Johann Christian Rohl in the wolf’s den: part 1

It’s no surprise that illustration students are drawn to The Bloody Chamber, Angela Carter’s masterful re-working of familiar fairytales worn threadbare with use, into darkly jewelled narratives dripping with sensuality. Beguiled by prose rich with descriptive passages, it might seem a tantalising illustration prospect to anyone innocent of how monstrously difficult it is to partner such heady imaginings. Like Carroll’s Alice, exhaustively illustrated for a hundred and fifty years, though rarely in ways that sit comfortably with the text (I discount Tenniel because he was the first and the most enduring, and I bow my knee and doff my cap to the sublime Mervyn Peak), Angela Carter’s Bloody Chamber at once attracts illustrators, and then promptly compromises them by leaving no room for their contributions. Carter is the siren crouching on the rocks above the maelstrom, singing strange songs to those bright-eyed limners flocking to her call, all of them doomed. Until, that is, Johann Christian Rohl came along.

Rohl recently graduated from Cambridge School of Art with a degree in illustration. He’s been drawing since he was a toddler. His grandmother, alert to his creativity, was impressed enough to compile a surviving folder of his early work, so thanks to her we can see the way he was thinking from the start. There’s an impressive and undeniably creepy drawing of a witch, barrel-shaped and amphibious, scary hands fringed with multiple, scratchy fingers springing directly from her body. Johann was thinking in terms of witchy nastiness from the start.

His student portfolio of illustrations for Carter’s tale The Company of Wolves may be slender, but it’s none the less impressive for that. Were they to be in a book, these images would be perfect counterpoints to pages of text. They are not so dense, nor at first glance so arresting as to pull the eye from the words. Illustration, after all, should not fight for attention. At the turn of any page, no illustrator should be going head-to-head with the author. (And any who did, with Angela Carter, would simply lose the fight while wrecking the experience for the reader.)

Rohl draws beautifully, with fine and supple lines that conjure unexpected horrors. The images glitter with a lightness of touch. There’s lots of paper showing, which makes them airy, though look closely and there are areas complex with mark-making (see above), like the tracks of birds in snow.

So, we have here grotesqueness in plenty, not hidden in shadows, but bright with forensic clarity. This is an unusual combination, horror rendered without darkness. It means the draftsmanship has to be faultless, and with Rohl, it always is.

Poring over Rohl’s drawing of a beastly transformation (see above), is as compelling as staring into the workings of a pre-digital watch. You feel that the artist understands the anatomy as surely as though he had dissected a werewolf in a pathology lab. The image is utterly compelling, and yet it doesn’t bludgeon the viewer. Colour adds a little raw meat to the dish. Rohl’s palette through three of the four images, a dull green and red oxide, is spare and works hard. His black, when densely applied, is mesmerising, as in the five furiously scribbled patches of discharge from a butchered trunk, or in the slab of horizontal darkness through which a frosted and bloated fly, drunkenly careers.

Finally, with an image of a snow-bound landscape that only black graves and fir-trees punctuate, with no fuss the artist nails the Northern European terrain of fairy tale, anchoring the drawings with a sense of place. Moreover, as a parting shot, something hard to define is coming at you out of the bristling ramparts of that terrible forest.

Clever work, to conjure dread with a pencil. But then Rohl is deft at effortlessly stage-managing his effects, including sound. In the top image, the droning of a blowfly, and above, the soundtrack to that ball-numbing wasteland of white… a deadly silence.

I would love to see what Johann Christian Rohl would make of the great M R James’ Ghost Stories of an Antiquary! He should certainly read them.

In Part 2, I’ll be interviewing Johann