David Britton, 1945–2020

db.jpg

Mister Rock’n’roll, 1969.

David Britton, author, artist and publisher, died on 29th December. I wrote this for the Savoy Books news announcement:

My closest artistic collaborator from 1989 to 1999, and a close friend for longer than this: capricious, determined, fearless, funny, generous and inspirational. No David Britton, no Lord Horror; no Lord Horror, no Reverbstorm. He changed my life.

He’d been increasingly ill for several years so this came as less of a surprise to those of us close to him than to others. Dave and I used to talk at least once a week, and on the last occasion he’d sounded worse than usual. Those talks were episodes in a conversation about art that ran for over 30 years, beginning in the mid-1980s at the counter of the Savoy bookshop in Peter Street, Manchester, continuing in the Savoy offices with co-publisher and collaborator Michael Butterworth, and resuming on the phone; art in all its forms and in any medium, with no attention paid to categories of “high” and “low”.

reverbstorm-covers.jpg

Reverbstorm, the Lord Horror comic series that we created throughout the 1990s, was the product of those conversations, and was also produced mostly through conversation, working by instinct without a script. The series, which was compiled into definitive book form in 2012, is testament to a pooled breadth of interest, encompassing/quoting/appropriating/reworking Pointillist, Cubist and Expressionist painting, Modernist poetry, pop songs, Sondheim musicals, Finnegans Wake, Tom Phillips’ Humument, Burne Hogarth’s Tarzan comics, Joel-Peter Witkin’s photographs, voodoo chants, Piranesi, King Kong, Bauhaus graphic design, Hugh Ferriss architecture, and illustration of all kinds, from fairy tales to cosmic horror via Aubrey Beardsley and Harry Clarke; there’s even ballet in the mix if you look closely. Dave always liked the idea of Lord Horror leaping and pirouetting like a dancer. More than anything, Reverbstorm is rock’n’roll, and this is partly what the title refers to: a thundering rhythm.

wf2.jpg

Britton art from Weird Fantasy #2, 1971. This is the drawing that caught the attention of William Burroughs when Britton and Butterworth visited Burroughs in New York City in 1979.

The term “rock’n’roll” always requires qualification when considering the Britton oeuvre, he used it with regularity while remaining bitterly aware that the original charge of the words had been degraded by over-use, reduced to a caricature by too many mediocre music acts and lazy journalists. I chided him a couple of times that his use of the term was functionally meaningless, a synonym for “my favourite things”. But the application was always a serious one, a label for any work that he found sufficiently thrilling, wild, original, excessive, anarchic, flamboyant, boundary-breaking or confrontational. Little Richard, Larry Williams, Howlin’ Wolf and Bo Diddley were Dave’s kind of rock’n’roll, as were Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band, PJ Proby, Iggy Pop, the Sex Pistols, The Cramps, The White Stripes and the Wu-Tang Clan. No surprise there, but Burne Hogarth was also rock’n’roll, although Hogarth would no doubt have disputed this. Another favourite artist, James Cawthorn, was given the label because Dave had discovered Cawthorn’s work when his teenage rock’n’roll obsession was at its height; two forms of art were permanently bound together, with sword & sorcery recast as the literary equivalent of a delinquent musical idiom. Dave’s other artist collaborator, Kris Guidio, was rock’n’roll for having served time as a peerless portraitist of The Cramps. LaVern Baker was rock’n’roll, as was CL Moore. Aubrey Beardsley was rock’n’roll and Harry Clarke was rock’n’roll; William Burroughs and William Hope Hodgson were rock’n’roll, so were Michael Moorcock and Harlan Ellison. Francis Bacon and Paula Rego were rock’n’roll; Alan Clarke was rock’n’roll and so was David Lynch. The quest for more of this rare commodity was relentless and unceasing. Many of our conversations were little more than enthusiastic discussions of shared favourites, or recommendations to watch/read/listen to something new.

stormbringer.jpg

The first Savoy publication from 1976—Cawthorn adapting Moorcock’s apocalyptic Elric novel—was a declaration of intent: maximum rock’n’roll.

The photo at the head of this post is one that Dave had reused in recent years, one of the few portraits he seemed to like. It first appeared inside his debut publication, Weird Fantasy #1, a genre fanzine that was also enough of an underground publication to receive a passing mention in Oz magazine. The picture is emblematic of the Britton character, dressed in a manner at odds with the north Manchester surroundings he grew up in, and where he was still stuck at the time, a world of back-to-back housing and squalid ginnels. Rock’n’roll in all its forms was the great escape from a world of severely limited horizons and circumscribed lives, where all you could look forward to after a few years of poor education was a job in the local mill or factory. People who dismiss the gaudier forms of entertainment as “escapist” are usually middle class and blessed with comforts and opportunities that reinforce their condescensions; people who never had to consider a life so lacking in promise that a song heard on the radio, a vinyl record, a comic book, a paperback found on a market stall, might be the key to a wider world, an affirmation that there was more than the brick walls of your immediate environment, and there could be even more than this. “Escapist” suggests a hiding away but it also means breaking free. In later years Dave maintained a sporadic correspondence with Alan Moore; they never met but were mutually supportive, thanks in part to a shared background as bright boys from working-class backwaters with no encouragement to try and transform their lives through their escapist enthusiasms. Alan maintained an affection for his background, but Dave seldom spoke of his without a shudder, as though he’d evaded a fate worse than death. One thing he retained from north Manchester was an ebulliently vulgar sense of humour. He agreed with Picasso that good taste is the enemy of creativity.

lh.jpg

David Britton’s first novel wasn’t one he considered his best but it remains the most notorious thanks to the conscientious literary assessments of the Greater Manchester police.

I’ll miss Dave’s infectious humour, just as I’ll miss the conversations that so often provoked it, the quest for better art, some new kind of kick, more rock’n’roll. I’ll miss being able to show him something I know he’ll enjoy. He always liked quotations so I’ll end this with a lengthy one from Walter Pater, the aesthetic theorist whose ideas energised the Decadents and the founders of The Savoy, the magazine from which Savoy Books took its name. It summarises Dave’s attitude to life even if he’d never discuss things in such a grandiloquent manner:

…we are all condamnes, as Victor Hugo says: we are all under sentence of death but with a sort of indefinite reprieve—les hommes sont tous condamnes a mort avec des sursis indefinis: we have an interval, and then our place knows us no more. Some spend this interval in listlessness, some in high passions, the wisest, at least among “the children of this world,” in art and song. For our one chance lies in expanding that interval, in getting as many pulsations as possible into the given time. Great passions may give us this quickened sense of life, ecstasy and sorrow of love, the various forms of enthusiastic activity, disinterested or otherwise, which come naturally to many of us. Only be sure it is passion—that it does yield you this fruit of a quickened, multiplied consciousness. Of this wisdom, the poetic passion, the desire of beauty, the love of art for art’s sake, has most; for art comes to you professing frankly to give nothing but the highest quality to your moments as they pass, and simply for those moments’ sake.

Previously on { feuilleton }
James Cawthorn: The Man and His Art
A Reverbstorm jukebox
Reverbstorm: an introduction and preview

Max Ernst’s favourites

ernst1.jpg

The cover for the Max Ernst number of View magazine (April, 1942) that appears in Charles Henri Ford’s View: Parade of the Avant-Garde was one I didn’t recall seeing before. This was a surprise when I’d spent some time searching for back issues of the magazine. The conjunction of Ernst with Buer, one of the perennially popular demons drawn by Louis Le Breton for De Plancy’s Dictionnaire Infernal, doubles the issue’s cult value in my eyes. I don’t know whether the demon was Ernst’s choice but I’d guess so when many of the De Plancy illustrations resemble the hybrid creatures rampaging through Ernst’s collages. Missing from the Ford book is the spread below which uses more De Plancy demons to decorate lists of the artist’s favourite poets and painters. I’d have preferred a selection of favourite novelists but Ford was a poet himself (he also co-wrote an early gay novel with Parker Tyler, The Young and Evil), and the list is still worth seeing.

ernst2.jpg

Poets: Charles Baudelaire, Friedrich Hölderlin, Alfred Jarry, Edgar Allan Poe, George Crabbe, Guillaume Apollinaire, Walt Whitman, Comte de Lautréamont, Robert Browning, Arthur Rimbaud, William Blake, Achim von Arnim, Victor Hugo, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, William Shakespeare, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Lewis Carroll, Novalis, Heinrich Heine, Solomon (presumably the author of the Song of Solomon).

Painters: Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Giovanni Bellini, Hieronymus Bosch, Matthias Grünewald, Albrecht Altdorfer, Georges Seurat, Piero della Francesca, Paolo Uccello, Lucas Cranach the Elder, Hans Baldung, Vittore Carpaccio, Leonardo Da Vinci, Cosimo Tura, Carlo Crivelli, Giorgio de Chirico, Henri Rousseau, Francesco del Cossa, Piero di Cosimo, NM Deutsch (Niklaus Manuel), Vincent van Gogh.

I’ve filled out the names since some of the typography isn’t easy to read. Some of the choices are also uncommon, while one of them—NM Deutsch—is not only a difficult name to search for but the attribution has changed in recent years. The list of poets contains few surprises but it’s good to see that Poe made an impression on Ernst; the choice of painters is less predictable. Bruegel, Bosch and Rousseau are to be expected, and the same goes for the German artists—Grünewald, Baldung—whose work is frequently grotesque or erotic. But I wouldn’t have expected so many names from the Italian Renaissance, and Seurat is a genuine surprise. As for Ernst’s only living contemporary, Giorgio de Chirico, this isn’t a surprise at all but it reinforces De Chirico’s importance. If you removed Picasso from art history De Chirico might be the most influential painter of the 20th century; his Metaphysical works had a huge impact on the Dada generation, writers as well as artists, and also on René Magritte who was never a Dadaist but who lost interest in Futurism when he saw a reproduction of The Song of Love (1914). Picasso’s influence remains rooted in the art world while De Chirico’s disquieting dreams extend their shadows into film and literature, so it’s all the more surprising that this phase of his work was so short lived. But that’s a discussion for another time.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Viewing View
De Plancy’s Dictionnaire Infernal
Max Ernst album covers
Maximiliana oder die widerrechtliche Ausübung der Astronomie
Max and Dorothea
Dreams That Money Can Buy
La femme 100 têtes by Eric Duvivier

Weekend links 451

smith.jpg

Manifold (2015), a painting by Samantha Keely Smith which will appear in April on the cover of Life Metal, a new album by Sunn O))).

• At Expanding Mind: Professor and queer historian Heather Lukes talks with Erik Davis about Silver Lake riots, gay bikers, house ball scenes, the nostalgia for repression, and the joys and challenges of working on the online archive The Grit and Glamour of Queer LA Subculture.

A Stroke of Ingenious: Chatting Fear and Fantasy with Darius Hinks.  Also this week, Darius Hinks’ The Ingenious (for which I created the cover art) was featured in a Barnes & Noble list of seven attractive (if hazardous) fantastic cities.

• “From the late ’60s and through the ’70s broadcasters invested in home-grown kids’ television, and much of it was decidedly weird.” Paul Walsh on the vanished, thought-provoking strangeness of British TV.

That late surrealism still needs rescuing by curators and critics is perhaps not a sign of its defeat but of the breadth and pervasiveness of its triumph. Could we have Pablo Picasso or Jackson Pollock without surrealism? What about David Lynch, JG Ballard or Angela Carter? As an influence, it’s easy to give [Dorothy Tanning] a crucial place in the canon of feminist art. Louise Bourgeois was born just a year later than Tanning but only started to sew after Tanning had exhibited her first sculptures.

Lara Fiegel on the weird, wild world of Dorothea Tanning

After its own death / Walking in a spiral towards the house by Nivhek, a new album from Liz Harris (Grouper) “recorded using Mellotron, guitar, field recordings, tapes, and broken FX pedals”.

• At Dangerous Minds: Michael Rother (Neu!/Harmonia) on the forthcoming reissue of his solo albums from the 1970s.

Clesse by Clesse, another pseudonymous musical project by Jon Brooks (The Advisory Council et al).

• After Dark: The art of life at night—and in new lights by Francine Prose.

Elena Lazic on where to begin with Gaspar Noé.

• Mix of the week: Headlands by David Colohan.

Steven Heller‘s confessions of a letterhead.

• RIP Albert Finney.

• Void (2009) by Monolake | Void (2013) by Emptyset | Void (2014) by The Bug feat. Liz Harris

The Mystery of Picasso

picasso1.jpg

I mentioned late last year that I’d written the booklet notes for a forthcoming DVD/blu-ray of The Mystery of Picasso (1956) by Henri-Georges Clouzot, a film receiving its blu-ray premiere this month courtesy of Arrow Academy. The discs are now on sale (UK only, I’m afraid) either online or anywhere that stocks Arrow titles. (Fopp is my preferred outlet.) For those outside the UK, the restored film is also available on iTunes. Clouzot’s film was regarded as an oddity in the 1950s, the director being best known for outstanding thrillers like The Wages of Fear and Les Diaboliques. Today The Mystery of Picasso is regarded as one of the great films about art for the way it successfully captures Picasso in a decade when he was still fervently productive, despite being in his 70s.

picasso2.jpg

Almost all films of this type favour the documentary approach, usually with a camera and interviewer dogging the subject’s footsteps while showing little of the creative process. Picasso wouldn’t have participated in anything like this—he was appalled by a documentary he saw about Matisse—but Clouzot persuaded him that a film could be made showing him drawing and painting in a studio environment. This approach had precedence in Paul Haessarts’ short film from 1949 (included among the disc extras) which showed Picasso in his studio at Vallauris; the film ends with a series of paintings on glass of various animals and human figures. Clouzot expanded on Haessarts’ idea with the full range of film technology: time-lapse, black-and-white stock, colour stock and Cinemascope. The works Picasso creates for the camera aren’t his best—how could they be when they were being produced at speed in sweltering, time-constrained conditions? But the film is a miraculous portrait of an artist whose name is still universally recognised almost fifty years after his death. By chance or design, it’s also a partial portrait of Clouzot himself who appears in several of the shots to discuss new camera setups.

There’s no need for me to say more about the film when I discuss it at length in the booklet. For a review of the disc contents, there’s a substantial appraisal here. For more about Henri-Georges Clouzot I recommend the study by Christopher Lloyd which was invaluable for its details about the film’s production.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Picasso-esque
My pastiches
Cubist Cthulhu

1918

dardel.jpg

The Dying Dandy by Nils Dardel.

Wishing you all a happy new year with a small selection of art from a century ago.

baumann.jpg

Schicksal by Fritz Baumann.

blumenfeld.jpg

Black Still Life by Genrich Matveevich Blumenfeld.

dechirico.jpg

Two Heads by Giorgio de Chirico.

Continue reading “1918”