Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The New Arrival: Pug-Ugly

So, Thursday brought the new (next year's) Tolkien calendar in the mail. I'd had to order it from amazon.com, since they're getting harder and harder to find in the bookstores these days. And a good thing, too, since if I'd seen it first I might have had second thoughts. Suffice it to say there have been great Tolkien calendars in the past (those featuring Tolkien's own art), bad Tolkien calendars (e.g., the Brothers Hildebrandt offerings), and the hilariously inept (the so-called 'Great Illustrators' calendar [1980?])

And then there's this. This year's calendar is illustrated by Cor Blok,* a Dutch artist now in his mid-seventies who has the unusual distinction of having shown his works to Tolkien himself, during a visit to Oxford in August 1961. To me Blok's work looks like a deliberate and unsuccessful attempt to capture a naif primitive style, screened through the pyschodelia that was briefly popular for science fiction and fantasy book covers back in the '60s and early '70s (cf. Barbara Remington's covers for the Ballantine LotR and E. R. Eddisons, or Bob Pepper's work for the Adult Fantasy Series). So I'm astonished to learn that Tolkien apparently liked them. Indeed, he liked them so much that he bought two of them**and accepted a third as a gift from the artist, and apparently went so far as to frame two of the three. This is all the more surprising, given how prickly Tolkien cd be about artists attempting to illustrate his work (he once famously described Pauline Baynes' Gollum as looking like the Michelin Tire Man -- and this was by an artist he liked) and the fact that Blok makes no attempt to be factually accurate: he portrays Gollum as a kind of giant duck*** and has Eowyn stab the witch-king in the lips with a needle-thin spear. The overall effect is both comic and weird, as if Jay Ward's Bullwinkle tried to reproduce some medieval Flemish art.

The best of these pieces are the large-scale battle-scenes, such as The Battle of the Hornburg (August) and Frodo's Vision from Amon Hen (April), which in their crowded muddles echo Brueghel (esp. his Triumph of Death) and create a sort of Garden of Earthly Delights -like creepiness. And he's at his worst with any small-scale scene which involves depiction of actual characters, like the laughably amateurish March of the Ents (May). It would be hard to imagine a worse Ent: I think Blok has probably claimed the all-time-worst prize in this category.

Ironically enough, the lengthy essay by the artist that fills the first few pages of this calendar, "Pictures to Accompany a Great Story", is far more interesting than the art itself. In the essay, Blok gives a brief overview of his career, explains how he came to create his Tolkien art (more than a hundred pieces, all in the period 1958-1962), describes his meeting with Tolkien, and provides a brief technical explanation of how he creates his effects.

From this account, it's clear that Blok was a kind of kindred spirit to Tolkien in one very important and unusual way: just as Tolkien created invented languages set in his own subcreated world, starting in his late teens Blok began to create art from his imaginary country of Barbarusia ("invented to provide the setting for a fictional history of art running from Palaeolithic cave paintings to a local version of 20th century Futurism"). That is, he worked to develop his own distinct style to reflect what the art of this imaginary European country might have looked like. And it was on this Barbarusian art that Blok drew when he turned to painting scenes from Tolkien. The Brontes wrote their shared-world stories, Tolkien created his vocabularies, and Blok painted his Barbarusian art: all differing expressions of a similar impulse.

Perhaps it's better to simply try to enjoy these pieces -- either as art or as outstanding pieces of dadaesque folly, depending on how they take you -- than as anything actually illustrating Tolkien's story. Certainly this is how Tolkien himself took them, writing the he found them "attractive as pictures, but bad as illustrations" (JRRT to RU). Blok, for his part, admits that he gets plenty of details wrong but falls back on the argument that "There is a distinction, after all, between depicting and describing . . . This is why I refer to my work on The Lord of the Rings as 'accompanying' rather than 'illustrating' the story." and again "My pictures try to re-tell parts of the written narrative by means of pictorial signs. They are not projections of whatever images Tolkien's text conjured up before my mind's eye. They are pictographs, not photographs".

In short, these are the visual equivalent to music 'inspired by' a poem or story; they have no real value as illustrations but stand or fall as pure art. That's probably why I, personally, find so little value in the result. But, as a wise man once said, your milage may vary.

--John R.

*I first became aware of Blok's work through four paintings reproduced in REALMS OF TOLKIEN: IMAGES OF MIDDLE-EARTH [1996], the second of two art collections from HarperCollins that came out in the mid-ninties; the one-page artist's bio on Blok in the back quotes from two of Tolkien's letters to him. I was incredulous even then that Tolkien wd have liked this stuff, but the evidence seems too solid to doubt.

**"The Battle of the Hornburg", reproduced here as the illustration for August, and what Blok calls a version of "The Dead Marshes". The picture Blok gave him as a present was of "Dunharrow"; the two Tolkien had framed were "Dunharrow" and "Helm's Deep" (i.e., "The Battle of the Hornburg").

***in the illustration for June I just assumed he had a liripipe (a la Baynes' Smith), odd though that wd be; but the illustrations for October and November makes his giant-duck shape (complete with bill and big duck feet) irrefutable.


N.E. Brigand said...

It was Blok's art that I most liked in the Realms of Tolkien collection. He is my second-favorite Tolkien artist, after Pauline Baynes, and I was delighted to learn that his work would be featured in next year's calendar. I think that I prefer Blok's Tolkien art to that of many others because it is so clearly not realistic: rather what Blok provides are impressions inspired by Tolkien. The more a work tries to realistically represent Tolkien's story, the more the small choices jar: thus the failings, for me, of Peter Jackson's films, too.

David Bratman said...

I'm not sure I believe what I'm reading here. By that argument, Mr. Brigand ought to hate Pauline Baynes, since her work "tries to realistically represent Tolkien's story" to an exquisite degree, and love Barbara Remington, who didn't even bother to read the book.

So I am skeptical that he really believes what he's saying. Try again?

John D. Rateliff said...

Hi N.E.B.:
I think your response is testimony to the truth of the adage 'your milage may vary'. I take yr point that treating these as 'inspired by' rather than 'illustrations' is probably the best way to appreciate Blok's art. I can take that approach when it comes to Tolkien-inspired music but, oddly enough, not with the art. In any case, I'm glad you can enjoy it even though I cannot.

Hi David:
I'd say there's a large element in artistic appreciation that's not purely rational, so that for most rules we can lay down there'll be exceptions.
I'm of two minds about Baynes, myself. I love her work on FARMER GILES but think her work on ATB and SWM show she's too whimsical for Tolkien as a whole. I'm grateful she never did a full illustrated LotR or SILMARILLION; I think that was beyond her range.
To be fair to Remington, she wanted to read the books first but the publishers refused to let her, given the tight deadline. And she did send Tolkien a personal letter of apology later saying that she wd have done things v. differently, given the chance.

--John R.

N.E. Brigand said...

I find Pauline Baynes's Tolkien illustrations to be more stylized and less realistic than the work of say, Alan Lee or Ted Nasmith, or the films. Why don't I prefer the less realistic work of Remington? Because, unlike with Blok's impressionistic response, I feel almost no relation to Tolkien's work in Remington's art. A tougher comparison might be the notorious work of Maria Lombide Ezpeleta, who certainly has read Tolkien, and is responding to it in a highly stylized way (example with attempted analysis) I think in that case, I just don't like her interpretations. No calendars from her, please!

David Bratman said...

So ... if by "realistic" you mean art that aims towards realism of artistic presentation, rather than "realistically represent[ing] Tolkien's story" (which I took to mean drawing things that fit his descriptions, whether they're in a "realistic" style or not), then your objection to Peter Jackson's films is apparently ... that he photographed real actors in real settings, rather than making a stylized cartoon, a la Rankin-Bass?

N.E. Brigand said...

My objections to Peter Jackson's films are numerous, but indeed I might have preferred them if they looked less realistic -- particularly if this change came with a more stylized approach to the story itself: 32 Short Films about Gloin's Gold? [1] ... 141 Minutes from the Unfinished Tales? [2] ... 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance -- if Chance You Call It? [3]. For me, the realistic look of Jackson's films demanded a much greater fidelity to story and tone than he provided.

Extollager said...

Three of the things I like about Blok's calendar:

1.His color sense
2.Its freshness -- it doesn't look like warmed-over imitations of earlier fantasy artists' work
3.One of the pieces especially ("Frodo's Vision on Amon Hen") reminds me of Robert LoGrippo's art for The Night Land by William Hope Hodgson, for Ballantine's Adult Fantasy Series almost 40 years ago

These are personal responses and I wouldn't be prepared to argue strongly that anyone else ought to agree with me, except maybe as regards #1 -- and to make that argument I would have to be able to articulate color theory much better than I am now.

David Bratman said...

Well, a clash between intense authenticity (if the film is historical) or faithfulness (if in an imaginary setting) in the set design and a complete clueless callousness in the script is so common in movies that I was hardly surprised to find it in Jackson.

But I don't see how the realism of the one makes the failure of the other worse. Is Bakshi's LOTR a better, or even a less bad, movie than it could have been, because he animated over his actors rather than simply filmed live action? You may indeed think so, but I don't see how.

Extollager said...

Further personal reflections:

Most nominally Tolkienian art leaves me cold. I find better Tolkienian resonances in some works that couldn't have been created with his writings in mind, and that may contain elements obviously foreign to them.

Some of Samuel Palmer's art, but not the most ecstatic ones, seem to me close in spirit to Tolkien's evocation of the Shire, perhaps especially in the golden years after its renewal following the Scouring. Take the watercolor "The Golden Valley" (ca. 1832), or the "Scene at Underriver"/"The Hope Garden" or "The Timber Wain," from about the same period.

Loaded with details that don't fit Tolkien's description as it is, Botticelli's Primavera still seems more in accord with the spirit of Lothlorien than any attempt to depict it that comes to my mind.

Minus a few details, George Inness's "Sunset at Etretat" (1875) is closer to Tolkien's account of Bilbo's approach to Rivendell than what we are used to seeing, it seems to me. Sanford Robinson Gifford's "Gorge in the Mountains" (1862) might make some Tolkien readers exclaim "Rivendell!" Of course, good photos of Lauterbrunnen will be first choice real-world correlate for Rivendell for many, for good reason!

I wish we could have a color calendar with landscape photographs that were compiled by someone whose name escapes me. I think he was a geologist and that he wrote some fantasy under a pen name... who was this?

Extollager said...

... a color calendar of real-world locales that evoke Tolkienian scenes, I mean. I saw some of these at the BreeMoot in 2001.

Murilegus rex said...


I just linked this on my blog. Interesting stuff.

Anubis (Lake Hermanstadt)

N.E. Brigand said...

A late response:

Is Bakshi's LOTR a better, or even a less bad, movie than it could have been, because he animated over his actors rather than simply filmed live action?

Worse, rather: I would say that Bakshi's would have been better for not taking such a realistic approach --by merely tracing over live actors-- and that, as unreal as the figures are, I prefer the look of the Rankin-Bass Hobbit (rightly described by Guillermo del Toro as echoing the work of Arthur Rackham). I am likewise intrigued by Jiri Trnka's images for the unmade 1960s Hobbit -- the images you found "shuddersome".