On Memory, Love and the Translation of Magic

My current project to make a new illustrated edition of Beauty and the Beast for the publisher Design for Today, has been a strange and challenging one. The starting point had been the 1946 La Belle et la Bête by the artist/playwright/director Jean Cocteau.

It can’t be denied that I’m in thrall to the film, and have been since I saw it in my early teens. But of course being in thrall isn’t the best place from which begin a proper relationship. Thrall paralyses. Like passionate love, it has the power to unhinge and cloud judgement. At the beginning I wanted to respond to the film, but couldn’t find a way to do so without the result turning into a sort of graphic novel version, and I knew that approach was not for me.

When the writer Olivia McCannon accepted my invitation to come on board, the creative conversations she initiated set me on another trajectory, as I knew they would. Words have always been prime motivators in my creative process, and even before any drafts of text emerged, Olivia’s e-mails alone became my sources of inspiration. She returned to the pre-Cocteau fairytales as a preparation to re-examining the film, and that was a huge help in circumnavigating the debilitating awe of Cocteau’s achievement preventing me from making progress. I’ve since learned not to return to the film every time I want to examine an aspect of it, but to recall a sense of how it made me feel after having first experienced it all those years ago. I’ve had to learn the art of translation.

I realise that without videos, DVDs and the Internet, after my cinema viewing of La Belle et la Bête there was a gap of nearly twenty years before I was able to revisit it. Something had flourished in that absence. The love I had for it was of an experience cherished and recalled. It was as much about how I was feeling at that time of first viewing, as it was about the film. In the interim my own creative imaginings had filled in and embellished many missing parts. So now it’s those ideas – the ones that sprang from the first viewing – that I draw on to create images that are both of the film, but also expressions of my dream version of it.

I have to keep working at this phenomenon of ‘recollection’, to ensure I’m in the right place. A technique I use is to sit with a DVD of the film, not watching it but jotting down thoughts in a notebook, prompted by the soundtrack. In this way I’m more able to access deeper memory. It’s the deep memory I need for this work. It gives me more than any studying of the film yields, though of course I’m doing that, too. I study, digest and evaluate. Then I set all that aside and go back further, to the visceral, early response. I read the parts of the text Olivia has offered, and her wonderful notes. Then I set about fitting the jigsaw puzzle together.

7 thoughts on “On Memory, Love and the Translation of Magic

  1. So enjoyed reading about your process Clive. The way you describe how you’ve approached this task and how that has enabled you to find your way to the extraordinary images you’ve been making provides much food for thought. I love the thought of listening to the soundtrack (which in this case is terrific, which helps 😊) and allowing that to conjure ideas.

    • Phil, this is my experience and perhaps not one that others share, but I become distracted by photographic reference. My default with a photograph in front of me is to copy it, and in so doing I stop paying attention to my emotional responses to the subject. So if I have recourse to a photograph at all, then I use it it only at the preliminary stage, when I begin to sketch. As soon as I’ve done enough sketches and don’t require the reference any more, at the point when I’m confidently riffing on the idea, then I put the photographs away and use only my sketches. In 2019 when I was artist-in-residence for English Heritage, and had many, many E.H. buildings to illustrate for the Myths Map, there simply wasn’t the time to visit any, let alone all of the chosen sites. I had to rely on huge digital files of photographs sent by E.H., and often the photographs were not from angles I would have preferred. So I’d sit for hours in front of the computer making dozens of sketches, always pulling away from verisimilitude, even to the point of ‘constructing’ viewpoints and rearranging configurations. (Slightly!!!) While the finished renders were always recognisable enough to fulfil the brief, my real goal was to conjure atmosphere, and that was always better done once I’d finished with the reference photographs. A lot of what I learned on that project, is now being carried over to Beauty and the Beast.

      • Thank you so much for sharing this Clive, I love those Myth Map drawings so much, precisely because they have their own magic. When I use photographs as reference material and stick closely to the photo my drawing looks underpowered , which is not surprising really, there’s just so much information to get lost in; time to step away from the screen a bit more!

  2. Fascinating, and I know exactly what you mean when you describe trying to retain the feeling and reliving it. It’s really hard work remembering and retaining a sensation as it was felt at the time, however you’re obviously doing a wonderful job of it! xL

    • Oh, you sweetie. The trick is ‘trust’! I endeavour to trust in my memory, and not to worry if it turns out I’ve misremembered. It’s the anomalies and misremembered elements that invest character, and the gaps in memory that pave the way for invention. The inventions allow for creativity. It’s a kind of holy writ that artists must study and work from life, and that can be a route to creativity. But there’s no denying that it can also be an impediment. Observational drawing isn’t the route for outsider artists, who happily create from their imagined realities. As with children, their creative route isn’t littered with people telling them how to do things. I’m not an outsider artist, but I do function better when I work from inside my head. I’ve had to learn that.

      • Absolutely, I couldn’t agree more about it being an impediment, I spend much time fighting my instinct to copy, copying is easier than invention, (and less tiring) but the imagination gives far more exciting results as you prove time and again. xx

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