Robot Artists and Black Swans

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Four years ago I designed and illustrated a book for Tachyon written by Bruce Sterling, Pirate Utopia. Robot Artists and Black Swans is a kind of sequel, being the work of the same author for the same publisher, and with a similar geographical focus on southern Europe. The new book differs from the earlier one by being a collection of stories rather than a single piece, many of which are set in or near the city of Turin where Sterling and his wife, Jasmina Tesanovic, spend much of their time. Sterling has been living in Europe for many years, long enough to have cultivated an alter-ego, Bruno Argento, an Italian science-fiction writer who is offered as the real author of the stories in Robot Artists and Black Swans.

Pirate Utopia was an easy book to design because of the Futurist theme which I illustrated by adapting graphics by artist and designer Fortunato Depero. For the cover of the new volume I considered trying something similar with another Italian artist/designer, Franco Grignani (1980–1999). In addition to having studied in Turin, Grignani was commissioned by David Pelham to create cover art for a handful of Penguin science fiction titles in the late 1960s. Much of Grignani’s artwork is heavily indebted to the Op Art style popularised by Bridget Riley and Victor Vasarely, especially the early Riley formula of dazzling arrangements of parallel lines, a formula he made his own after Riley’s work evolved in other directions. Despite these favourable qualities, Grignani’s art proved too abstract for my purposes, and for Tachyon’s who wanted something more illustrative, so I ended up co-opting a very different Italian artist/designer, Leonardo da Vinci. The figure of Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man has been parodied and pastiched many times so this isn’t remotely original (I’ve also used the original drawing on a pastiche book cover I designed for the Lambshead Disease Guide), but making the figure a robot was a convenient way of combining the title with Italian history. One of the stories in the collection, Pilgrims of the Round World, concerns the inhabitants of Turin during the Renaissance years, and mentions Leonardo (or “the Vinci boy”) several times, so the figure does have some actual relevance beyond being recognisably Italian. The background is, of course, the city of Turin given a slightly futuristic tweak, although it’s more Turinesque than a match for the place itself.

As usual, I’ll save discussion of the book’s interior until after publication which will be in March, 2021. Watch this spacetime.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Pirate Utopia by Bruce Sterling
Futurismo!

Gustav Meyrink’s Prague

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The Prague Ghetto, 1902, by A. Kaspara.

I looked away from him, and gazed instead at the discoloured buildings, standing there side by side in the rain like a herd of derelict, dripping animals. How uncanny and depraved they all seemed. Risen out of the ground, from the look of them, as fortuitously as so many weeds. Two of them were huddled up together against an old yellow stone wall, the last remaining vestige of an earlier building of considerable size. There they had stood for two centuries now, or it might be three, detached from the buildings around them; one of them slanting obliquely, with a roof like a retreating forehead; the one next to it jutting out like an eye-tooth.

Beneath this dreary sky they seemed to be standing in their sleep, without a trace revealed of that something hostile, something malicious, that at times seemed to permeate the very bricks of which they were composed, when the street was fllled with mists of autumn evenings that laid a veil upon their features.

In this age I now inhabit, a persistent feeling clings to me, as though at certain hours of the night and early morning grey these houses took mysterious counsel together, one with another. The walls would be subject to faint, inexplicable tremors; strange sounds would creep along the roofs and down the gutters—sounds that our human ears might register, maybe, but whose origin remained beyond our power to fathom, even had we cared to try.

(Translation by Mike Mitchell)

Watching Jiri Barta’s films again, and thinking about his unfinished adaptation of The Golem, prompted me to return to the source.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Stone Glory, a film by Jirí Lehovec
The Face of Prague
Josef Sudek
Das Haus zur letzten Latern
Hugo Steiner-Prag’s Golem
Karel Plicka’s views of Prague
Barta’s Golem

Weekend links 496

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Fahrenheit 451 (1966) poster by György Kemény.

• “The novel is constantly assailed by people wanting to conscript it to their own ends. (Other art forms are not similarly burdened; someone yelling ‘What about global warming?’ between numbers at a Keith Jarrett concert would be recognized to have made a category error.)” Jonathan Clarke on the demands that literature should nurture empathy.

• The first three features by Alejandro Jodorowsky—Fando y Lis (1968), El Topo (1970) and The Holy Mountain (1973)—return to Britain’s cinema screens in January (well…two of them return; I’m not sure that Fando y Lis has ever been shown in cinemas over here). All three films will be given overdue blu-ray releases by Arrow in March.

• “What distinguishes Oulipo from other language games, is that its methods have to be capable of producing valid literary results.” Tony White reviews The Penguin Book of Oulipo: Queneau, Perec, Calvino and the Adventure of Form, edited by Philip Terry.

But from a present-day perspective, it is also remarkable the extent to which cafés, busy conduits for knowledge and sentiment, resembled later digitally connected systems. The larger establishments offered not just a huge selection of newspapers, domestic and foreign, but also reference material—maps, dictionaries, encyclopaedias, language lexicons, address books—for writers struggling with their research, or merely trying to settle an argument. The combination of hard facts and caffeinated opinion firing through the steamy analogue ether constituted a local area network of extraordinary reach. In the pre-digital era, the Viennese café offered the greatest possible concentration of current knowledge—for the price of a mélange.

From the Strange Flowers guide to Vienna, part 2

• “People like Edmund Wilson and Isaiah Berlin, they have to love Zhivago to prove that good writing can come out of Soviet Russia. They ignore that it is really a bad book.” Jennifer Wilson on Vladimir Nabokov’s fighting spirit.

• Master animator Richard Williams died in August so here again is the exceptional adaptation of A Christmas Carol made by his studio in 1971.

• Hearing a person: Annea Lockwood remembers her partner, composer Ruth Anderson, whose death was announced last week.

• The London Review of Books has relaunched its website. The paywall is currently down until mid-January so dig in.

Live In Paris by Pharoah Sanders, a previously unreleased ORTF concert recording from 1975.

• Unrising sun: Amos Chapple’s photographs of the polar nights of Murmansk.

Mary McNamara on the rescuing of 200 historic Hollywood backdrops.

• Mix of the week: XLR8R Podcast 623 by Aida.

• At Dennis Cooper’s: Sandy Dennis Day.

The Desert Is A Circle (1970) by Shades Of Joy | The Desert Is A Circle (1971) by Paul Horn | Holy Mountain (1994) by Axiom Ambient

Weekend links 493

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Art by Rand Holmes for Gay Comix No. 1, September 1980.

• In the universe next door, Los Angeles in November, 2019 looks like the drawings in the Blade Runner Sketchbook (1982). The book has been out of print for many years but available online for a while, although seldom in a downloadable form. A recent upload at the Internet Archive remedies this. In addition to the familiar Syd Mead designs for flying cars and street furniture there are some Moebius-like doodles by Ridley Scott, and Mead’s design for Tyrell’s cryogenic crypt, a detail that would have formed part of an unfilmed sub-plot.

• RIP Howard Cruse, comic artist and pioneering editor of the first few issues of Gay Comix in the 1980s. Cruse produced work outside the gay sphere (I first encountered his strips in Heavy Metal) but the stories that he and other artists created for Gay Comix (later Gay Comics) were some of the first by lesbians and gay men chronicling their own lives, as opposed to porn fantasies or the more recent trend of bolting a token sexuality to a superhero. John Seven talked to Cruse about his career in 2007.

• “On the eve of the First World War Stefan George had started recruiting his own twink army…” Well, if you really must have an army… Strange Flowers presents part one of a guide to the city of Vienna.

In Wild Air, 2016–2018: all 72 of Heath Killen’s requests for a list of six interesting things from artists, writers, scientists, ecologists, musicians, historians and others. My answers are at number 55.

• “Satan is a friend of mine”: Sander Bink on a forgotten occult novel, Goetia (1893) by Frits Lapidoth.

• Picturing a voice: Rob Mullender-Ross on Margaret Watts-Hughes and the Eidophone.

• “They broke the rules”: Killian Fox on the film posters of the French New Wave.

• At Dennis Cooper’s: Jan Svankmajer Day.

Ogi No Mato (1976) by Ensemble Nipponia | Rêve (1979) by Vangelis | Blade Runner Esper “Retirement” Edition, Part III (1982)

The Righteous One

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Another week, another new book cover. Author Neil Perry Gordon was in touch earlier this year asking if I could create something for his latest novel set in New York City. Gordon’s previous novels have been historical narratives about the city’s Jewish community; The Righteous One (subtitled “A Cobbler’s Journey into the Dreamworld and Beyond”) follows suit but is slightly different in having more of a fantasy theme:

The Righteous One is the story of Moshe the cobbler, a gentle, sixty-year-old tzaddik—a righteous and saintly Jew—who is called upon to rekindle his divine connection to the Almighty in order to destroy the notorious New York gangster and rasha Solomon Blass, a man who uses his power of foreseeing events via his vivid dreams to advance his own financial interests.

For a guide to the visual content I was given this illustration from Camille Flammarion’s L’Atmosphère: Météorologie Populaire (1888), a picture whose antiquated appearance has often led it to be taken as a much older engraving. It’s also one of those occult or mystical illustrations you see reproduced in many books about magic or the supernatural without any reference to its origin.

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Neil’s request was for his book cover to show a similar barrier between the worlds with his cobbler character being caught between the wake world and the dream world. An engraved style wouldn’t have suited a story set in New York City (even the NYC of the recent past) but I also didn’t want the cover to look like a piece of typical fantasy art filled with Photoshop mists and translucent layers. The final design is modelled on the bolder art styles of Tarot cards, hence the flattened perspective, simplified colouring and distinct outlines. I spent some time researching old New York for this one as I wanted the buildings and street lamps to look accurate. Did you know those old “bishop’s crook” lamps come in a variety of different shapes? I didn’t until working on this.

The Righteous One will be published next month as a Kindle paperback.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Les Terres du Ciel