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.

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Solid Space: Jon Anderson’s cosmic voyage

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Jon Anderson’s solo debut, Olias Of Sunhillow, is reissued this week in a double-disc set comprising a remastered CD plus an audio DVD. I’d been hoping for some time that this album might be given a proper reissue, it’s one I like a great deal but my old CD has never sounded as good as it ought to. The album may command cult status round here but you don’t see it mentioned anywhere outside Yes forums or partisan enclaves like the Prog Archives. This post may be taken as a small corrective to the neglect.

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Olias Of Sunhillow was released in 1976, and was the most unusual of all the solo albums recorded by the individual members of Yes in the mid-70s, being a spin-off from some of the group’s early albums, or at least their cover art. Roger Dean’s first cover work for the group was on Fragile in 1971, for which he painted a miniature world rather like one of MC Escher’s planetoids. This was Dean’s idea, the band had suggested a broken piece of porcelain as the cover image. The back cover of the album showed the same planet in a state of fragmentation with a fish-like spaceship floating above it (see below). Another drawing of the fish-ship was added to the front cover before the album’s release, and it’s this ship, and the narrative it suggests, that leads eventually to Anderson’s solo album. Two years after Fragile, the planetary disintegration had turned into an exodus on the group’s triple-live album, Yessongs, the back cover of which shows pieces of planet being towed through space by a similar fish-ship. The other panels of the cover depict the arrival of these fragments on a newer, larger world. Anderson’s album takes this sequence of events then filters them through Vera Stanley Alder’s mysticism to craft a musical odyssey which Discogs describes as:

…the story of an alien race and their journey to a new world due to catastrophe. Olias, the title character, is the chosen architect of the glider Moorglade, which will be used to fly his people to their new home. Ranyart is the navigator for the glider, and Qoquaq is the leader who unites the four tribes of Sunhillow to partake in the exodus.

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For many years in British music circles it would have been a grave error to even acknowledge this album’s existence, never mind admit to actually liking it. This was partly the old animus against progressive rock, an unexamined prejudice that lasted well into the 1990s, but Anderson’s album had so many strikes against it that it might have stood as the winner of a disapproval lottery for the more ideologically rigid writers and readers of the NME. It’s Jon Anderson (strike 1), the lead singer of progressive rock (2) group Yes (3), whose album is a science fiction (4)/ fantasy (5) concept (6), littered with Tolkien-like invented names and words (7), and with a multi-page sleeve embellished with detailed fantasy illustrations (8) by David Fairbrother-Roe. The design was art directed by Hipgnosis, who subsequently designed the next two Yes albums. Anderson originally wanted Roger Dean to create the packaging, which would have provided a further strike of disapproval against the album, but Dean’s career had gone into overdrive following the publication of Views so he either didn’t have the time or didn’t want to be involved. In Views Dean mentions “another project” based on the fish-ship’s journey which may be a reference to Anderson’s forthcoming album, the credits of which thank Dean for “planting the seed”.

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Roger Dean’s original artwork for Fragile (1971). Another fish-ship was added to the final cover art.

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Double weird

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Two of the books whose covers I was working on late last year have been announced so here they are. This is more work for PS Publishing where wraparound covers are the standard, so once again I was able to work in a pictorial, landscape format. (PS also do their design in-house so I only did the art this time. Click on the pictures below for larger views.)

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Apostles of the Weird is a collection of contemporary weird fiction edited by ST Joshi:

Weird fiction is an incredibly rich and varied genre, running the gamut from supernatural horror to imaginary-world fantasy to psychological terror. This anthology seeks to exhibit the wide range of themes, motifs, and imagery that weird fiction allows, as embodied in the work of some of the leading contemporary writers in the field. (more)

“Weird” is indeed a very broad category so rather than try and create something that represented a single genre I opted for a weird view instead. The idea was to do something like Borges’s Library of Babel in a space that was a hybrid of Piranesi and MC Escher. I was hoping originally to make this more Escher-like, with a number of gravity-defying staircases, but the underlying drawing took so long that I didn’t have time.

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His Own Most Fantastic Creation: Stories About HP Lovecraft is also edited by ST Joshi:

HP Lovecraft (1890–1937), the pioneering writer of weird fiction, has himself become an icon in popular culture. Stories, novels, and other works featuring the gaunt, lantern-jawed gentleman from Providence, Rhode Island, have proliferated. These works have been triggered by the incredible amount of knowledge we have on the writer—his family, his friends, his idiosyncrasies and eccentricities—as found in his thousands of surviving letters. (more)

This was much easier to achieve since HP Lovecraft is familiar territory. The idea here was to do a portrait of Lovecraft situated in a Lovecraftian zone, a colossal idol of a type that might be found in some of his Cyclopean ruins. Lovecraft and his Weird Tales colleagues had a habit of referring to each other in their stories and letters as though they were ancient priests or sorcerers so portraying Lovecraft in this manner is fitting. The combination of perspective and lighting worked against creating an accurate likeness, however—it doesn’t help that Lovecraft’s features are weird in themselves—so the “HPL” icon is there to affirm the identity.

Both books will be published next month if Great Cthulhu hasn’t risen from the depths by then.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Something from Below

Weekend links 412

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Lovecraft: The Myth of Cthulhu, an English-language edition of three comic-strip adaptations by Esteban Maroto, is now available from IDW.

The Coffin House, a short story by Robert Aickman that’s a taster for the new Aickman collection, Compulsory Games. Anwen Crawford wrote an introduction to Aickman’s world of “strange stories” for The New Yorker. Related: Victoria Nelson, editor of the new collection, chooses ten favourite horror stories.

• German music this week at The Quietus: Sean Kitching talks to Irmin Schmidt about his years with Can; and there’s an extract from Force Majeure, an autobiography by the late Edgar Froese, writing about the early days of Tangerine Dream.

• More German music at Carhartt WIP: a lengthy and revealing interview with guitarist Michael Rother about his time as one half of Neu!. There’s also a bonus Neu!-themed mix (and one of the mixes of the week) by Daniel Miller.

• From October last year, a Stereoklang interview with master synthesist Hideki Matsutake (Logic System, Yellow Magic Orchestra, et al).

• “When did you first get interested in esoteric studies?” Gary Lachman interviewed at The Astral Institute.

• At Sweet Jane: early illustrations by Wojtek Siudmak for Plexus magazine, 1969.

• 87 prints and drawings by MC Escher in zoomable high-resolution.

• Meet the Small Press: James Conway of Rixdorf Editions.

• Mix of the week: Goodbyes & Beginnings by Zach Cowie.

Derek Jarman on the trouble with shopping for clothes.

Person To Person (1981) by Logic System | Plan (1981) by Logic System | Prophet (1981) by Logic System

Richter’s “Anchor Blocks”

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It’s safe to say that I wouldn’t have paid much attention to illustrations from a toy catalogue from 1880 if I hadn’t recognised the pictures from their fleeting appearance in Jan Svankmajer’s Jabberwocky (1971). One sequence in Svankmajer’s animated film has a battalion of toy soldiers emerging from the sleeves of a boy’s sailor suit. While the soldiers march around a table, a drawer opens and the wooden blocks within build themselves into a variety of architectural forms. Cut into this sequence are the pictures from Richter’s toy catalogues.

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The latter have intrigued me ever since I spotted them in the film (the edits are typically brief) for their inadvertent Surrealism, a quality that may also have appealed to Svankmajer. Most catalogues devoted to toy blocks would display their potential constructions in a neutral space; Richter’s catalogue shows the block constructions as life-size architectural creations in otherwise realistic settings. The engraved renderings are rather fine as well, which adds to their strange atmosphere. There’s a definite Escher quality to some of the plates, in the shapes of the buildings—some of which resemble Escher’s famous fantasy constructions—and in the disparities of scale, a factor explored in this print.

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The Internet Archive has two Richter catalogues here and here, both of which contain illustrations seen in Svankmajer’s film. Wikipedia has a short history of the blocks which notes that they also appear in Svankmajer’s Alice (1988).

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