The New Arrival: A TOLKIEN TAPESTRY
So, the day before I left for my trip, the mail brought the latest addition to my Tolkien shelves, Cor Blok's A TOLKIEN TAPESTRY: PICTURES TO ACCOMPANY THE LORD OF THE RINGS. I've already expressed my opinion of Blok's artwork in an earlier post; this deeper exploration confirms me in the opinion that the story behind the picture-cycle is more interesting that the art itself. Imagine what it'd be like to discover that Barbara Remington, in addition to her gosh-awful covers for the Ballantine Tolkiens, had carried on for several years creating over a hundred more pictures in a similar style, only now to be revealed in their glorious awfulness. That's essentially what we've got with this book, except that it's the artist who did the Dutch paperback covers instead of the psychedelic American ones.
What we have here are a hundred and forty pictures, created between 1958 and 1961, retelling THE LORD OF THE RINGS (more or less*) in faux-naif art. I don't think anyone has done this extensive a series, at least not that I've seen assembled in sequence. Oddly enough I thought the back cover of the dust jacket, which creates a mosaic of some thirty pieces seen all at once side-by-side in a great collage, was the most effective presentation. The fact that there are so many pieces in this book means that some scenes that never get illustrated appear here -- Grima spitting, the bath at Crickhollow, the Fellowship being led while blindfolded in Lorien, Nob helping Merry (the only depiction of him I remember ever seeing), or Bill Ferny being hit by the apple. But Blok's art is such that he provides not just a truly inept Gollum (he looks like a splay-footed duck) but possibly the worst Goldberry ever, a truly hideous Galadriel, and worst of the whole lot a gaggle of Ents looking like walking cigars festooned with green rot-fungus.
The most valuable thing about this book is the Tolkien letter reproduced on page 6 (and a paragraph from another quoted on page 7; Blok also summarizes two things Tolkien told him regarding Blok's art on pages 15 and 25 (that he did not want a definitive illustrated edition that wd associate his work with any particular artist [e.g., Carroll & Tenniel], and that Blok had completely misrepresented Gollum by forgetting he was of hobbit-kin).
Blok's commentary is quite interesting, both in his history of the project** and his pointing out specific details in individual paintings -- I'd missed, for example, the fact that Gollum always appears in silhouette, with no refining detail. Reading this in conjunction with looking at the pictures, I'm forced to conclude that Blok is an Erol Otus -- his art only looks inept, and actually is the result of a highly trained artist deliberately choosing that effect -- what Tolkien called elsewhere "the modern mode in which those who can draw try to conceal it."***
In the end there truly is no arguing about taste. And I'm glad that those who find some merit in Cor Blok's work have revived and printed it (and doing a v. gd job of it too, I might add****); it's an interesting project, and worth preserving. But I hope the year after next's Tolkien calendar features somebody whose work isn't just occasionally interesting in a weird and freakish way but actually art I'd enjoy looking at for a whole month at a time per image. Say, a Hobbit calendar using the artwork in Wayne & Christina's new book. Or I'd be happy for an entire calendar illustrated by Tolkien's beautiful calligraphy, given my druthers.
In the meantime, we get Howard the Gollum in Gormenghast.
*some crucial scenes are missing -- for example, Blok seems to lose interest in the latter part of the story: there are only two pictures of minor scenes following the Ring's destruction, one of Gimli and Legolas in the Glittering Caves and one of hobbit-shirriffs accompanying the four travellers.
**his 'Barbarusia' project, which preceded his LotR, was a sort of Islandia for artists; his 'Iron Parachute' which was to follow is a massive still-incomplete graphic novel with Joycean prose (think CERBERUS THE ARDVARK issued as a single volume all at one time but written in a style of FINNEGANS WAKE word-slush).
***JRRT to R. Unwin, December 1965 (cf. LETTERS OF JRRT). Was Tolkien thinking about Blok? No way to tell . . .
****I only found one likely glitch: I don't have a copy of LotR with me to check this, and it's always dangerous quoting from memory, but I'm pretty sure the quote on page 74 doesn't apply to the Inn at Bree but instead to the House in Crickhollow.