More Swans and Robots

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Real Italian fantascienza is an authentic expression of Italian culture, which is brainy, nerdy, gutsy and pulp, it’s far-out but down-home, and raw but civilized. I would not proclaim that it’s the best fantasy writing ever created in the world, but it encourages and motivates me.

Bruce Sterling talking to Paul Semel about his collection of fantascienza stories, Robot Artists and Black Swans. My cover design was posted here last September; the book itself is published this week by Tachyon so I can at finally reveal the interior illustrations. Sterling’s collection presents seven stories written by his Italian alter-ego, Bruno Argento, with several of them appearing in English for the first time. The Italian theme informs the design as well as the content, although the associations aren’t always as obvious as they are in my illustrations for Sterling’s earlier fantascienza book for Tachyon, Pirate Utopia, the art and design for which adapted graphics by the Italian Futurists.

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As I mentioned in the earlier post, while searching for more recent Italian graphics I came across the work of Franco Grignani (1908–1999), a designer whose most famous work was the Woolmark logo, one of those international symbols that most people will have seen even if few know who was responsible for its creation. The Woolmark’s black-and-white stripes are typical of Grignani’s designs, many of which work variations on the eye-jangling Op Art style pioneered by Bridget Riley. Grignani’s work seemed at first as though it might offer a suitable model for the cover design but it quickly became apparent that his style wasn’t suitable for this title so I went in another direction. Grignani’s influence is present inside the book, however, in the more abstracted illustrations, and in the parallel lines that provide a connecting thread between the stories and their illustrations. The Eurostile fonts used throughout the book also have an Italian flavour. They’re a little clichéd for science fiction but I liked the way they combined SF associations with more Italian design, being the work of Alessandro Butti and Aldo Novarese.

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The other design influence, and a more identifiable source, is MC Escher, a choice prompted by the black swans in the title. Escher’s tessellated patterns feature a variety of animals, swans included, so I adapted two of the artist’s swan patterns to prevent the illustration from being robot-heavy. Escher also has an Italian side, as it happens; he enjoyed holidaying in Italy, and the vernacular architecture of the country’s small coastal towns may be found in many of his lithographs. The Escher swans led in turn to a self-indulgent illustration that fills two pages at the front of the book, something that came about after I was playing with Penrose triangles in Illustrator. I’d made a group of these impossible shapes into a construction which a little tweaking turned into a piece of equally impossible architecture, rather like those in the Escher-influenced mobile game, Monument Valley. All that was required to flesh things out was to cover the walls in a brick pattern then add a few swans and robots.

Continue reading “More Swans and Robots”

Weekend links 562

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Teenage Lightning (Les Éclairs au-dessous de quatorze ans) (c. 1925) by Max Ernst.

• “There has never been another director who has lain in wait for us with the same wrath or disgust. He is so complicated that finally he became the very thing he was nervous of admitting, a true artist best measured in the company of Patrick Hamilton, Francis Bacon, or Harold Pinter. He saw no reason to like us or himself.” David Thomson on why Alfred Hitchcock’s films still feel dangerous.

• New music: “Habitat, an environmental music collaboration by Berlin based composer Niklas Kramer and percussionist Joda Foerster, is inspired by the drawings of Italian architect Ettore Sottsass. Each of the eight tracks represents a room in an imaginary building.”

• “You could describe Lambkin’s work as a rich sort of ambient music, but largely without the synthetic textures that ambient music often possesses.” Geeta Dayal reviews Solos, a collection of recordings by Graham Lambkin.

Tom of Finland: Pen and Ink, 1965–1989 is an exhibition at the David Kordansky Gallery, Los Angeles, which runs to 1st May. The website includes a virtual tour.

• More revenant gay art: Bibliothèque Gay reviews a new Spanish translation of Baiser de Narcisse by Jacques d’Adelswärd-Fersen.

• Introducing Ark Surreal: “Surreal collages by Allan Randolph Kausch. Some cute and sweet, others dark and intriguing.”

• At Artforum: Albert Mobilio on Extra Ordinary: Magic, Mystery, and Imagination in American Realism.

• At Spoon & Tamago: Shizuoka is installing monuments inspired by their plastic model industry.

• At Dennis Cooper’s: Jordan Belson Day.

Museum of Everything Else

• RIP Bertrand Tavernier.

Teenage Lightning 2 (1991) by Coil | Teenage Lightning (1992) by Skullflower | Teenage Lightning (Surgeon Remix) (2001) by Coil

Body Shocks

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Presenting my latest cover design for Tachyon Publications, and one which it hardly needs stating is another collection of horror stories edited by Ellen Datlow. Body horror is the general theme but these aren’t all accounts of evisceration and dismemberment of the type that made the later Pan horror collections an increasingly dismal read. Several of the stories are outright science fiction, while the final entry, Tissue Ablation and Variant Regeneration: A Case Report by Michael Blumlein, is a Ballardian critique of a former US President that unnerves with its dispassionate medical tone.

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The cover design for this one went through many drafts before everyone was satisfied, the placing of the solitary eyeball being the crucial element. This is something of a stereotype on horror covers, a feature I’ve seen often enough to have it mentally tagged as “the Eyeball of Horror” (see above). But design stereotypes evolve because they serve their purpose so well, as this one does. Some of the earlier drafts incorporated anatomical diagrams but none of the results were really satisfying, especially when a large amount of text also needed to be placed on the cover. In the past I might have posted one or two of these early versions but I was dissuaded from doing this when Jonathan Barnbrook wrote about the gentle rebuke he received from David Bowie after he showed the preliminary stages of his cover design for Bowie’s The Next Day. Bowie’s attitude was that making public a working version changed the audience’s perception of the end result, a comment that comes to mind every time Spine has a new post showing drafts of recent cover designs.

Body Shocks will be published in October.

Previously on { feuilleton }
The Monstrous
Lovecraft’s Monsters unleashed
New work: Two forms of darkness

R. Shteyn’s Viy

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My weekend viewing was the recent double-disc release from Eureka: Viy (1967), a Russian film directed by Georgi Kropachyov & Konstantin Yershov with Aleksandr Ptushko, and A Holy Place (1990), a Serbian film directed by Djordje Kadijevic. Both features are based on Viy, a story by Nikolai Gogol which the author described as a transcription of a Ukrainian folk tale although the piece is assumed to be Gogol’s invention.

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The story concerns Khoma, a seminarian in Kiev, whose alarming nocturnal encounter with a witch is followed by a seemingly unconnected summons to a Cossack village where a young woman has just died. The woman’s last wish was that Khoma should say prayers for her, something he’s reluctantly compelled to do when this involves spending three nights locked in the church where her coffin lies. The events in the church are the heart of the story, and involve a reanimated corpse, a flying coffin, and a climax involving a visitation by “the unclean powers”, all of whom try to attack Khoma by breaking into a circle he’s drawn around himself. The monstrous Viy is described by Gogol as the “chief of the gnomes” although the Russian filmmakers offer no such description of the shambling creature that a crowd of vampires lead into the church. Ukrainian gnomes are evidently a world away from the miniature beings that populate British gardens.

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These drawings by R. Shteyn (or Shtein) are from a heavily-illustrated Russian printing from 1901 which may have contributed to the 1967 film: many of the scenes in the film closely resemble the illustrations, especially the appearance of the main characters and the Cossack villagers. These are only the full-page drawings but they include the climactic appearance of the terrible Viy. The rest of the drawings may be seen here.

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Continue reading “R. Shteyn’s Viy”

Weekend links 561

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The next release on the Ghost Box label, Painting Box is a collaborative seven-inch single by Beautify Junkyards and Belbury Poly, the A-side of which is a cover of a song by The Incredible String Band. Available on 30th April. Design, as always, is by Julian House.

• “What is good for you as a person is often bad for you as a writer. People will tell you that this not true, and some of the people who will tell you that are also writers, but they are bad writers, at least when they try to convince you, and themselves, that the most important thing for a fiction writer to have is compassion.” Brock Clarke on the case for meanness in fiction.

• The week in non-human intelligence: “Life beyond human has to play by the rules of natural selection,” says David P. Barash, and Thomas Moynihan on dolphin intelligence and humanity’s cosmic future.

Ilia Rogatchevski speaks with historian Juliane Fürst about her new history of Soviet hippies and the counterculture of the former USSR.

• Mushroom with a view: Karen Schechner at Bookforum talks with Bett Williams about her mycological journey.

• Retro instinct versus future fetish: Fergal Kinney on Stereolab’s Emperor Tomato Ketchup 25 years on.

• At Dennis Cooper’s: Spotlight on…JG Ballard: The Atrocity Exhibition (1970).

This is Hexagon Sun: A feature-length video on Boards of Canada.

• Mix of the week: The Ides by The Ephemeral Man.

• New music: Gyropedie by Anne Guthrie.

Paintbox (1967) by Pink Floyd | Orgone Box (1989) by Haruomi Hosono | God Box (1996) by Paul Schütze & Andrew Hulme