Kenneth Anger’s Maldoror

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Kenneth Anger, Topanga Canyon, Composite with Gustave Doré Engraving (1954) by Edmund Teske.

Les Chants de Maldoror, 1951–1952.
16mm; black and white; filmed in Paris and Deauville.

With a hand-held 16mm camera I shot my first series of short haiku. This was my apprenticeship in the marvels that surround us, waiting to be discovered, awake to knowledge and life and whose magical essence is revealed by selection. At 17, | composed my first long poem, a 15 minute suite of images, my black tanka: Fireworks.

I had seen this drama entirely on the screen of my dreams. This vision was uniquely amenable to the instrument that awaited it. With three lights, a black cloth as décor, the greatest economy of means and enormous inner concentration, Fireworks was made in three days.

An example of the direct transfer of a spontaneous inspiration, this film reveals the possibilities of automatic writing on the screen, of a new language that reveals thought; it allows the triumph of the dream.

The wholly intellectual belief of the “icy masters” of cinema in the supremacy of technique recalls, on the literary level, the analytical essays of a Poe or the methods of a Valéry, who said: “I only write to order. Poetry is an assignment.”

At the opposite pole to these creative systems there is the divine inspiration of a Rimbaud or a Lautréamont, prophets of thought. The cinema has explored the northern regions of impersonal stylization; it should now discover the southern regions of personal lyricism; it should have its prophets.

These prophets will restore faith in a “pure cinema” of sensual revelation. They will re-establish the primacy of the image. They will teach us the principles of their faith: that we participate before evaluating. We will give back to the dream its first state of veneration. We will recall primitive mysteries. The future of film is in the hands of the poet and his camera. Hidden away are the followers of a faith in “pure cinema.” even in this unlikely age. They make their modest “fireworks” in secret, showing them from time to time, they pass unnoticed in the glare of the “silver rain” of the commercial cinema. Maybe one of these sparks will liberate the cinema….

Angels exist. Nature provides “the inexhaustible flow of visions of beauty.” It is for the poet, with his personal vision, to “capture” them.

Kenneth Anger—Modesty and the Art of Film, Cahiers du Cinéma no. 5, September 1951

* * *

Little is known about Anger’s activities during the mid-1950s. By 1958 he still had not been able to complete any films in Paris. He held on to his hope of completing Maldoror. His stack of preproduction notes and sketches had grown larger and he had plans to photograph nudes in a graveyard. Several Parisian Surrealists threatened to hand Anger’s head to him if he shot Maldoror. The book’s fluid, dreamlike imagery had been one of the trailblazers of Surrealism, and his detractors felt that a gauche American with a reputation for pop iconography and bold homosexual statement would debase a sacred text.

Bill Landis—Anger: The Unauthorized Biography of Kenneth Anger, 1995

* * *

I discovered the book when I was quite young. I loved it, put a lot of passion into it. I found people to play the parts. I found settings, gaslit corners, places still had the romantic look of a Second Empire. It was a terrific ambition to make this epic film-poem. I found ways to translate the text’s extraordinary images. I planned to film a mid-nineteenth century story taking place in twentieth century Paris. I filmed “the hymn to the ocean” on the beach at Deauville, with Hightower and members of the Marquis de Cuevas Ballet. They danced in the sea; tables were placed beneath the water line so the dancers could stand on their points. It looked as though they were standing on waves. The people who called themselves “Surrealists” were furious—this group of punks threatened me—they didn’t want a Yank messing round with their sacred text. I just told them to go to hell! I also managed to film the war of the flies and pins. I put bags of pins and dozens of flies into a glass container; revolved the container and filmed in close-up. As the pins dropped the flies zigzagged to escape. In slow motion an impressive image.

Kenneth Anger—Into the Pleasure Dome: The Films of Kenneth Anger, edited by Jayne Pilling & Michael O’Pray, 1989

* * *

The sections of the film that were completed [are] stored in the Cinémathèque Française, but [their] exact whereabouts in the archive is unknown, with no images from the film being currently available for reproduction.

Alice L. Hutchinson—Kenneth Anger, 2004

Previously on { feuilleton }
Donald Cammell and Kenneth Anger, 1972
My Surfing Lucifer by Kenneth Anger
Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome: The Eldorado Edition
Brush of Baphomet by Kenneth Anger
Anger Sees Red
Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon
Lucifer Rising posters
Missoni by Kenneth Anger
Anger in London
Arabesque for Kenneth Anger by Marie Menken
Edmund Teske
Kenneth Anger on DVD again
Mouse Heaven by Kenneth Anger
The Man We Want to Hang by Kenneth Anger
Relighting the Magick Lantern
Kenneth Anger on DVD…finally

Illustrating Frankenstein

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Frontispiece by Theodore Von Holst of the 1831 edition of Frankenstein. The monster in this illustration, which Mary Shelley would no doubt have seen, is closer to the description in the text than the myriad shambling figures that came later.

It’s a recurrent feature of commissioned work that you sometimes find yourself illustrating novels or stories you might otherwise have never attempted. Spanish publisher Editorial Alma have just added a new edition of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to their series of illustrated classics, convenient timing with this year being the bicentenary of the book’s first publication. Last year I produced 33 illustrations for Alma’s collection of Poe stories, as well as 3 new illustrations for a small Lovecraft collection. For their edition of Frankenstein I’ve created 24 full-page pictures, one for each chapter. (I produced 25 in total, 24 for the chapters and one for the letters at the front, but the Spanish translation is arranged slightly differently so one of the drawings has been omitted.) In the past I’ve given little consideration to illustrating classic books, preferring to look for subjects which were less familiar. Frankenstein is a book that isn’t illustrated as much as some but Lynd Ward in 1934, and Bernie Wrightson in 1977/78 both produced sufficiently exceptional sets of drawings for me to regard the novel as almost unassailable. Until last year, that is.

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Frankenstein by Lynd Ward (1934).

Despite such formidable predecessors, I felt that with this book at least I might be able to offer something new using the blend of collage and drawing that I’ve been evolving recently. There was additional promise in that the story as it’s written is less familiar than the Poe stories, and much less familiar than its fellow horror classic, Dracula. People think they know Frankenstein but what they often know is the manglings the novel has received in various film and TV adaptations. The Ward and Wrightson illustrations stay close to the text, the latter being replete with period detail, and rendered in a style reminiscent of 19th-century wood engravings. Wrightson even copied two of Gustave Dore’s pictures from The Rime of the Ancient Mariner for the opening scenes on the ship, one of which went unused. But Wrightson’s drawings are closer still to Franklin Booth‘s pen-and-ink style which was also derived from wood engraving yet which achieves its effects in a different manner to the engraving process.

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Frankenstein by Bernie Wrightson (1977/78).

Even when artists follow the text of Frankenstein more closely than the screenplay adapters, personal tastes can’t help manifest themselves. So Ward’s drawings reflect the angular and stylised compositions of his “novels in woodcuts”, while Wrightson’s work still shows evidence of his earlier career as a comic artist. With my illustrations I wanted to reflect the artistic spirit that gave birth to the novel, namely Romanticism. Frankenstein is very much a Romantic tragedy with violent passions set against the overwhelming landscapes of the Swiss Alps, the Rhine valley and the Arctic seas. Three of the illustrations below allude to Caspar David Friedrich’s paintings, while many of the others have had their mundane cloudscapes exchanged for gloom and tumult.

I’ve said before that one of the things I enjoy about the collage technique is being able to use engravings and other graphics from the same period (give or take a few decades) as the story itself. The disadvantage of relying on pre-existing sources is that you’re always limited by the available material, so recently I’ve been pushing the technique further to achieve a hybrid style, something midway between the Ernst/Sätty engraving-collage technique and the very laborious, heavily-shaded pen-and-ink style I used when I was drawing comics. The approach isn’t so different to the one I used in my Lovecraft comics many of whose backgrounds and other details were copied from photographs. The difference is that where I used to spend several days working on a single panel (and two weeks working on a page) I can now create an entire picture in half the time. In these new illustrations I feel the hybrid style is working as I intended, allowing me greater freedom to create the picture I have in mind rather than a picture dictated by the source material. Without incorporating original figures and other drawn elements into the compositions it would have been difficult to illustrate a story with the same characters in so many scenes, a problem I encountered when I was illustrating Lewis Carroll’s Alice books and ran out of pictures of Victorian girls.

The full run of pictures follows below, including the one which was omitted from the print edition. All may be seen at a larger size here. Since the scenes aren’t always self-explanatory I’ve included fragments of text from each chapter.

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“In the morning, however, as soon as it was light, I went upon deck and found all the sailors busy on one side of the vessel, apparently talking to someone in the sea. It was, in fact, a sledge, like that we had seen before, which had drifted towards us in the night on a large fragment of ice.”

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“During one of their walks a poor cot in the foldings of a vale attracted their notice as being singularly disconsolate, while the number of half-clothed children gathered about it spoke of penury in its worst shape.”

This one was omitted from the Alma edition. No loss, really, since the scene doesn’t add much to the story.

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“When I returned home my first care was to procure the whole works of this author, and afterwards of Paracelsus and Albertus Magnus. I read and studied the wild fancies of these writers with delight; they appeared to me treasures known to few besides myself.”

The diagrams here are taken from some of the books the young Victor Frankenstein is reading. There’s an allusion to this in the magic square on the wall in the back of Theodore Von Holst’s frontispiece, the square being the kind of thing seen in books like this one by Cornelius Agrippa, one of the occult philosophers mentioned in the novel.

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Gustave Doré’s Contes Drolatiques

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I mentioned Gustave Doré in the Émile Bayard post last week so here’s something from the man himself. I’ve known a couple of the pictures in this 614-page volume for a long time but it’s taken me until this week to look through them all. Doré began his career as a creator of humorous illustrations, and his early illustrated books were at the lighter end of the scale. His flair for the comic and the grotesque are combined in this 1855 edition of Balzac’s stories with a total of 425 drawings, some of which feature the artist’s taste for violent death. As always with Doré, his drawings were filled and embellished by a team of engravers but this is still a remarkable amount of work. What you see here is a necessarily small selection of the full-page pictures; the entire book may be browsed at the Internet Archive.

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Émile Bayard’s Histoire de la Magie

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Regular readers may have noticed my persistent urge to trace the provenance of certain images or designs. The latest candidate is the above illustration of a witches sabbat, a picture familiar to readers of occult histories in addition to appearing on at least two album covers. It’s the use in occult books which no doubt drew it to the attention of composer John Zorn who used it as a cover image in 2004 for his Magick album, one of a series of occult-themed recordings. The album credits the artwork to Gustave Doré, a plausible candidate given the engraving style but I’m familiar enough with Doré’s work to doubt that it was one of his.

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Earlier this week I was looking for more occult-related imagery so finally conducted a proper search for the sabbat picture. The origin is a French volume by Paul Christian, Histoire de la Magie, Du Monde Surnaturel Et de la Fatalite a Travers Les Temps (1870), and the full-page illustrations are by Émile Bayard (1837–1891). The Doré identification was partially correct since Bayard was a contemporary of Doré’s, and the drawings were engraved by François Pannemaker, an engraver who worked on many of Doré’s books as well as the Hertzel editions of Jules Verne. Émile Bayard is one of those artists whose name is unknown today even though people throughout the world would recognise one of his drawings; his illustration of Cosette from Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables provided the face seen on all those posters and hoardings promoting the popular musical.

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“Paul Christian” was the nom de plume of Jean-Baptiste Pitois (1811–1877), and his study of occult history was a popular book when it first appeared. I can’t say much about its contents but the illustrations (of which these are a selection via this page) show a range that encompasses various myths and religions as well as the expected variants of Western occultism. I’d seen several of Bayard’s other illustrations in a more recent French history of the occult, where the pictures are uncredited. I’ve suspected for years that they might be by the same artist responsible for the sabbat picture so this discovery has laid another nagging question to rest.

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Histoire de la Magie isn’t among the scanned books at the Internet Archive, unfortunately, but a copy may be viewed at Gallica. It’s a shame this is one of Gallica’s older scans which spoils the artwork but you can at least seen the book in full. An English translation was published in the US in 1969, containing notes and additions by living occult experts, but I’ve yet to discover whether this edition retained Bayard’s pictures.

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Narraciones extraordinarias by Edgar Allan Poe

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Berenice.

Narraciones extraordinarias was the first commission that arrived from Spanish publisher Editorial Alma earlier this year but it’s the second one to be revealed here. (Copies of the pictures at a larger size may be seen on the main website.) I confess I was rather dismayed when the request came through for this. I was pleased to have the opportunity to illustrate so many stories but Edgar Allan Poe is a tough brief when Harry Clarke has already created the definitive set of illustrations. The challenge, then, became one of trying to successfully illustrate the stories without repeating anything by Clarke or the many other illustrators who’ve tackled Poe, not least my favourite collagist, Wilfried Sätty.

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Morella.

One advantage of the collection was the inclusion of several pieces that you seldom find in the common English reprints of Poe, stories such as A Tale of the Ragged Mountains. The style is Sätty-esque, of course, although less surreal in approach thanks to the flexibility of digital tools. I’ve been developing this engraving collage style over the past year or so to create a hybrid that blends drawn and collaged material into a seamless whole. When this works, as with The Man in the Crowd (below), you shouldn’t be able to easily tell which elements are drawn and which collaged. (And more importantly, it shouldn’t really matter.) This technique has been developed further in the most recent work I’ve done for Editorial Alma but you’ll have to wait a while to see the results.

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Ligeia.

Despite my initial misgivings, this job worked out better than I expected, not least because the deadline was so tight. Several of these pictures were created in a day, a work-rate common to many comic artists but not one that I’m used to (or happy with) at all. I’m still unhappy with MS. Found in a Bottle which lazily swiped a chunk of a Gustave Doré illustration; if I’d had the time I would have changed it, and if this series of pictures is ever reprinted that’s one I’ll be reworking.

As before, this is a Spanish-language hardback, and the only purchase link I have is an Amazon one. My next contribution to this series should be out early next year.

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The Fall of the House of Usher.

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