris Grimly

Heart of Darkness illustrated by Matt Kish

Heart of Darkness illustrated by Matt Kish

Song of Myself illuminated by Allen Crawford

Song of Myself illuminated by Allen Crawford

The Hobbit illustrated by Tolkien himself

The Hobbit illustrated by Tolkien himself

Beowulf illuminated by Gareth Hinds

Beowulf illuminated by Gareth Hinds

At the Mountains of Madness illuminated by I.N.J. Culbard

At the Mountains of Madness illuminated by I.N.J. Culbard

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Salvador Dalí as Illuminator

Thanks to Maria Popova at Brain Pickings I recently discovered a whole series of Salvador Dalí’s illustrations for classic works of literature. Click on the caption to see the full complement of images.

Also as a bonus check out Dalí’s twelve signs of the zodiac.

 

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“Whitman Illuminated: Song of Myself” Illustrated by Allen Crawford

Whitman Illuminated: Song of Myself. Illustrated by Allen Crawford

Whitman Illuminated: Song of Myself. Illustrated by Allen Crawford

In the tradition of Matt Kish, another great illuminated classic has been created by Allen Crawford. Whitman’s collection Leaves of Grass, with Song of Myself as a centerpiece, is a keystone of American poetry, and Crawford uses drawings and hand-lettering to deepen the reader’s experience of the poem.

First page

Looking at the first page gives you a sense of the whimsical humor that pervades the book.

Each page is a hand-drawn spread created mostly through a process of improvisation rather than of careful planning, a method of which Whitman no doubt would have approved. Some pages are nothing but elaborate compositions of text, while others are images floating in empty space with a few lines of verse. Most are a pleasing combination of both.

page

Trying to read a page like this slows you down enough for the individual lines to really sink in.

Several reviews I’ve read say that this copy is not the best introduction to Whitman since some of the pages are difficult to read. I have only skimmed the original, but I would have to disagree. Whitman wanted to break free of the traditional bonds of form in poetry. He wrote sprawling verses that are hard to follow even in traditionally printed books, since artificial line breaks must be added to make Whitman’s free verse fit into the standard paperback format. Crawford makes Whitman’s dream of breaking free from poetry’s form a reality. While it is almost impossible to read the page above in the exact order Whitman wrote it, it is just as impossible to miss the experience of the verse when seen in this way. The drawing, the floating text that forces you to turn the book around in your hands as you read, surely get at the heart of Whitman’s cosmic scale and intimate verse. I believe Whitman was seeking after the experience created by the reading of his poetry rather than the dogmatic adherence to his choices in form, line length, and word order.

Some pages are harder to decipher than others, though I wonder how much that has to do with some obscurity in Whitman’s poetic language and how much it is a failing on Crawford’s part to create a flow through the text. No doubt repeated readings would make such pages more clear (and re-reading is a necessary reality of reading any kind of poetry). Crawford does have a lyrical sense of how to arrange words so that at first glance the page seems illegible, but once the reader dives in he is carried through with a sense of excitement and engagement rather than confusion or frustration.

page

“I am the poet of the body, and I am the poet of the soul.”

This illuminated manuscript does what all beautifully bound and illustrated books should, it forces the reader to understand that he is not superior to the book. This is a book to be experienced, not marked up and analyzed. To read this copy of Song of Myself is to more fully enter Whitman’s world, to more holistically experience the scope and intimacy of his poem.

You can find Whitman Illuminated: Song of Myself illustrated by Allen Crawford on Amazon or at your local bookstore.

 

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Tower of Babel

Babel. Ink on Watercolor Paper

Babel. Ink on Watercolor Paper

This is a drawing I did several months ago. I was inspired after reading Matt Kish’s illustrated Heart of Darkness to try my hand at a more literal illumination of the Tower of Babel.

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Illuminating “The Tell-Tale Heart” by Edgar Allan Poe

Notice how Harry Clarke "illustrates" the increasing sound of the heart beats.

Notice how Clarke “illustrates” the sound effect of a heartbeat growing louder and louder. 

Harry Clarke illustrated many of Poe’s stories and the above image from “The Tell-Tale Heart” is one of my favorites. Clarke’s use of design and attention to detail allow him to contain almost the entire narrative in this one memorable and eery image.

The video below is an animated short film from 1953 which communicates the visceral experience of “The Tell-Tale Heart.” It tells the story through narration and a series of images rather than merely animating the sequence of events. Instead of being a traditional cartoon, the camera pans through a number of cubist-like paintings, focusing on essential details, symbols, and events in the story. The comparative stillness in most of the film makes the few sequences of action that much more striking. Visual elements like the old man’s eye are repeated and paralleled which heightens the sense of the protagonist’s mania.  The dead white shape of the eye is mirrored in the moon, then a vase, and then again in the buttons of the police officer’s jacket. Overall this film finds a perfect balance between being innovative in a way the serves the source material while still being traditional enough to not distract the viewers with unusual form. 

 

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Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” illuminated by Matt Kish

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Matt Kish, an English teacher, librarian, and self-taught artist recently released a version of Heart of Darkness featuring an illustration for every page of Conrad’s important and poignant masterpiece.  Heart of Darkness was required reading in college and to be honest I had trouble getting through it the first time. Perhaps part of the problem was that I was forced to read it from a massive Norton’s Anthology, and books are not meant to be experienced in that context. While I was unable to make it through the book itself, my professor’s explanation of it had a profound impact on my creative and personal philosophy. I had always meant to reread it, and when I saw this beautifully illustrated edition I knew it was the right time to tackle the novel again. Kish’s illuminations are the perfect companion to Conrad’s novel. They create a visceral and aesthetic experience that heightens the tone of Conrad’s already powerful voice. They also allow the reader to more easily follow all of the repeating images and motifs of the story. This combination of art and literature allows Conrad’s message to more immediately and more thoroughly permeate the reader and serves as a wonderful example of the possibilities for modern illumination.

While the bright colorful images may at first seem to jar with the tone of a book called Heart of Darkness, they in fact only serve to highlight that evil happens under the sun as well as under the cover of night. Furthermore, the garish and sickly colors create a strong feeling of disease and corruption which fits excellently with the themes of the story. Kish’s introduction to the book describes his creative process and explains the different aesthetic decisions he made while illustrating Heart of Darkness.

Kurtz

Kurtz

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slide_325363_3117451_freeYou can read what Kish has to say about his work here: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/matt-kish/on-my-illustrated-edition_b_4273506.html

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