My Illustration Heroes. Part One: Sendak, Potter, Trnka, Bombová and Legkobit

Above: book cover by Ukranian illustrator Vyaceslav Legkobit

I wish that art wasn’t compartmentalised. I wish that every time I talk about making images for books… for their covers or their pages… I didn’t have to think so carefully about how to describe what I do. I know I’m not an illustrator. That description would be misleading, suggesting talents and experiences that I don’t possess. But I know within my chosen sphere, I have transferrable skills that serve me well enough to make a cover for a novel, or a vignette for a page of poems. Or make a picture-book. So I dance about when asked, and say I am a painter who sometimes makes book-covers. When being grandiloquent, I lay claim… particularly in relation to working with Marly Youmans, for whom I have made more covers and vignettes than any other author… to being an ‘illuminator’, because that suggests something different in terms of my ambition. Many of the artist/illustrators I most admire might be said to be illuminators inasmuch that they shed light on text, which is the quality I most aspire to.

My favourites? Well, the list has changed over the years, though some of the names remain constant. There are many artist/illustrators I greatly admire, Ardizonne, Bawden, and the contemporary Isabelle Vandenabeele being among them. But here I’m going to stick to the artists whose books are never far from my hand, and whose creations inspire me at every turn.

Maurice Sendak is a genius. A god, even, in book terms. His drawings for The Juniper Tree (in two volumes) are one of the great achievements of twentieth century book illustration.

Moreover he resolutely refused to talk down to children, knowing that they understood only too well the complexities of life, and that it was his duty to be emotionally truthful in his books for them.

So much of what I most admire is European in origin. Interestingly Sendak, searching for inspiration when preparing to make his images for The Juniper Tree, came to Europe because he wanted the German landscape to be present in the finished images, and the European illustration (and engraving) traditions, to underpin his version of the Grimm Brothers’ tales.

During the trip Sendak visited Wales, where he discovered in the Wye Valley a dramatic, conifer-wooded and mood-drenched landscape he recognised as being a spiritual equivalent of what he’d been searching for on the continent. Wales became, in part, a stand-in for what he’d sought in Germany, and his drawings made in the vicinity of Tintern Abbey were later referenced for the  Juniper Tree illustrations. In his diary of the time, he wrote “Use Wales for cheerfulness, Germany for gloom.”

In company with Sendak, Beatrix Potter, too, is a genius. Her characters are drawn with precision, and although they walk on their hind legs and dress in clothes, it would be a mistake to consider her sentimental.

Like Sendak, Potter is truthful. We have no doubt about the intentions of the sandy-whiskered gentleman toward Jemima Puddle-duck, and the black Berkshire pig, discovered by Pigling Bland in Mr Piperson’s farm, answers bluntly when Bland enquires why she was stolen, ‘Hams’!

There’s no getting around what Pig-wig knows to be the fate of her kind, and Potter doesn’t mislead the young readers. Read the stories again if you doubt me. It’s not just Potter’s illustrations which are works of genius. Her prose is glitteringly sharp. There’s not an extraneous word. She pares to the bone, and the stories are all the better for it. When I read Potter, I know I hear her true voice.

Jiri Trnka was a Czech artist, illustrator, puppet-builder and film-maker. He made images for countless books, and among my favourites are the two volumes he made for the publisher Paul Hamlyn of stories by Hans Anderson and the Grimms.

Both volumes are on my shelves in multiples, because they were published more than once, and some versions are better produced than others.

The cross-fertilisation between Trnka’s disciplines bring a compositional dynamic to his illustrations that enlivens the books. Moreover, he is a master of mixed media, which gives his illustrations a wonderful vitality.

An artist that few will be familiar with now, and I include her on the strength of a single book that I adore: Die Goldene Frau (The Golden Woman), published in 1972. Illustrator Viera Bombová was active principally in the 60s and 70s.

She won awards at the Biennial of Illustrations Bratislava in 1967 and 1969. Images for Die Goldene Frau are considered to be among her best, something I can’t verify, as it’s the only work of hers that I’ve seen. If you love illustration, find a second-hand copy of this book. There are plenty available online.

Vyaceslav Legkobit continues to be a mystery. I’ve written about him before at the Artlog, and by the time I’d finished that post, I knew considerably more than when I’d started. To put it baldly, he vanishes.

He vanishes from the worlds of publishing, and from any records I’ve been able to trace. That he’s highly regarded by so many artists and illustrators is phenomenal, given that there isn’t a massive body of work to examine. He caught something direct and universal in the fragile, paper-bound books that he produced images for, and it works as well today, as it did when freshly minted.

To be continued

Die Goldene Frau

The dust-jacket of Die Goldene Frau by Samo Czambel, illustrated by Viera Bombová. Altberliner Verlag Lucie Groszer. Berlin, 1972.

Die Goldene Frau (The Golden Woman, 1972) is the retitled German edition of Janko Gondášik (Swine Herdsman Janko, 1969), a series of Slovak folk tales originally compiled at the turn of the century by Samo Czambel. The illustrator is Viera Bombová (born 1932), and her images for the book are considered to be among her best. Active principally in the 60s and 70s, she won awards at the Biennial of Illustrations Bratislava in 1967 and 1969.

The mixed media images glow with colour and are dense in texture. Close examination shows that there are collage elements in them. They don’t so much walk the fine line between representation and abstraction, as dance along it.

Referencing folk art without slavishly imitating it, they become meditations on the text, and while immensely sophisticated are capable of captivating the child’s eye just as effectively as the adult’s. They are astringent, dazzling, dream-like. There is no dumbing-down and no cuteness. There is nothing of the overly-literal that dogs so many illustrated collections of this type. These are illustrations of the first order, and the book is packed with them.

In the various translations and editions that have passed through my hands, the images are incorporated into the text, printed onto matt paper. Because of this the quality of colour can be variable. I own French and German editions, and the German one has slightly more intensely coloured images. The variation is typical of books of the period in which illustrations have been printed onto matt paper. I have several editions of the two collected fairy tales (Anderson and the Brothers Grimm) illustrated by the great Jiri Trnka, acquired because I’d occasionally find another copy with better colour.

Die Goldene Frau 

Below: stamped heads on the front cover of the book.