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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Born to be Posthumous: The Eccentric Life and Mysterious Genius of Edward Gorey

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Cover design by Jim Tierney; photo by Richard Corman.

When so many current biographies are recounting the lives of those about whom we’ve already heard a great deal (see the new biography of Oscar Wilde by Matthew Sturgis), a book exploring the career of a previously undocumented yet worthwhile figure is especially welcome. Such is the case with Born to Be Posthumous, Mark Dery’s life of the elusive Edward Gorey: artist, writer, illustrator, book designer, book creator, bibliophile, theatre designer, cat lover and balletomane.

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The Gashlycrumb Tinies (1963).

Gorey’s small books have long been one of the more curious fixtures of American culture: many of them look like children’s books but aren’t (unless the child is Wednesday Addams); others look like comic books but they aren’t comics either. The books are sometimes (but not always) Surrealist fables; or brief accounts of irreducible mystery; or sombre inexplicabilities; or camp ripostes to the pieties of Victorian morality; infrequently spiced with black humour and with lurches into outright horror. Gorey delivered his miniature tales in an idiosyncratic drawing style that combines a cartoon-like stylisation with the density of shading found in old wood engravings, a blend that would prove influential as his popularity grew. As Dery notes in his book’s introduction, without Edward Gorey’s work there would be no Lemony Snicket, while Tim Burton would be a skeletal shadow of his present self. (Given the latter’s current output, this might do him some good. But I digress.)

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The Doubtful Guest (1957).

In Britain, however, Gorey remains a cult rather than cultural figure, still overshadowed by better-known contemporaries such as Maurice Sendak and Charles Addams. Until the publication of the Amphigorey story collections Gorey’s books were produced in small editions with such a limited availability you were more likely to encounter his art on the cover of another author’s book than within the pages of his own. I became aware of Gorey’s work by gradual osmosis. The first substantial piece I read about him was his entry in Philip Core’s Camp: The Lie that Tells the Truth (1984), in which Core’s mention of an art style “recollecting Victorian engravings” marked Gorey as an artist to be investigated. Two years later he received a longer entry in The Penguin Encyclopedia of Horror and the Supernatural edited by Jack Sullivan. (Camp and horror: how many other artists sit so easily in both worlds?) But Gorey is absent from many books about 20th-century illustrators, and despite the sequential nature of his work you won’t find him in histories of comic art.

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Edward Gorey’s Dracula: A Toy Theatre (1979).

In a way it’s fitting that the work of a man who was adamant in his determination to avoid being pinned down should be so difficult to find. But it’s also a shame that the work of an ardent Anglophile should be hard to find in the country that fuelled his imagination. Among Gorey’s literary favourites Dery lists Jane Austen and Agatha Christie together with Ronald Firbank, Saki, and EF Benson’s Mapp and Lucia novels. (The latter trio are all present in Core’s book on camp, which no doubt makes Gorey camp to the core. Whether he would have approved of being labelled as such is another matter.) I wasn’t surprised by the mention of Saki when so many of Saki’s story titles (The Secret Sin of Septimus Brope) sound like Gorey books, while many of the stories themselves are like Gorey scenarios in prose. Not all Gorey’s work is camp or comic, however; the 32 drawings that comprise the wordless masterpiece of The West Wing (1963) are closer to David Lynch or the “strange stories” of Robert Aickman, the latter an author that Gorey illustrated on several occasions. Dery emphasises how Gorey’s love of silent cinema contributed to The West Wing and other pieces, especially the serials of the Surrealists’ favourite filmmaker, Louis Feuillade.

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Weekend links 425

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Art by Ichiro Tsuruta.

• “Writing is so much about subverting dogmatisms of all kinds, above all the ones that insist you cannot go there! You must not say that! Writers need to go anywhere, to take anything on. And the only rule is to do it well.” Rikki Ducornet in a feature at Dennis Cooper’s which has been linked here before but was previously on DC’s old (now deleted) blog.

• “This book-cover trend is turning bookstores into flower shops,” says Kenzie Bryant. “How publishing’s floral-print trend came to rule the world’s bookshelves.” (Where “the world” means the USA, as usual…)

• The third edition of Wyrd Daze—”The multimedia zine of speculative fiction + extra-ordinary music, art & writing”—is out now.

For this listener, Nardis has become a full-on musical obsession. I have more than ninety official and bootleg recordings of the tune stored in the cloud, ranked in a fluid and continually updated order of preference, so they follow me wherever I go. In my travels as a writer, I use Nardis as a litmus test of musical competence: if I see a jazz band in a bar or a busker taking requests, I inevitably suggest it. (If they’ve never heard of it, I understand that they must be new at this game.) By now I’ve heard so many different interpretations, in such a far-flung variety of settings, that a Platonic ideal of the melody resides in my mind untethered to any actual performance. It’s as if Nardis were always going on somewhere, with players dropping in and out of a musical conversation beyond space and time.

Steve Silberman on the obsession that he and pianist Bill Evans share with Nardis, a Miles Davis composition that Davis himself never recorded

• Mixes of the week: Secret Thirteen Mix 263 by Jung An Tagen, and XLR8R Podcast 554 by Tutu.

• “René Magritte still has the power to surprise,” says Sophie Haigney.

Ishmael Reed at the Brockport Writers Forum, 1st May, 1974.

• The On-U Sound label is now at Bandcamp.

Brian Eno talks music, global politics, etc.

Faded Flowers (1985) by Shriekback | Other Flowers (2003) by Harold Budd | White Flowers (2014) by Lutine

Weekend links 409

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Poster for Steppenwolf (1974), a film directed by Fred Haines (his only one) based on the novel by Herman Hesse, and starring Max von Sydow and Dominique Sanda. No artist or designer credited.

• “…in her 20s, she heard two elderly folk singers and was struck by their ‘gentle dignity’. It cemented her own philosophy: ‘No dramatising a song, no selling it to an audience, no overdecorating in a way that was alien to English songs, and most of all, singing to people, not at them.'” Laura Snapes on Shirley Collins and her memoir, All in the Downs.

• Many of the BBC’s sound effects were available for years in necessarily small collections on vinyl, tape and CD. Now you can download over 16,000 of them for free here. The interface is still primitive so try typing some words into the search box to see what shows up.

Carl Swanson on Natalie Frank’s paintings based on Pauline Réage’s Story of O, and the problems these caused when she tried to exhibit them.

• Pictures of the Jazz Age: Regina Marler reviews three books about photographer Berenice Abbott.

• “The late Juraj Herz was a one-man wave of Czechoslovak horror,” says Kat Ellinger.

Mark Dery on William S. Burroughs and the dead-end horror of the Centipede God.

• Mixes of the week: FACT mix 648 by Laraaji, and XLR8R Podcast 538 by Fluxion.

Kashmir by Forming The Void, and Kazakhstan by Brian Eno.

• At Dennis Cooper’s: Dominique Sanda Day.

PixaTool by Kronbits.

Born To Be Wild (1968) by Steppenwolf | Steppenwolf (1976) by Hawkwind | Der Steppenwolf (2015) by Selofan

HR Giger’s Passagen

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HR Giger’s art books were always very thorough in detailing all the media manifestations of the artist’s work, including film and television appearances. For years this presented tantalising questions, especially regarding the lengthy pre-Alien documentaries that were listed there: what were these films, and when would we get to see them? Giger’s Necronomicon (1976) did finally appear on YouTube a few years ago, and now here’s the second of the pair thanks to an upload of what appears to be a Japanese laserdisc.

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Passagen was made in 1972 by Giger’s friend Fredi M. Murer, their third film collaboration after Heimkiller and High (1967) and Swiss Made 2069 (1968). The latter (which Giger co-directed) is still frustratingly absent from the web, and similarly tantalising for being a 45-minute piece of underground science fiction which features Giger’s first production designs for cinema. Passagen was less ambitious, a 50-minute documentary about Giger’s work made for the German TV station, WDR. As a documentary it functions as a companion to Giger’s Necronomicon, while both films complement the subsequent art books, especially Giger’s Necronomicon (the book) which features many of the paintings seen in the films, together with anecdotes about their origins and inspiration. One of these anecdotes, about the nightmares induced in the young Hans Rudi by a stairway in the hotel next door to the Giger family home, is recounted in Passagen alongside the vertiginous drawings the nightmares inspired. It’s impossible to consider this piece of child psychology, and to watch the artist walking up and down stairs and stepladders, without recalling that Giger died after falling down a flight of stairs in 2014.

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Giger’s Necronomicon is the more interesting of the two documentaries, especially now that the life and work is so well known; the art is taken more for granted, and we also get to see Giger at work on one of his big airbrush paintings. Passagen spends much of its time attempting to contextualise Giger’s drawings and paintings for an unwitting television audience, so a great deal of the running time is given over to newsreel footage of wars, riots, terrorism, atomic explosions and so on. A geneticist discusses the effects of atomic mutation while Giger’s earliest series of pictures, Atomkinder, is shown; psychoanalysts examine his paintings from a psychosexual angle.

Of more interest for Giger aficionados is the presence of his partner at the time, Li Tobler, the subject of several memorable portraits from this period. Among the working shots, the best shows Giger improvising a drawing with the same speed as Philippe Druillet in the Ô Sidarta film. Giger only started using an airbrush in 1972 so most of the works seen here are either early drawings or the paintings in the Passagen and Alptraum series, the style and colouring of which is much closer to the art world of 1972 than anything which would follow. For me the greatest revelation comes early on when Giger picks out a record to play while he’s working. The disc he chooses is just identifiable as Universal Consciousness by Alice Coltrane, an album which had been released the year before. (This isn’t the music heard on the soundtrack, however.) Alice Coltrane’s brand of ecstatic, pan-religious jazz would seem remote from Giger’s own universe but the choice isn’t so surprising if you know that he’d been a jazz enthusiast since the 1950s; in The Book of Alien (1979) his list of influences includes HP Lovecraft, John Coltrane and Miles Davis.

As is evident from the screen grabs, the film is hard-coded throughout with Japanese subtitles. Unlike Giger’s Necronomicon there’s no English overdub either, the soundtrack is in German throughout. I can’t complain when I’ve been waiting so long to be able to see this at all. For those who watched the later film divided into four YouTube clips there’s now a complete version (also Japanese but with English overdub) here.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Heimkiller and High
The Man Who Paints Monsters In The Night
Hans by Sibylle
HR Giger album covers
Giger’s Necronomicon
Dan O’Bannon, 1946–2009
Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Dune
The monstrous tome