Tuesday, 5 August 2008

Down The Rabbit Hole

an essay by Annette Lodge I.__In a visual hungry world, illustration is a transient visitor that meanders between being meaningful and amazing to being fashionable and banal.

When is illustration art? When is art illustration? These are vexing questions that critics like to debate when they have nowhere else to go and which inevitably lead to prickly and incoherent conclusions. Generally, high brow proponents of abstract thought believe illustration has no place in the sacred world of art and yet, without images to transport us to that holy ground, we are left floundering inside the plasticity of a concept without a story.

Illustration is the magic beneath the narrative. It lurks in the shadows, ready to transport the recipient beyond words and into the dialect of a new language. It is only when this dialect resonates enough to stir our souls that illustration can truly be art.

In a cultural climate that seems intent on exclaiming loudly that techno-science is the new force of creativity, it may be time to take a breath and allow the art, the image, the idea, the essence, the subtext to imbed themselves back into our souls, rather than the razzle dazzle of technology. It may be time to look back rather than forward, inside rather than outside and heed the warning of Friedrich Nietzsche who concluded that the human race would evolve not through science and technology but through art and play.

II.__Wise people have known this for some time: It is impossible not to be awe struck by the image of the massive rainbow serpent painted onto rock by Aboriginal artists 20,000 years ago, or the Nazca geoglyphs etched into the earth in Peru 2000 years ago, or the journeys to other worlds, captured in pictures that adorned the tombs of the pharaohs 4000 years ago. Such is the power of the narrative image.

Illustration has been so poorly understood that the Oxford Dictionary can only offer the inadequate description of:

1: A drawing or picture illustrating a book or a magazine article.
2: An example serving to elucidate. (The Australian Concise Oxford Dictionary, 4th Edition 2004)

Certainly, the role of the illustrator is to visually communicate an idea, which will generally be reproduced. But to elucidate the meaning of illustration, we must be prepared to push the boundaries of reality and allow our imagination to become erudite. This requires a leap of faith into the unknown and an ability to recognise that beyond technique, creativity is limitless.

We need to suspend the urge to give useful meaning to creativity and allow intrinsic meaning to flourish. Illustration that draws on what is known, copied, manipulated, rearranged or appropriated can only ever flirt with mediocrity, no matter how relevant it is to the brief. The true love affair requires the courage of the risk taker, the swash buckling, do-or-die bravado of the intellect.

Learn the techniques then dismiss them. Technique should become second nature. Bike riding should be about the journey not the act of pedalling.

As an author and illustrator of children’s books, it is essential to trust your instincts and allow the project to lodge itself securely in the most uncomfortable extremities of your imagination in order for it to break free of convention and begin its own journey. Characters must be invented, not re-invented. Imagery must be created, not re-created. A formulaic picture book can only encourage the mawkish perception that children require sentimentality to nurture their intellect. Unfortunately, such clichés fill many bookshops throughout the world, fuelled by an adult buying public, too lazy to be challenged.

But those stories and illustrations that do challenge us are the ones we never forget, the ones that provide an adventure for our imagination, an escape from terra firma and ultimately lead the recipient to higher ground.

In Australia, there is none braver than Shaun Tan whose extraordinary illustrations of John Marsden’s THE RABBITS gave perception and poignancy to the brutal subject of the white invasion of Aboriginal Australia. THE RABBITS allowed children to feel the depth of the subject through the illustrations on an intuitive level rarely applied to children. It elevated their understanding to its rightful place.

This is the magic that happens between the story being told and the pictures that are telling it. The art of book illustration is the visual exploration of unknown territories in the imagination. Just as Paul Klee ventured to take a line for a walk on a wall in a pitch-black room, in an effort to break conventional constraints, illustration should endeavour to push through the same barriers. Klee searched for metaphors to describe the transcendental essence of his world. He valued the art of children for its freedom and honesty and believed that their instinctive ability to depict a subject directly demonstrated spiritual truth. He strived to free himself from pre-conceived ideas and sought a visual language that conveyed a deeper or hidden subtext. He wanted to reveal the reality beyond the real and this legacy gives image making the impetus to search out the true character and sensuous description of a narrative. It challenges image makers to enchant their audience – not just a bird, but a bird with a character and a history and a story capable of touching lives; not just a stormy sea, but a sea that is capable of concealing mighty creatures and unknown fantasies. Illustration should treat the viewer to something more than the obvious, like biting into a chocolate liqueur.

III.__For book illustration to work on a subterranean level that communicates its intention passionately, there needs to be empathy for the subject and characters that are being illustrated. If the illustrator has no feeling or understanding of the subject, the images will be fallacious and unconvincing. Illustration allows the illusionist to conjure spectacular interpretations of subjects and stories.

I am sure the great “Tusitala” himself, Robert Louis Stevenson would be thrilled and amused by Ralph Steadman’s interpretation of his TREASURE ISLAND. This is no sanitized Long John Silver, but a larger-than-life, terrifying depiction of a villain intent on murder, as Stevenson originally invented him.

Equally, as Steadman achieved powerful satire in his provocative illustrations of Hunter S. Thompson’s FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS, which depict the depravity of contemporary America, so too were George Grosz and Otto Dix using powerful caricatures to drive home the horrors of Nazi Germany. The intentional profanity of such illustrations immediately transports us into the sordid reality of their insights and we are left breathless by their profundity and their empathy for the subject.

Technology has allowed great breakthroughs, but it is ultimately limited by logic. At best, it must be seen as a tool to help cultivate an idea, or as Nietzsche would have it, “the useless”. Over time, technology has altered our responses to images, making it increasingly challenging to wade through the endless stream of flotsam and jetsam that jams our consciousness. Where once we had to rely on our imagination to drive a picture beyond reality, today we can download a software programme that will do it for us. Stimuli crowd our brains like electrodes firing indiscriminately at battery hens. We react en masse endangering the act of recognising the nuances and subtleties of ideas that give emotional rewards such as beauty, wonder and excitement. We are losing the art of detection, the ability to feel the wind change and the reflexes necessary to dodge indifference. Recognising our own personal vision amongst this congestion is perhaps the greatest challenge facing illustrators today. Our culture disposes, deletes and replaces at such a rate, that to create a lasting impression, illustrators need to transcend the eclectic and listen to the lone voice. We need to believe in our own inventions while treading the water of media overload.

As illustration strives to free itself from technical constraints, the integrity of personal vision will remain the driving force of innovation. Whether illustrating for the financial report of a business document, a graphic novel, a newspaper editorial, a children’s book, a collection of stamps, an advertising campaign, an animation or an internet site, illustration can indulge the imagination like no other form of visual art. It can go where no camera lens can go, it can depict the future and generate the past in such rebellious and theatrical style that it speaks to us all in a language that at first might appear common, but has all the hallmarks of a foreign affair.

And it all begins with an idea.

Annette LODGE

Annette Lodge was born in Nowra, NSW, Australia. Her family moved to Perth WA in 1969 where she finished high school and obtained a Bachelor of Fine Art at John Curtain University.

In 1980, she was accepted into a Post Graduate programme at the Banff Centre of Fine Arts in Alberta, Canada for which she was awarded an Overseas Study Grant from the West Australian Arts Council.

Travelling has always been a potent source of inspiration to her work and she has held numerous one-person exhibitions based on various and mysterious parts of the world she has visited. Her work is represented in public and private collections around the world. For the past twelve years she has worked in Sydney as a freelance illustrator and a part time lecturer in Drawing and Illustration at the Billy Blue College of Visual Communication.

She exhibits regularly at the Soho Galleries in Sydney where she has held numerous one person shows since 1995. Her most recent exhibition, SPIRIT FISH opened there in March 2008.

For the past 7 years she has been writing and illustrating children’s books.

In 2005, her children’s picture book BIRD, published by ABC Books won a NOTABLE BOOK MERIT at the Children’s Book Council of Australia Awards. Her most recent book NATEMBA, published by ABC Books was released in May, 2007 and is based on the plight of orphaned animals in Africa, for which she researched as a volunteer at a Vervet Monkey sanctuary in South Africa for 6 weeks where she cared for orphaned baby monkeys and wrote the story.

She is presently working on a new picture book for children based in Antarctica, entitled THE BEASTICLES. She lives and paints in her studio on Scotland Island in Pittwater, north of Sydney.


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