From Salvador Dalí to Bianca Stone: 10 Artists Who Illustrated Books
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by Josh Milberg
[Editor’s note: this article was sponsored by AbeBooks.com.]
Ten years before The Da Vinci Code was published, Arturo Perez-Reverte’s The Club Dumas came out. It follows a book dealer tasked with authenticating an antique book. While on mission he finds a pattern in the symbology which leads him into a world of secrecy and dark religious practices. (Watch what I’m doing here). The book eventually becomes Roman Polanski’s film The Ninth Gate. Which becomes The Da Vinci Code, which becomes National Treasure, and Nancy Drew is holding a kill list and training at night. While there’s nothing new about the detective novel or film adaptation, it’s worth saying plainly that artwork not only sets mood for the audience and readership; whether informing the choices characters make or foreshadowing danger looming ahead, those who skip over it or take it for granted risk donning a dunce cap as they speak up in book club.
In honor of great illustrations used in books, here’s a quick list of names and works to know.
Next to the Jefferson Bible, Tom Phillips’ A Humument is one of the most famous erasures. By painting, collaging, and drawing over the pages of the W. H. Mallock’s A Human Document, Phillips made a text distinct in its own right, following a protagonist named Toge who appears, logically enough, only when the words “together” and “altogether” have presented themselves through Mallock’s original text. Readers used to staring at white space will find themselves far from home with A Humument which embeds text in illustration rather than the other way around.
We’re in a caption contest. All of us. I’m not joking. Look at Facebook. Look at memes and animated GIFs. It’s easy to be pithy, but sincerity is hard. Matt Kish has found a way. Rather than captioning pre-existing graphics, Kish has taken prose from each page of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (and more recently Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness), working on one page per day, he’s produced one illustration to match each quotation. Some think the artwork in Moby-Dick in Pictures looks a little unfinished, and maybe it does, but some see what 552 days of imagining look like on paper and feel pretty good about life.
Edmund Dulac isn’t as well known as Aesop or Roald Dahl but he should be. He worked in a time known as The Golden Age of Illustration, placing work through the first half of the 20th Century in printings of Sleeping Beauty, The Stories of Hans Christian Andersen, and The Arabian Nights. He was born in France and lived in England and died in 1953 at the age of 70 at work on Milton’s Comus while Mickey Mouse danced on TV.
In February 2003 Colin Powell appeared at the United Nations in Midtown Manhattan and made a case for going to war in Iraq. He took with him aerial photographs which showed longitude, latitude and, through a history of regional violence, worry about weapons and the destruction they cause. In Everything Sings, Dennis Wood argues all maps are ideological and he pursues their limits and strengths across his neighborhood, Boylan Heights. In a section titled “Disfigured Trees” he writes, “In the aerial photo, you can see the trees but not their condition.” He might have cautioned the General Assembly, We can make out a payload, but not what’s inside it. In addition to weapons, he might have searched for children, jack-o’-lanterns, and the perspectives of people from the axes they walk. In February 2003, on the floor of the United Nations, Dennis Wood would have challenged not only the pixels shown on the maps but what the maps stood for.
If you find comfort in Everything Sings, you’ll find the opposite in Atlas of Remote Islands. In it, Judith Schalansky covers 50 of the loneliest places on Earth. On the verso, below a time-line, and the number of inhabitants (if any), she delivers a prose poem in the present tense. There’s no room for paragraph breaks here so a double slash will have to do. On the recto, a gray mass sits adrift in blue. Each map in the book serves as a dedication to those small, boxed-off scribbles artificially drawn as afterthoughts near images of bigger masses. The maps here are planned out as part of the main event. They’re married to the prose, one map to each entry, rolling one next to the other like the animals in Noah’s Ark. The book proves that dedications, like marriages, can be lonely business.
Though Calamari Press has put out some of the most interesting titles in the last decade or so, including several from Gary Lutz, Chiara Barzini’s Sister Stop Breathing is a particularly good example of the interplay between artwork and prose. The book consists of 38 short fictions but very few of them contain what normally passes for story. Most of the entries take the form of a sketch or advice, something darker than a recipe but not quite as terrorizing as a spell. For instance, the title selection opens, “What can you do if you want your sister to stop breathing?” Of course, two thirds of the pieces are matched with illustrations or what Derek White, the founder of Calamari, calls “synchronous images.” Some of the images, like the one paired with “Red Spiders,” have a link that’s obvious before reading the story. Some, like the image of hands accompanying “Vauville,” make sense only after the piece has been read. They haunt.
Karl Lagerfeld is known for designing haute couture for Fendi and Chanel and wearing very high collars that make him look like a sexual deviant. It turns out that at least one of those things relies on drawing well. After releasing The Allure of Chanel in 2008, Puhskin Press has recently released a deluxe version of Coco Chanel’s life story as told by Paul Morand, which includes illustrations by Lagerfeld that do justice to the term sketch. They look like they were made quickly with the aim of suggesting more than what’s there. You can conjure fabric if you like or enjoy them as is. Apparently the man has more than a few tricks up his sleeve. Maybe a few under his collar.
Calling Bianca Stone an artist is like calling Deion Sanders an athlete; she’s got game in different fields. Having penned and illustrated several chapbooks, she’s also collaborated with Anne Carson to produce Antigonick (which the above image is taken from), and recently released a book of poetry called Someone Else’s Wedding Vows. She also so happens to have produced the Single-Sentence Animation for A-J Aronstein’s “Flower Box.” She can probably disarm a bomb blindfolded and dunk on you too. Only time and Bond villains will tell.
Though it’s not the first thing that comes to mind when one thinks Salvador Dali, he illustrated plenty of book covers and not only his own. Prior to being pigeonholed as the premier posterist for freshman dorm rooms, his illustrations were placed on the covers of books by such greats as Dante Alighieri and William Shakespeare. It turns out that, even in art, across centuries and centuries, the cool kids really do hang together.
Julia Wertz, I bet you never thought you’d follow Salvador Dali on a list, but if there are things to learn from Drinking at the Movies or this article, they’re a) that you often make errors in judgment and b) that I can address an author directly even if I’ve never met her. Let’s add to that c) you draw pretty damn well and d) even though you have a bad mouth, a memoir in comics can be pretty poignant.