François Schuiten record covers

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Claudine Simon (1980) by Claudine Simon.

Continuing an occasional series about artists or designers whose work has appeared on record sleeves. Belgian artist François Schuiten is a familiar name here, being the co-creator with Benoît Peeters of the Obscure World, one of my favourite zones of fantastic invention. The Obscure World has grown to become a multimedia endeavour so Schuiten’s involvement with some of the later entries in this post goes beyond providing the cover art to being connected to the music itself.

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De Wolkentrapper (1983) by Herman van Veen.

Herman van Veen is a Dutch writer and singer who produced a number of albums and singles in the 1980s featuring Schuiten cover art. The gravity-defying people are from an early comic strip unattached to the Obscure World mythos, Going to Pieces.

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Signale (1984) by Herman van Veen.

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De Wisselaars (1985) by Herman van Veen.

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Sedimental Journey (1985) by Peter Principle.

The Obscure World makes its cover debut on this solo release by the late Peter Principle, bass player in Tuxedomoon. Principle was American but Tuxedomoon were based at the time in Europe, and their record label, Crammed are Belgian. Obscure World aficionados will recognise the structure about to be submerged by a vast wave as the Network, an inexplicable object first seen in Fever in Urbicand (1985).

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Le Dossier B by Schuiten and Peeters

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Almost ten years have elapsed since I devoted a week of blog posts to one of my favourite fantastic creations, the Obscure World/Obscure Cities of Belgian artist-and-writer team François Schuiten and Benoît Peeters. Schuiten and Peeters’ mythos is a multi-media project with a series of bande desinée albums as its core, a cycle of stories which introduce the reader to some of the cities in the Obscure World (a “counter-Earth” on the opposite side of our Sun), and which are connected by recurrent characters and motifs. Since the completion of the core series, Schuiten, with occasional help from Peeters, has expanded the mythos to encompass other books that flesh out some of the world’s invented history and its connections to our own world, together with other manifestations such as art exhibitions and music releases. Le Dossier B (1995) is a peripheral Obscure World production, a 54-minute TV documentary which entangles the genuine history of 20th-century Brussels with an invented secret society who believe in the existence of a twin city, Bruzel, that intersects with the Belgian capital.

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Le Dossier B was directed by Wilbur Leguebe from a script by Leguebe with Schuiten and Peeters. Valérie Lemaître plays the on-camera investigator, “Claire Devillers”, while artist and writer appear in roles that match their personalities. Schuiten is seen in silent footage as “Robert de la Barque”, an artist whose obsession with Brussels’ vast Palace of Justice provides clues to the Bruzel mystery via the eccentricities of its architect, Joseph Poelaert. Peeters appears later in the investigation as “Pierre Lidiaux” the author in 1960 of Le Dossier B (a book which has since vanished), his own study of the connections between Brussels and Bruzel. We first see Lidiaux being interviwed on a TV arts show, then later as the presenter of his own eccentric and unfinished film about Antoine Wiertz, the real-life Belgian painter of vast canvasses on morbid subjects whose museum Lidiaux explores. Aside from the well-realised historical fakery, one of the pleasures of Leguebe’s witty and imaginative documentary is the spotlight it throws on the history and culture of Brussels and Belgium. I hadn’t realised, for example, that the Wiertz Museum is so close to the European Parliament building which was still under construction when the film was being made. Elsewhere there are references to Magritte, Delvaux and Art Nouveau architect Victor Horta, and we catch a glimpse of work by another great Belgian painter, Jean Delville.

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The last third of the film is based around the researches of one James Welles (Adrian Brine), a British historian whose book-length study, Shadows in the Night: A Secret Society in Belgium, explores the connections of yet more historical figures with the Bruzel mystery, including the aforementioned Horta and chemist Ernest Solvay. The historian’s surname may be taken as a deliberate choice: Orson Welles was the director of another documentary mixing fact and fiction, F for Fake, while Welles’ appearance as Falstaff in Chimes at Midnight provided Schuiten with the model for the central character in La Tour, one of the albums in Schuiten and Peeters’ Obscure Cities series.

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Some of this territory is explored in another of the Obscure Cities albums, Brüsel, especially the building of the Palace of Justice and the concept of “Brusselisation”, a pejorative French term for the rapid demolition of historical quarters of a city to make way for new construction. Where Brüsel has the freedom of the comics medium to refashion the capital in a fantastic manner, Le Dossier B uses the material of our world to suggest another city (possibly the one depicted in the album) whose existence we never see. Apart, that is, for the suggestion near the end of the film that the Bruzel of the secret society is the Brussels of today, a city which has overwritten the Brussels of a century ago, just as the invented encyclopedia in Borges’s Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius gradually changes the world at large to match its contents.

Le Dossier B is available on DVD but seems to be sold out for now. Alternatively, it may be watched at YouTube in an unsubtitled copy that’s been uploaded in the wrong aspect ratio. The really determined may wish to do what I did: download the video, grab some English subtitles, then watch it in VLC with the aspect ratio set to 16:10. A lot of messing around but it works.

(My thanks to Brussels resident Anne Billson for the YT link!)

Previously on { feuilleton }
Urbatecture
Echoes of the Cities
Further tales from the Obscure World
Brüsel by Schuiten & Peeters
La route d’Armilia by Schuiten & Peeters
La Tour by Schuiten & Peeters
La fièvre d’Urbicande by Schuiten & Peeters
Les Murailles de Samaris by Schuiten & Peeters
The art of François Schuiten
Taxandria, or Raoul Servais meets Paul Delvaux

The mystery of trams

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Chateau de Labonnecuyere (c. 1970s) by The Brothers Quay.

Trams are a recurrent feature in the early drawings of the Brothers Quay, and they’ve also appeared in the Quays’ earliest animated films and in some of their designs for the stage. I respond to this fetishisation on the deepest level having been born and raised on the Fylde coast of Lancashire, an area which was for many years the only place in Britain that kept its tramways after the rest of the country had given over the streets to buses and cars. Trams are so ingrained in my consciousness that I still dream about the trams of my childhood, many of which were rattling, streamlined things dating back to the 1930s. Manchester was tramless when I arrived in the city in 1982 but a few years later the council embarked on an ambitious and far-sighted scheme to return trams to the city’s streets. The first routes opened in 1991, and the network has been evolving ever since, pushing out of the centre along disused rail lines.

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La Rue du Tramway (1938–1939) by Paul Delvaux.

The Quays aren’t alone in being attracted to this form of public transport. Trams haunt a certain type of oneiric European imagination, and I often wonder where the attraction lies. I think it’s something to do with their small scale and the way they remain bounded within the cities they serve. Trains have a romance and mythology of their own but are wide-ranging and far more common, as are buses whose presence on a city street is a reminder that the tram can be replaced. The Quays are Europhiles so they no doubt see the trams of the Continent as another feature of European city life that’s more arresting to American eyes. This post gathers some of the Quays’ uses together with other notable (and favourite) examples.

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Tram nocturne (1950) by Paul Delvaux.

Several of the examples listed here are Belgian which either means that trams exercise the Belgian imagination more than that of other nations, or I happen to pay more attention to Belgian art. (Probably a little of both.) Paul Delvaux put trams into several paintings but seems to have been the only Surrealist to do so.

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The trams that haunt my imagination are the cream-and-green vehicles that trundled for decades up and down the Fylde coast between Blackpool and Fleetwood. These machines used to run along the line at the end of the street I grew up in so there’s never been a day I can remember when I wasn’t aware of the tram—and of these vehicles in particular—as a viable mode of public transport. Looking at the websites of tram enthusiasts reveals the different names for each generation of Blackpool trams; so I now know that the bow-ended ones (which I always liked) are known as Brush Railcoaches, while the double-deckers are known as Balloons. None of these names were ever used by locals.

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Back to Belgium, and the comics and illustrations drawn by the marvellous François Schuiten are filled with trams. I’ve written at length about the Obscure World mythos of Schuiten and Peeters so rather than repeat myself I’ll point to the mystery of Tram 81, a recurrent and unexplained presence in Schuiten’s work.

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Nocturna Artificiala.

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Nocturna Artificiala.

Trams for the Brothers Quay are the small European variety rather than the streetcars seen in some American cities. One of the brothers’ Black Drawings, Chateau de Labonnecuyere, features a pantographed vehicle that glides through their later animated films. The first of these, Nocturna Artificiala (1979), is a wordless masque involving the yearning relationship between the solitary puppet character and an empty, nocturnal tram. The film is an animated extension of Chateau de Labonnecuyere which not only features the drawing itself but also includes a unique moment where the tram glides through the vast cathedral seen in the background.

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Leos Janacek: Intimate Excursions.

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Leos Janacek: Intimate Excursions.

The power-line supports seen in Chateau de Labonnecuyere are a recurrent motif in the Quays’ works. They appear together with the Nocturna Artificiala tram in Leos Janacek: Intimate Excursions (1983), and may be glimpsed among the faded detritus in Street of Crocodiles (1986).

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Avalon.

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Avalon.

I don’t know what the Quays would make of the science-fiction scenario of Mamoru Oshii’s Avalon (2001) but the recurrent scenes of a nocturnal tram journey would probably appeal, especially since the tram in question is a Polish one. Mamoru Oshii is the director of many SF-oriented animations, not least The Ghost in the Shell (1995). Avalon was a surprise when it appeared (and then seemed to vanish all-too-quickly): a live-action drama concerning the players of a virtual reality game which can have lethal consequences for the contestants. The film was made in Poland with a Polish cast, and the scenes are heavily processed throughout, with everything given a sepia wash. Coming after The Matrix, Dark City et al, the virtual reality aspect wasn’t so much of a surprise but I loved the juxtaposition of a futuristic story in a run-down European setting. And the trams, of course. The dream-like atmosphere of the film’s mundane scenes brings everything back to Delvaux and his tram nocturnes.

I was going to add Tramway (1966) to this list, a short student film directed by Krzysztof Kieslowski, but it’s not especially mysterious. It’s worth a look if you like Kieslowski, however, and may be watched here. If anyone has suggestions for other mysterious trams then please leave a comment.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Paul Delvaux: The Sleepwalker of Saint-Idesbald

Urbatecture

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Spotted at Neatorama this week, Cédric Dequidt‘s Urbicande lamp, a cubic design which appears to be sinking into the table. The Neatorama people don’t seem aware that the name of the lamp refers to Fever in Urbicande (1985), a comic book by François Schuiten and Benoît Peeters, and the second volume in the masterful Cités Obscures series.

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Fever in Urbicand: Urbatect Eugen Robick ponders the properties of the strange cube which is invulnerable yet able to grow through solid materials.

The mysterious para-dimensional cube and its effects on the divided city of Urbicande have been described here already. Fever in Urbicande is my favourite of the core stories by Schuiten and Peeters, and it seems to be one of the more popular of Schuiten’s creations to judge by the lamp and some of the spin-off works that follow.

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Fever in Urbicand: Several months later, and the cube has burgeoned into a city-spanning “Network”.

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Esquisses Décoratives by René Binet

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The work of French architect and designer René Binet (1866–1911) has been featured here before with one of his most famous creations, the monumental gate he designed for the Paris Exposition Universelle of 1900. Philippe Jullian in his 1974 book about the exposition, The Triumph of Art Nouveau, calls the gate the “Porte Binet” and also notes that it was referred to as “the Salamander” for its resemblance to the salamander stoves of the period.

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The reference to nature is apt, albeit for a different reason, since it was Ernst Haeckel’s Kunst-Formen der Natur which Binet used as inspiration for his designs, the encrustation on the gate being based on Haeckel’s studies of shell forms. This influence was developed four years later in Binet’s Esquisses Décoratives, a series of speculative designs which applied Haeckel’s work to architecture and interior design as a whole; the Porte Binet can be seen on the title plate above and the print there seems to have been either signed by or dedicated to Haeckel.

Art Nouveau design is usually thought of in terms of the curvaceous style derived from Alphonse Mucha and others, but there were several designers of the period looking to nature for inspiration in a way which went beyond William Morris’s application of plant forms to flat surfaces. Binet’s lamp designs below show how Haeckel’s sea-life could be transmuted into enclosures for electric lights. These designs hint at a direction which went unexplored in the 20th century; the Art Nouveau style was steadily vulgarised after the Exposition Universelle until it was replaced altogether by the development of Art Deco following the First World War. Binet went on to design the extension of the Paris department store, Printemps, but his huge Art Nouveau atrium was later destroyed by fire.

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There aren’t many examples of Binet’s designs on web pages, the ones here are from this Flickr set and a vintage print seller. There is a recent study of Binet’s work available, however, René Binet: from Nature to Form by Olaf Breidbach. For an idea of how an entire city based on Haeckel might look, we have Schuiten and Peeters’ imaginary metropolis of Blossfeldtstad whose “Vegetalistic” architecture was featured in an earlier post.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Le Palais de l’Optique, 1900
Exposition Universelle films
Exposition jewellery
Exposition Universelle catalogue
Exposition Universelle publications
Exposition cornucopia
Return to the Exposition Universelle
The Palais Lumineux
Louis Bonnier’s exposition dreams
Exposition Universelle, 1900