Johann Christian Rohl in the wolf’s den, part 2: the interview

self

Part 1 of J. C. R. in the wolf’s den may be found HERE

  • Clive H-J. With The Company of Wolves you’ve explored just one of the suite of Angela Carter’s tales, The Bloody Chamber. Was your first experience of this dark and sexualised spin on Red Riding Hood the short story, or the film by Neil Jordan? Many people came to Carter as a writer after seeing it.
  • Johann CR. I read the book first. I’d been told about the book by a friend I’d made in my first year of Uni, she was a second year and told me what briefs to expect and gave me advice and a lot of support throughout my time at Cambridge school of Art. I owe a lot of my development to her. (Erika Lewis I am eternally grateful, you beautiful blackbird.) I couldn’t put the book down. I was completely engrossed. This was a book that had so much meat to it. A most decadent banquet. There was a lot in those pages that I savoured. The writing itself was gothic, so rich in detail that you could almost smell the acrid blood drenching the tales. It was sharp and witty.
  • The stories felt like familiar terrain but weren’t. It was full of surprises and there was a whole wealth of dark imagery for me to delve into. There’s sexual bluntness, a bounty of symbolism. The writing is sharp and witty and there’s a heavy presence of danger! When I finished it I’d go back and read my favourite bits and I still do. I didn’t even know the film existed until one of my lecturers, Mick Gowar (an expert in fairytales and folklore and one of my most favourite people on this earth) told me about it in my second year. He’d recommended it as at the time I was exploring how the dream world had been achieved through film. I’d looked at Alice by Jan Svankmajer and Valerie and Her Week of Wonders by Jaromil Jires. Both films share a lot of similarities with Neil Jordan’s interpretation of The Company of Wolves, and allowed me to go deeper into the world of dream imagery. It was nice to see an interpretation of The Company of Wolves on film because all I’d known before was my own, obviously, so it was cool to compare the director’s take on it. Also the use of special effects was immensely appreciated! They really don’t make films like that anymore (and if they do then please point them out to me!) What about you? Which did you experience first?
  • Clive H-J. Like you, book first, film later. Interestingly, I felt sure that one of the fairy tale films Neil Jordan had referenced, was a favourite of mine. But we’ll come to that later.

  • Clive H-J. in the matter of re-spinning old tales, many have tried, and just about all have failed in comparison to what Carter achieved. She got there first, and in my opinion did it best, though I accept that I haven’t read everything out there. One of the things that makes me wish she had lived longer… and there are many… is that within The Bloody Chamber, she offered two riffs on Beauty and the Beast: The Tiger’s Bride and The Courtship of Mr Lyon, and both are beautiful in their own rights. I’m impressed by that doubling up, because to me it shows the kind of creativity I want to see in an artist, where there is no single, definitive approach. In my own practice I work and re-work a cache of carefully selected themes, because no version is the definitive one, and every time I set out, I feel as though I’ll do better for all the work that’s gone before. Like an actor never nailing the role of Hamlet, but discovering new layers with each performance. Discuss!
  • Johann CR. Reading the different takes on the same tale surprised me. I think as a collection I’m in amour of the way each story has it’s own fleshed out world that feels completely its own and at the same time there are these echoes from one story into another. The same motifs crop up and it feels like you’re looking through alternate realities of the same world. I think as an artist you’re taught to approach things from different perspectives. What art school has taught me is that there are an infinite number of solutions to be made. No single idea is the ultimate one. All of the artists that I look up to seem to have that creative unrest, that ability to keep going and going and going with an idea and with work in general. I think through observing the different perspectives on a subject you allow deeper understanding which is ultimately what it’s all about, exploration.

  • Clive H-J. I agree. So which of the other Bloody Chamber tales is tickling away at you right now, in terms of how you might approach it?
  • Johann C R. At the moment I’m working on The Lady of the House of Love which is a story overflowing with an abundance of imagery. It has this duality and divergency that I really enjoy in a story and I’m looking to recreate that. I’m hoping I can mirror all the contrasts and contradictions in it.

Below: image for The Lady of the House of Love

  • Johann CR. I really want to capture those elements of beauty and grotesqueness, violence and serenity, those qualities that give depth. I like that. The presence of sex and death is rife in these tales, and that’s something I want to be present in my drawings.

  • Clive H-J. I’m guessing you’ve already found and read Bruno Betelheim’s The Uses of Enchantment (1976), but if you haven’t, order a copy from Abebooks now. (And if you haven’t read it yet, then you are going to love me for eternity for pointing you in its direction!)
  • Johann CR. I haven’t! Why that book isn’t already on my shelf I do not know. It looks like a Johann Rohl essential!

  • Clive H-J. To me it seems that Carter… like Betelheim did by bringing an analytical approach to the way children ‘use’ fairy tales to make sense of the world and its frightening aspects… gives her readers license to dredge up the darker sexualities underlying the tales, and be creative with them. (‘It’s OK’, she seems to be telling us, ‘to have those feelings. They’re exciting. It’s good to imagine a sexuality in which your lover licks your skin clean away to expose ever deeper layers of desire.’) I believe this particularly germane to gay men and women, for whom sexuality has too often in the past been a thing of shame. Discuss
  • Johann CR. I like the idea of layers being exposed by a lover, I think that’s a wonderful metaphor for the nature of a relationship and for sex as well because the only way you can let someone in is by bringing your walls down and exposing yourself. It’s a beautiful thing to be in a relationship with somebody. You learn so much from each other and you grow, and even when it doesn’t work out you still grow from the things that go wrong. The same can be said about work; you’re constantly working stuff out and learning, through exposure and exploration. There are always new conclusions to be reached, and even when an idea doesn’t work out you learn from it, and so you’re peeling layers of yourself back and revealing a better version of yourself. I believe that’s why I’m drawn to The Bloody Chamber it has that honesty and bluntness about sexuality, and I think that’s something I tend to seek out, that openness and assurance that it is okay to have those feelings and desires.
  • As a young gay man growing up I’ve always felt the need to hide those parts of myself away as a means of self preservation and I think in a way it’s been very damaging as I’m sure a lot of other people in the world have experienced themselves. So naturally I’ve always tried to look for assurance in some form or another where I can, be that in film, art or literature. I’m starting to find that if I’m open about my thoughts, feelings and experiences though then I’m allowing myself to make connections with other people that share those same thoughts, feelings and similar experiences and in turn I’m creating this world for myself where I no longer feel segregated or alone and that’s breaking down a lot of walls for me. At what point did you feel comfortable about your sexuality ?
  • Clive H-J. That’ll take a little explaining, because I grew up in different times. I was born in 1951, when homosexuality was illegal and considered by most people to be an aberration. For a child, those attitudes made for an incredibly isolating experience, and I hid as best I could the aspects that would draw attention to me. It made me rather introverted. What I still find most repellent about those times, is my memory of the cruelty practiced at every level. (You see it today, with the hatred directed at immigrants and all those deemed to be ‘outsiders’. For the greater part, homosexuality today in the UK has been protected by law from the prejudices that were once so rife.) Back in the 1950s and even the 60s, society as a whole openly despised and mocked gay men (and it was men, rather than women, that drew the most homophobic wrath), labelling them as limp-wristed, fey, ludicrous. Moreover gay men in the entertainment industry were actively complicit in that homophobia, emasculating themselves into parodies and sexual grotesques. (Kenneth Williams, Frankie Howard, John Inman and too many others.) It was as though it couldn’t be countenanced that homosexuals might actually be like everyone else, or that gay mens’ ‘desires’ came in as many varied packages as did those of heterosexuals. We had to be rendered neuter, laughed at, held up to ridicule. We couldn’t be handsome, or masculine, or heroic or powerful or any positive thing. It was horrible, and I absolutely knew that it was a lie, even before I began to discover the wider world for myself.
  • So I didn’t share my understanding of my sexuality with my parents, as I knew from things they said that they would’t understand. Imagine, if you can, a world in which there were no role models for gay men and no positive expressions of homosexuality. It was a world in which a defining part of my life would have to remain hidden. I knew that I was different and that my sexual desires ran counter to everything I saw around me, but I was damned certain that I didn’t fancy Kenneth Williams!
  • I got lucky. I went away to school in London. I studied performing arts at Italia Conti, left when I was fifteen-and-a-half, and made my way as a dancer/actor. Later I became a choreographer. In that world I could be myself. There were many of us, and we recognised each other. Gradually I told trusted, long-term friends. All was well. British film director and gay activist, Derek Jarman. became my hero. He was a force to be reckoned with. Here was a passionate, outspoken, drop-dead handsome and openly homosexual man. He was fired up and angry, and he wouldn’t shut-the-fuck-up. The establishment hated and feared him, but for me, he showed the way. Nothing was the same after Derek Jarman. He changed everything for us. I wish he were here still. Seek out his books, Johann. He was compassionate, insightful and loving, and he burned white-hot. Jarman wrote beautifully. Beautifully.

  • Given that we’re both horror film fans, I have to ask which film/s affected you most in terms of staying with you and informing your work? Mine are:
  • 1) Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds. I love all its aspects: the visual aesthetic, the pace of the unfolding narrative, the sound (no music, but the soundtrack is masterful) the actors’ performances, the matte-paintings by Albert Whitlock that so ravishingly enhance the location footage, the horrific bird assault that begins with a seagull dive-bombing a man fuelling his car. All the performances in a film shot through with neurosis are mesmerising, not least newcomer Tipp Hedren’s cool blonde socialite becoming steadily unravelled.
  • 2) Hitchcock’s Psycho, because Anthony Perkins’ troubled Norman did it for me, and I deeply appreciated Janet Leigh’s unflinching yet nuanced performance of Marian Crane. Then there was Bernard Hermann’s amazingly nerve-jangling score. (Everyone talks about the shower scene music, but just listen to what Hermann did for Marian’s car journey in the rain. Staggering!
  • 3) La belle et la bête, directed by Jean Cocteau. Probably not horror at all… though in terms of what the Beast suffers the film might profitably be viewed alongside David Cronenberg’s The Fly… but certainly the most beautiful film of a fairy tale ever made.
  •  Johann CR. Yeahhh! The Birds and Psycho are both genius! I haven’t seen La Belle et la Bête. I’ll have to add that to my list!
  • Clive H-J. Do it. Now! The experience is going to change you.
  • Johann CR. I think for me films had a major influence in the early stages of my life but as I grew up I took a lot from video-games. Films that stick out for me from my early childhood that I think heavily influenced my interests now are:
  •  1) the Film of Roald Dahl’s The Witches. It frightened and fascinated me. I watched it recently and It’s fantastic! The Head Witch (Angelica Huston) is still as grotesque as ever. The special effects in it are fantastic and I think as a result it’s stood the test of time
  • 2) The Thing (the 80s one) was my first experience of a horror film. I saw it when I was very young. Far too young, really, to be watching anything like that. On a Wednesday after school I’d go to my grandparents house for tea and my granddad would record monster movies that had been on the telly for me because I was obsessed with stuff like that. I was always drawing monsters. So I’d go and there’d be a new VHS waiting for me and I’d go into the living room with my colouring pencils and paper and watch whatever it was whilst lying on the floor drawing. I don’t think I ever expected to see anything like that. I was disturbed, to say the least, but at the same time I had this morbid curiosity to rewind the tape and try again to keep my eyes open to the sight of this warped and twisted ‘thing’ on the TV screen. If only my granddad knew what he was recording for me haha!
  • There’s a quality I can’t quite pin down in Jaromil Jires’ Valerie and Her Week of Wonders that I feel I’m being influenced by right now. If you haven’t yet watched it I’d recommend giving it a look, then maybe we can decipher what it is I’m on about.
  • Clive H-J. OK. I’ll do that, and you watch the Cocteau film. Tell you what, afterwards we’ll meet up again here, and discuss. Deal?

Above: a recent ‘self portrait’ by Johann that he tried to palm off on me instead of a photograph. I’m sure you’ll all be pleased that I persisted and was forwarded the image at the top of this post.

Johann will view La belle et la bête and I’ll view Valerie and Her Week of Wonders, and  later we’ll convene for further discussion here at the Artlog.

22 thoughts on “Johann Christian Rohl in the wolf’s den, part 2: the interview

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  4. I have not been able to visit lately ( a difficult time at work ), but today I finally came, and I can not stop reading, and reading, and going back, and returning again… This whole conversation is a real feast.

    I love the Bettleheim “uses of enchantment”, and have lots and lots of books of tales , for children and for adults, but I never read any Angela Carter, at least, not that I can remember, so I just bought ” The bloody Chamber “, in the kindle format, and I am going to read the book right away. And I’ll go back to the illustrations…

    As for films, those you talk about are great, but for me, being a grandmother, the horror films that really frighten me are more like ” The good son “, those films that show a seemingly lovely child being a force of evil…

    Thank you both, and thanks to your friends for their comments. It has been great reading all, and shall be great re-reading, again and again.

    • Maria, write to me after you’ve read it, and tell me what you think of The Bloody Chamber. I Believe you’re going to greatly enjoy it.

      Johann’s drawing are for just one story, The Company of Wolves, but I’m sure if he ever gets the chance, then he’d do wonderful images for the entire Bloody Chamber collection of tales.

      • I just finished The Bloody Chamber.

        I loved every bit of it. It is great how the tales show girls that are at the same time so innocent, so brave, so generous, so loving, and yet at the same time so capable of all sorts of transformations.
        And being an old grandmother myself, I just loved the image of the daredevil old mother, racing her horse faster than the tide to save her daughter from her husband’s sword…( the marquis’s castle seems to be the fortress at the Mont Saint Michel.)

        It is funny that I had never read all those Angela Carter’s tales, especially because I love the Glenn Duncan novels, many of which are of vampires and werewolves, and the Michael Faber tales. I had read references to her, though not the kind of reference that makes you need to read the books. But now that I have tasted, I have to read all. It is lucky they have all her books in kindle format at Amazon. I’ll buy all the rest of her books tomorrow.

        Again, I have to thank you, and your friends for it all.
        Good night
        Love
        María

  5. Dear Friend
    So many thoughts and memories and almost regrets of not knowing at the time what feelings you were carrying.
    I say almost because ‘the time was the time.’ How blessed, as a differently reasoned ‘outsider’, we were to land up on Conti’s more accepting shores.
    Did we see Psycho together one rainy night in Brixton or did I dream that?
    Love as ever and always
    B xxx xxx xxx

    • Oh dearest chum, Italia Conti was a life-saver for me in so many ways, not the least of which was meeting you.

      We did indeed see Psycho together in a Brixton flea-pit, on a double-bill with War of the Worlds. We’d bunked off school! Yikes! Who persuaded who? I fear it must have been me behind it. Can’t imagine you being so naughty without a bit of encouragement. (And the programme definitely sounds like one I’d have wanted to see.) But I’m so pleased you were my co-conspirator.

      I LOVE that film! (Psycho, that is. WotW is crap!)

      • Did we really ‘bunk off?’
        The only time I remember doing that was to go and see Romeo & Juliet and whether that was the ballet, or Olivia’s film I’m unsure.
        Maybe you ‘bunked’ and then I joined you!
        I do remember waving at you across the platform, getting home was creepy but perhaps not as scary for you as me grabbing your wrist just at THAT moment in Carrie!
        Tee scary hee!
        Love B xxx

  6. Oh loved reading this and Johann’s illustrations – thanks to both, the Artlog is SUCH a blog and a great place to hang out, in fact life wouldn’t be the same without it!
    Finally some really original Angela Carter illustrations, bravo!

  7. That was interesting, thoughtful subjects and responses.

    This sort of helpful feature always reminds me of being 24, biking in Ireland, getting sick and camping for some days in the yard of a writer then engaged to a friend of mine–and because of that bit of tenting, bumping into a sculptor who was taking two young poets (younger than me) around to meet established people in the arts. I felt so deeply touched and really longed to live in a smaller country where artists could feel support from older acquaintances in the arts. It made me realize how different things could be. I had already realized that the U. S. was a mighty big place, a tough place for a young person in the arts. It’s a nice thing that you’ve done here!

    I was very taken with Angela Carter (also when I was younger–have not read her in a long, long time) and once took a workshop with her. It wasn’t long before her death, though; I would have liked to see her in a time of strength.

    (On an almost entirely other note–Jarman and gardening and beach cottages and yours. Any influence? Hope I haven’t asked you that already!)

    • I have enjoyed Angela Carter’s books from the start, so I was on high alert for some good Bloody Chamber illustrations when they came along. (It has been a long wait!)

      I believe it behoves the established to give a leg up to those following behind, though it doesn’t always happen. (Shame on those who are well placed to help, and yet don’t!) In this case, I feel the help is more than merited

      Can’t remember whether you’ve asked before, but the answer re Penparc Cottage garden would have to be a resounding yes. Catriona helped design the garden… and supply it… but we were all in thrall to Jarman’s achievements at Dungeness!

      • Yes, I think it the right thing to do, and often a quite satisfying one. As here!

        And I am really grateful to the critic/writer/professor who up and sent a poetry ms. of mine to LSU press. The late Louis D. Rubin, Jr., a generous man to writers, primarily in the Southern states.

        Jarman’s garden had so much drama, I figured it must be a link. Though I do have the feeling that I asked you before and then forgot… I’ll probably ask again in ten years. Ack.

        I made a new page for Maze of Blood and put your detail and comment on it. Nothing else.

    • Me too Liz. Well done Clive and Johann. On Friday, while looking for something else in the shed, I found a painting I did of The Tiger’s Bride when I was about 22. It’s rubbish, but I agree that The Bloody Chamber is irresistible to artists. As to that wonderful sense of carnality and danger in Angela Carter’s work, I often come back to The Magic Toyshop for that same experience. Just awesome.

      • Irresistible to artists/illustrators, though for most, a trap. She’s just so visual that people get seduced, but then anaesthetised.

        Magic Toyshop… YEAHHHHH! Leda and the puppet-swan… What’s not to love?

  8. Wow! The interview – and the topics covered – press so many buttons for me that I will have to go back and read it a few more times to take everything in!

    It appears to me that Johann has passed some sort of Artlog initiation ceremony, with his wholehearted willingness to open himself up to such an in-depth line of questioning. It’s wonderful to see the energy created when two kindred spirits meet.

    I would like to congratulate the interviewer and his subject on a job very well done.

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