Jodorowsky times three, or The box that never was

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The first three feature films by Alejandro Jodorowsky—Fando y Lis, El Topo and The Holy Mountain—are released this week on Region B blu-ray by Arrow Video, but the box they’re packaged in won’t look like any of the designs shown here. It was almost three years ago that Arrow asked me to create something for this box set, but backstage wrangles meant the project moved out of my hands in the early stages. This was a great disappointment since Jodorowsky’s interests and aesthetics align with my own much more than many other directors whose work has been released by Arrow. And having written the notes for the Arrow release of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s The Mystery of Picasso, I was looking forward to working with the company again.

In preparation for the work I rewatched almost all of Jodorowsky’s films (I still haven’t seen Tusk or The Rainbow Thief), then drew up a detailed proposal with sketches, something I seldom do for commissions. Arrow releases all have double-sided inserts in the boxes that hold the discs, one side of which shows a poster design from the film’s original release, the other a new design. My idea for the new art was to connect the three films using Tarot-like iconography (the director is a Tarot scholar, among other things), with each film also being assigned a symbol of some kind. The Surrealist fable of Fando y Lis lacks any suitable graphics so for this I chose a yin and yang symbol to represent the film’s opposed-yet-connected brother and sister characters; El Topo was to be represented by a cross-section through a revolver chamber, while the seven characters from The Holy Mountain are represented by the enneagram that Jodorowsky himself wears in the film. All three symbols are connected by the eye-in-a-triangle from El Topo, a symbol that worked while a three-film box was being planned but which wouldn’t have worked for the final release which adds Jodorowsky’s most recent film, Psychomagic, A Healing Art. For the box design I suggested metallic inks (or foils) either as highlights or in other combinations. The font was a further suggestion, Roberta being one of the typefaces of the occult revival of the 1970s. The art for each film didn’t go further than the sketch stage although I was asked to work up the El Topo design into a final piece; I wasn’t very satisfied with the end result so it isn’t posted here. One problem with the extended negotiations was they were taking place at a time when I was extremely busy with other projects, including contracted illustration work for Editorial Alma. There was no contract for the Arrow commission so it had to take second place even though it was the work I most wanted to be concentrating on at the time. Collisions such as these are an occupational hazard when you’re working freelance.

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As things turned out the stumbling block wasn’t my art and design suggestions (which Arrow liked) but the parties described in communications as “the rights-holders”. These individuals apparently disliked the Arrow Video aesthetic and wanted something more directly connected with the films, preferably photographic material which is what you now see on the discs and the box art. It should be emphasised that the rights-holders are not the director, whose wishes for the presentation of his work were never part of the discussion. Given the previous activities of the rights-holders we should probably be grateful that the first three films have been reissued at all. For details of Jodorowsky’s difficulties with one rights-holder in particular, see this interview by Jay Babcock.

On the upside (there is one!), the box set is a typically high-quality Arrow release, with new transfers of the films approved by the director. The bonuses include Jodorowsky’s short films (including his explanation of Tarot symbolism), Louis Mouchet’s feature-length documentary, La Constellation Jodorowsky (1994), soundtrack CDs of El Topo and The Holy Mountain, a small poster and set of postcards, and a substantial booklet. In the end the most important thing is that the films are available for home viewing once again, not their exterior decoration.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Fabulas Panicas by Jodorowsky
• Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Dune
• Jodorowsky on DVD

The Egyptian Tarot

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I: The Magus

While looking at Tarot designs for work purposes (again) I remembered a book I used to own that demonstrated the symbolism of the Major Arcana by using side-by-side comparisons of cards from the more well-known decks: the Tarot de Marseille, Aleister Crowley’s Thoth deck, the Rider-Waite-Smith cards, and so on. One of the decks shown wasn’t so familiar, a 19th-century design that purported to depict the Ancient Egyptian figures from which the modern Tarot is derived. Like much occult history, this is an invention but I liked the look of the cards with their simple line drawings and clever matching of Egyptian motifs with the traditional symbols. My book was borrowed years ago and never returned (the second Tarot book I’ve had this happen to; don’t lend people your Tarot books!), so I couldn’t look for a reference, but this account of the history of the so-called Egyptian Tarot supplies all the relevant details and more.

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II: The Gate of the Sanctuary

The examples shown here are from Practical Astrology (1901), a book by Edgar de Valcourt-Vermont writing under the preposterous pseudonym “Comte C. de Saint Germain” (a real person, albeit dead by 1901, with a long history of appropriation by writers and charlatans). The drawings are reworkings of the first appearance of the Egyptian designs in an earlier book, Les XXII Lames Hermètiques du Tarot Divinatoire (1896) by R. Falconnier, the drawings there being the work of one M.O. Wegener. In addition to copying the designs Valcourt-Vermont filled out the set with a Minor Arcana of his own devising that looks distinctly amateurish next to the Wegener set. Since then the cards have continued to evolve, a more recent version being the Ibis Tarot which colours the drawings in a manner that doesn’t really suit this type of art. The cards shown in my errant book were memorable in part because they stood out from their vividly-coloured counterparts.

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III: Isis-Urania

It’s good to see these again, and also surprising to discover a further detail, that the Wegener drawings had been based on descriptions by Paul Christian in another occult study, Histoire de la Magie (1870). Christian’s book was the subject of a previous post for also being the source of an illustration of a witches’ sabbat that turns up all over the place, usually without credit. Not for the first time, the occult world is smaller than it seems.

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IV: The Cubic Stone

Wikipedia has copies of the drawings from the Falconnier book which may also be seen at Gallica, although the copy I found there was incomplete. The Valcourt-Vermont designs were published as a complete deck, The Egyptian Tarot, by Müller in 1978.

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V: Master of the Arcanes

Continue reading “The Egyptian Tarot”

Weekend links 529

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Naruto Whirlpool, Awa Province, from the series Views of Famous Places in the Sixty-Odd Provinces (c. 1853) by Utagawa Hiroshige.

• Eric Margolis: “Yukio Mishima may have gone out in an inglorious blaze in 1970, but three of his previously untranslated works have been released in the English-speaking world in the last two years, with another on the way.” The forthcoming novel is Mishima’s only venture into science fiction (!), A Beautiful Star. The book was filmed by Daihachi Yoshida in 2017.

• “[Ace in the Hole] did well in Europe but not here, perhaps because Americans expected a cocktail and felt I was giving them a shot of vinegar instead.” Billy Wilder discussing his career with Charles Higham in 1967.

• Mixes of the week: All these things invisible by The Ephemeral Man, and Secret Thirteen Mix 306 by Yogev Freilichman.

“So I got a phone number for Vangelis, he was living in Paris and I went there and called him up. He said (affects a gruff Greek accent) ‘Hello’, I said, ‘My name’s Jon Anderson’. He said ‘What?’ I said, ‘I’m in a band called Yes’, he said, ‘Are you a singer? Well, come over’, so I went over. There was this big guy with a long kaftan on and a bow and arrow around his shoulder. I got into his palatial apartment near the Champs-Élysées and there’s quite a long hallway down to his living room, and there’s a little old man there sitting by the TV. Vangelis takes out his bow and sends this arrow down the hallway and it goes right through the window, because the window was open. I said, ‘Vangelis, you could have killed somebody’, he said, ‘Oh, don’t worry, I’m Greek’. I said, ‘I know you’re Greek, but come on’.”

Jon Anderson talking to Duncan Seaman about his first encounters with Vangelis

Tarot cards though the ages; examples from a new book on the subject published by Taschen.

The Suspended Vocation again: Ryan Ruby on Pierre Klossowski, “Brilliant Brother of Balthus”.

• Secret Sound podcast #17 is devoted to The Galaxy of Turiya aka Alice Coltrane.

• At Dennis Cooper’s: Shaye Saint John Day.

Kenneth Anger smiles!

Make Me Smile (Come Up And See Me) (1975) by Steve Harley and Cockney Rebel | Uncertain Smile (1983) by The The | Fleeting Smile (1988) by Roger Eno

Hazardous design

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Cover design by Elizabeth Story.

Our present viral moment reminded me that I hadn’t written anything about Peter Watts is an Angry Sentient Tumor, a collection of essays by Canadian science-fiction writer Peter Watts whose interiors I designed for Tachyon last autumn. Watts has a special interest in biology, and several of the pieces in the collection are partly or wholly concerned with pandemics; needless to say, when I was adding a biohazard symbol to one of these pages six months ago I didn’t expect such a situation to be the event that defined the coming year, although for anyone who’s read enough SF (or horror, for that matter), potentialities like this tend to lurk in the back of your mind. Watts’ essays are mostly blog entries—much more substantial ones than the brief things I usually file here—together with a few articles from print sources. The contents range from polemics about police violence and the creeping surveillance state to personal entries covering his late brother, his father’s closeted sexuality, his beloved cats, and a near-fatal experience with a flesh-eating virus. There are also film reviews, scientific speculations and musings/warnings about global calamities, especially the climate variety. His writing is consistently witty, engaging and thought-provoking. The book was a pleasure to read as well as work on.

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As with other interiors I’ve designed for Tachyon, I took the design cues from the cover, which in this case was the work of Elizabeth Story. The internal graphics are a combination of writhing tentacles and hazard/warning signs, the latter being taken unaltered from public information sets or adapted to suit the content of the piece. In a way they’re a sequel to the Tarot symbols I designed in 2006 based on graphics from the international symbols commonly used in public buildings. The bespoke designs were fun to create, and required some ingenuity in places: how do you show global warming in a simple, wordless symbol? My solution was to put a globe in a frying pan. There are 50 essays in all so the examples shown here represent a fifth of the book.

For an idea of Watts’ writing together with his thoughts about the pandemic, his most recent post is here. He’s not the only person who’s been saying we should expect more events like this one in the future.

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Continue reading “Hazardous design”

The Righteous One

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Another week, another new book cover. Author Neil Perry Gordon was in touch earlier this year asking if I could create something for his latest novel set in New York City. Gordon’s previous novels have been historical narratives about the city’s Jewish community; The Righteous One (subtitled “A Cobbler’s Journey into the Dreamworld and Beyond”) follows suit but is slightly different in having more of a fantasy theme:

The Righteous One is the story of Moshe the cobbler, a gentle, sixty-year-old tzaddik—a righteous and saintly Jew—who is called upon to rekindle his divine connection to the Almighty in order to destroy the notorious New York gangster and rasha Solomon Blass, a man who uses his power of foreseeing events via his vivid dreams to advance his own financial interests.

For a guide to the visual content I was given this illustration from Camille Flammarion’s L’Atmosphère: Météorologie Populaire (1888), a picture whose antiquated appearance has often led it to be taken as a much older engraving. It’s also one of those occult or mystical illustrations you see reproduced in many books about magic or the supernatural without any reference to its origin.

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Neil’s request was for his book cover to show a similar barrier between the worlds with his cobbler character being caught between the wake world and the dream world. An engraved style wouldn’t have suited a story set in New York City (even the NYC of the recent past) but I also didn’t want the cover to look like a piece of typical fantasy art filled with Photoshop mists and translucent layers. The final design is modelled on the bolder art styles of Tarot cards, hence the flattened perspective, simplified colouring and distinct outlines. I spent some time researching old New York for this one as I wanted the buildings and street lamps to look accurate. Did you know those old “bishop’s crook” lamps come in a variety of different shapes? I didn’t until working on this.

The Righteous One will be published next month as a Kindle paperback.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Les Terres du Ciel