La Vie Électrique by Albert Robida

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Albert Robida (1848–1926), a French illustrator and writer, might be less well-known today had he not authored several books which attempt to predict what life might be like in the 20th century. He was sufficiently well-regarded in his lifetime to be given the task of imagining “Old Paris” for one of the attractions at that cult event of mine, the Exposition Universelle of 1900. These days his work mostly appears in histories of science fiction as a result of books such as Le Vingtième Siècle: La Vie Électrique, a comic novel published in 1890 that looks at French life in the distant year of 1955. The attitude may be humorous, with a drawing style that resembles the contraptions of William Heath Robinson rendered by Gustave Doré, but some of Robida’s predictions are as prescient as those of HG Wells. The inhabitants of France in the 1950s may still dress like those in the 1890s but they communicate via “Téléphonoscope” while the military wage biological and chemical warfare. The usual fleets of fanciful airships fill the skies; the idea that everyone in the future would be the owner of a flying-machine goes back a long way. Robida also shows submarines, transit tubes connecting cities, and pollution caused by the new technologies.

La Vie Électrique is copiously illustrated so the selection here is a necessarily small sample. Anyone wishing to see the whole book can browse it or download it at the Internet Archive.

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Max Reinhardt’s Dream

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In which the great German theatre director goes to Hollywood to show America how to stage Shakespeare. Nearly everyone who was anyone in pre-war German cinema passed through Max Reinhardt’s Deutsches Theater in Berlin so it seemed natural that he’d gravitate eventually to film himself. The 1935 production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream was directed by William Dieterle but it’s very much a Reinhardt production, especially in the fantastic opening of Act II where the fairies dance into the moonlit sky on paths of mist accompanied by Mendelssohn’s music. With its blend of music, dance and lavish production design Dieterle’s film gives us some idea of the harmonising artistry at work in Reinhardt’s stage productions.

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There are other reasons to recommend this version over later adaptations, not least James Cagney’s performance as Bottom. A fifteen-year-old Mickey Rooney played Puck although he’s frequently more annoying than mischevious. Then there’s the mystery of whether that’s the young Kenneth Anger uncredited in the role of The Changeling Prince. Anger has always claimed it was him (he was a child actor for a while), Anger biographer Bill Landis agrees but plenty of other people have disputed the claim in recent years. The best viewing I had of the sequence in which the Changeling appears was on a big screen in a season of Kenneth Anger’s films in 1990. Whether Anger played the part or not, the charm of Dieterle’s film subtly invests The Magick Lantern Cycle, from the glittering surfaces in Eaux D’Artifice and the artificial forest in Rabbit’s Moon, to the appearance of Mickey Rooney’s Puck on a TV screen in Scorpio Rising. Anger’s later works were productions of Puck Films, their motto “Lord, what fools these mortals be!”

Ideally the magical opening of Act II would be on YouTube but it seems not. This scene, however, gives an idea of the atmosphere, while Doctor Macro has stills and more information.

Previously on { feuilleton }
The Midsummer Chronophage
Another Midsummer Night
A Midsummer Night’s Dadd
William Heath Robinson’s Midsummer Night’s Dream

Illustrating Poe #5: Among the others

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The Conqueror Worm (c. 1900) by František Kupka.

Poe’s illustrators are legion, you could easily devote an entire blog to nothing but depictions of his stories and poems. By way of rounding off this week of posts I thought I’d point to some of the works which have caught my attention over the years, several of them being obscure enough to warrant further investigation.

František Kupka’s drawing is, as far as I can gather, one of a series based on Poe’s poem; this seems to be a related piece. As with many Symbolists artists, you can spend a great deal of time scouring the available resources to find more of their work. We’re told that one of Kupka’s more well-known paintings, The Way of Silence (1903), was inspired by the poem Dream-land.

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Berenice (1905) by Alberto Martini.

Alberto Martini (1876–1954) is a fascinating artist whose work bridges the decline of Symbolism and the rise of Surrealism. He’s also another talent whose work is woefully underrepresented on the web so let’s hope that changes soon. Wikipedia describes him as having produced 135 Poe illustrations of which only a small handful are visible online, and most of the ones that are go unlabelled. I know this one is for Berenice since I have it in a book but any Poe reader should guess the title from those blazing teeth. A few more of Martini’s drawings can be seen here.

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Illustrating Poe #4: Wilfried Sätty

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Here it is, the book that began my fascination with the collage art of Wilfried Sätty (1939–1982), a German artist and psychedelic poster designer resident in San Francisco during the 1960s and 1970s. Warner Books published his Poe collection in 1976 and for some reason omit the umlaut from his name even though it’s present in Thomas Albright’s introductory note. I bought my copy in 1979 at a time when I was writing a lot of unsuccessful “experimental” fiction, and the sight of these tremendous collages inspired a surge of writing activity which disregarded Poe’s stories altogether. I’d seen enough of Max Ernst’s engraving collages to know that Sätty was following Ernst’s example but something about Sätty’s work struck me in a manner I couldn’t articulate other than by trying to set down the thoughts they inspired. Personal obsessions aside, I’ve since come to regard this book as the only illustrated Poe which can approach Harry Clarke’s inimitable volume.

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I’m fortunate to own two copies of this edition otherwise I wouldn’t have attempted to scan any pages when doing so involves bending the spine rather badly. The book is profusely illustrated, with many full-page or double-spread illustrations most of which I haven’t tried to reproduce. What you have here are the title pages from nearly all the pieces and a couple of additional illustrations. Sätty’s Poe is still the easiest of his books to find secondhand if you browse the dealer pages at AbeBooks. For more of his incredible work there’s this page at Ephemera Assemblyman, and for details of the artist’s life and career there’s my 2005 essay in Strange Attractor Journal Two.

• Sätty’s illustrations for The Annotated Dracula (1975) at Flickr.

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Illustrating Poe #3: Harry Clarke

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And so to the master. Harry Clarke’s illustrated edition of Tales of Mystery and Imagination was published by Harrap in 1919, with a new edition following in 1923 that featured an additional series of colour plates. I can’t imagine anyone ever producing a better illustrated version of Poe than Clarke managed, the morbid quality which some complain about in his work is perfectly suited to that most morbid of writers. So too are Clarke’s haunted and neurasthenic figures, and the many decorative details which provide an analogue to the author’s distinctive prose style. The first four drawings which follow repeat the earlier order of the Beardsley illustrations; an unfair comparison, perhaps, since the subject matter didn’t suit Aubrey’s temperament, but a comparison shows how differently the same stories might be illustrated, and how much Clarke brings the macabre elements to the fore.

There’s no need to post a large selection this time when quality scans have already appeared at A Journey Round My Skull and Golden Age Comic Book Stories. These drawings really do need to be seen showing all their fine detail.

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The Black Cat: “I had walled the monster up within the tomb!”

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The Murders in the Rue Morgue: “Gnashing its teeth, and flashing fire from its eyes, it flew upon the body of the girl.”

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