“Illustrated book” – the term is as vague as it is precise. Most children’s books are illustrated, yet they are rarely lumped into this category. The same is true of graphic novels. So what’s left? Photography, graphic design, typography, illustrations, artist monographs, pop culture kitsch, collectibles, graffiti, architecture, courtroom sketches – really any book on any topic in which the illustrations outnumber the words, permitting the illustrations to tell the story.
So begins a semi-regular “illustrated book” column here at The Millions. Most of the books covered – but not all of them – will be new releases; some installments will be a mishmash of titles, while others will be themed; there will no children’s books; there will be no graphic novels, though there will be illustrated fiction (more on what differentiates the two next time). I reserve the right to contradict what I have just written, though I promise all books discussed in this column will contain images. Like the best novels, poems and essays, the most intriguing illustrated books transcend their authors. I consider three such books below.
Sites of Impact not only takes us way beyond photographer Stan Gaz but also rockets us into outer space as we imagine the forceful trajectories of meteorites that have collided with Earth. Gaz’s stunning black-and-white aerial studies of these impact craters show us what millions of years look like and how these visible remnants of destruction and decay permit scientists to study and speculate about the planet’s geological and biological histories. These craters, in Gaz’s words, “are footprints of the stars… the circle of life, writ large; physically, environmentally, and metaphorically.” Complementing Gaz’s thoughts about the journeys he made for this tremendous project, impact-cratering expert Christian Koeberl outlines the history of scientific inquiry regarding these sites. And Robert Silberman situates Gaz’s work in the continuum of landscape photography and its efforts to capture the sublime. Their informative essays provide context for the work, but Gaz’s eye for conveying the magnitude of the unknown requires no explanation. These locations existed before language and will doubtless exist well beyond it. Getting lost in Gaz’s photographs is an intimidating experience, but they impart a greater respect for the natural world. They remind us of humanity’s status as a blip on geology’s timeline.
Very much rooted in language, Sometimes I Think, Sometimes I Am is actually two books in one, like Russian nesting dolls, albeit ones with onion heads. Sara Fanelli illustrates the themes of “Devils and Angels,” “Love,” “Colour” (which gets it own little book), “Mythology” and “the Absurd” as prompted and framed by artful adages from Wassily Kadinsky and Francis Bacon, Melville, Nabokov, Calvino, and others. Whereas Maira Kalman reacts to people and objects, Fanelli uses the words of artists and writers to create her worlds. The sketchbook aesthetic – a heavily trod illustrated book niche – succeeds here because of the intimacy and whimsy of Fanelli’s work. Writer Marina Warner likens Fanelli to Paul Klee, highlighting the work’s “unencumbered rhythm of the doodle.” In most of the selections text weaves, crouches and splatters, participating in the images, as in the illustrations of Stephaine Mallarmé’s poignant advice about writing poetry: “To write a weepy poem try onion juice.” The richness of Fanelli’s collage-like illustrations draw you back again and again to these pages, especially if you are in search of a timeless bit of inspiration, a la Lewis Carroll’s “It’s a poor sort of memory that only works backwards.”
Hundertwasser, one of Austria’s most famous twentieth century artists, would most certainly agree with Carroll’s sentiment. His Complete Graphic Work 1951-1976 is one of the most elegant (and amazingly affordable) gems of a book I’ve seen in a long time. The black linen case, foil stamping and six-color printing emulate the original edition of this catalogue, which the artist assembled on the occasion of a 1973 tour of museums in Australia and New Zealand. According to the book’s original publisher, Hundertwasser’s idea was to produce something “small enough to be carried in a handbag or jacket pocket like a much-loved treasure.” Apparently before the book went out of print in 1983 it had sold over 750,000 copies. It’s not hard to see why; more confounding is the question of why it fell out of print, which is never actually addressed here. Luckily, it is available again and the paintings and woodcuts pulse colorfully with the world’s myths and the patterns of the natural world. The spiraling circles in particular echo certain of the landscapes of Stan Gaz’s photographs. Faces with metallic eyes also figure heavily in this work, all of them in concert with the environment. Hundertwasser was “green” before it was a catchall spin word. He reveled in nature’s ability to nurture our spirits and this comes across in the writing paired with each painting as well as some of the biographical material.
Future installments of this series will include a look at illustrated fiction and self-aware art movements. What else would be of interest to readers when it comes to illustrated books?