Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘graphic nonfiction’

12 MAY, 2014

Salvador Dalí’s Eccentric and Extravagant Life, Illustrated

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Culture/commerce, person/persona, and other dualities that defined art history’s favorite lunatic.

“Every morning upon awakening,” Salvador Dali once wrote, “I experience a supreme pleasure: that of being Salvador Dali, and I ask myself, wonderstruck, what prodigious thing will he do today, this Salvador Dali.” This amusing arrogance was engrained in the DNA of his artistic persona, from his bombastic opinions on decadence and death to his extravagant erotic cookbook. But beneath that pompous persona there was a complicated man haunted by his own demons and insecurities, which he went to far greater lengths than most of us to conceal and overcompensate for.

That osmosis between person and persona is what Scottish art historian Catherine Ingram and British illustrator Andrew Rae explore in This is Dali (public library) — another installment in the series that gave us This Is Warhol, which is set to include similar succinct, illustrated biographies of twenty-eight more famous artists.

Ingram contextualizes Dalí’s penchant for self-invention:

Dalí came from a family of storymakers, who embellished their past to impress. Dalí’s father told everyone that his own father had been a doctor, but he had actually traded as a corkmaker. When Dalí’s grandfather committed suicide by jumping from a building, the family’s story was that he had died tragically of a brain trauma. Following family tradition, Dalí creates his mythology: in his autobiography Secret Life he reinvents his childhood, giving it the color, intrigue and darkness appropriate for a genius painter.

Ingram traces Dalí’s obsession with power — which, in one of its most extravagant manifestations late in life, led him to carry bells around and ring them regularly, exclaiming, “How else would I be sure that they would notice me?” — to his childhood, which was defined by a dark instance of that famous family storymaking:

Dalí was haunted by his brother’s memory. He was the second Salvador. When he was a boy, his parents took him to his brother’s grave and told him that he was the reincarnation of his brother. He grew up in his brother’s shadow, as he tells: “My brother and I resembled each other like two drops of water, but we had different reflections. Like myself he had the unmistakable facial morphology of a genius. He gave signs of alarming precocity, but his glance was veiled by the melancholy characterizing insurmountable intelligence. I, on the other hand, was much less intelligent, but I reflected everything.”

Hardly anyone captured Dalí’s complexities and complexes with more affectionate dimension than the celebrated photographer Brassaï — known for his legendary conversations with Picasso — when he wrote:

I liked his comic humor, always a step ahead of his ideas, liked his complexes, his seriousness, his wild imagination, liked the way his brain worked … [and] sometimes liked his paintings as well.

From how growing up during the visual revolution that sparked the dawn of cinema and photojournalism shaped his visual mind to how he invented himself under the ethos that if he behaved like royalty he would be treated like royalty to his first dabblings in surrealism, Ingram traces how Dalí swelled into his now-famous persona. Her greatest gift is the subtlety with which she invites us to connect the dots between Dalí’s struggles and baggage on the one hand and his outrageous behavior and controversial views on the other, engendering a kind of soft sympathy for this odd man who spent his life in a hedonic treadmill of his own making.

This is Dali goes on to explore his spirituality, his complicated relationship with the domineering Gala, his voracious commercial appetites, and more. Complement it with Dalí’s drawings for Don Quixote, the essays of Montaigne, Alice in Wonderland, Romeo and Juliet, The Divine Comedy, and the twelve signs of the zodiac.

For more treats at the intersection of history and comics, see the graphic biographies of Sigmund Freud, Charles Darwin, Richard Feynman, Hunter S. Thompson, Steve Jobs, and the human brain.

Illustrations courtesy of Laurence King; photographs my own

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06 MAY, 2014

A Graphic Biography of Warhol

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Who shot Marilyn, and other illustrated anecdotes of Warhol’s fallible humanity.

As a lover of graphic biographies, including those of Sigmund Freud, Charles Darwin, Richard Feynman, Hunter S. Thompson, Steve Jobs, and the human brain, I was delighted for the release of This is Warhol (public library) — the first installment in a new series of graphic biographies of thirty famous artists by Scottish art historian Catherine Ingram. What makes the concept especially appealing is that, unlike most art history books, which tend to be either dry textbooks to be studied or lavish monograph-artifacts to be owned and admired, Ingram’s approach embodies Tolstoy’s assertion that art is about emotional infectiousness. She tells a living story, at once illuminating and vibrantly human, rather than weaving a static tapestry of facts. The result is a book that’s inviting without compromising its intelligence.

Alongside Ingram’s exploration of Warhol’s life and times — from his upbringing to the founding and denizenry of the Factory to how the “electric information age” shaped his aesthetic — is appropriately poptastic artwork by British illustrator Andrew Rae.

One of the most amusing anecdotes bespeaks how fluidly Warhol moved between art and life — how swiftly he integrated the two and how he experienced the latter as a smaller concentric circle that belongs, always and at all costs, inside the latter — but also how profoundly the backstory affects the way we confer value on art:

Four Marilyn silkscreens feature bullet holes through the idol’s forehead. How this came about is related by one of Andy’s groupies: “One day, Dorothy arrived, dressed in leather, with several friends in leather, and a Great Dane in his natural leather pelt. She peeled off her long leather gloves, pulled out her pistol, aimed at Warhol. Then at the last split second she shifted her aim to the stack of Marilyn Monroe portraits against the wall and fired.”

“Dorothy” was Dorothy Podber. When she left, Warhol turned to Billy Name, and said, “Please don’t let Dorothy do that again.” Once described as a “marvelous, evil woman,” Dorothy had a serious drug problem, and for a while she ran an illegal abortion clinic. She was banned from the Factory. The incident was a foreboding warning — four years later Factory-goer and feminist Valerie Solanas would enter the factory and shoot Warhol in the chest. Warhol decided that the damaged canvases should not be repaired. Sold as “The Shot Marilyns,” they raised the highest prices of all the Marilyn portraits.

Many of the stories, besides satisfying an art-lover’s craving for trivia factlets, speak to larger truths about the creative process — both Warhol’s own and in a general sense. For instance, the impetus for his famous 1966 Silver Clouds installation is a testament to the “slow churn” of creativity and the subconscious, long-term incubation of ideas: The idea for the show came to Warhol from a tea party he had attended at Salvador Dalí’s hotel suite a year earlier, where he had seen silver balloons floating around the room. Ingram, with her gift for metaphoric thinking that runs throughout the book, brings this back to Warhol’s biography:

There is an inherent fragility about the [Silver Clouds] installation: some balloons burst, all of them eventually deflated. The scene at the Factory was another silver bubble waiting to burst. For years the silent Warhol had held everyone’s attention. However, by the mid 1960s, as one reporter tells, “The waspish, silvery-haired Maharishi was in trouble, deep trouble. His world suddenly stopped caring, stopped knowing.”

Alongside Warhol’s ample commercial work are some of his side projects, such as Wild Raspberries, the little-known illustrated cookbook on which he collaborated with his mother and the legendary interior decorator Suzie Frankfurt.

Warhol’s world was the original golden age of the selfie, and the artist was among the first to embody what Susan Sontag would later call the “aesthetic consumerism” of photography. Ingram writes:

The self-portrait is a radical piece of art that embraces popular culture. Warhol uses a photo booth — the public camera found in railway stations and shopping malls that delivers cheap photos, “four-for-a-quarter” — and finds beauty in the throwaway, the intense, almost square frame and the sequence of stills, depicting a development in time.

Warhol promises nothing more than what the photomat delivers: “If you want to know all about Andy Warhol, just look at the surface of my paintings and films and me, and there I am. There’s nothing behind it.” However, that glossy surface is provocative. Described by many as a mirror, Warhol reflects the vacuousness of modern society in high resolution.

This is Warhol comes from British independent publisher Laurence King, who previously gave us the magnificent Saul Bass monograph and the fantastic series 100 Ideas That Changed Graphic Design, 100 Ideas That Changed Film, 100 Ideas That Changed Architecture, 100 Ideas That Changed Photography, and 100 Ideas That Changed Art.

Illustrations courtesy of Laurence King

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02 APRIL, 2014

Neurocomic: A Graphic Novel About How the Brain Works

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From the caves of memory to the castles of deception, by way of naughty neurotransmitters and giddy ganglia.

Scientists are only just beginning to understand how the brain works — from what transpires in it while we sleep to how to optimize its memory to what love does to it to how music affects it — and the rest of us fall somewhere on the spectrum between fascinated and confused when it comes to the intricate inner workings of our master-controller.

From British indie press Nobrow — who also brought us Freud’s graphic biography, those lovely illustrated chronicles of the Space Race and aviation, as well as Blexbolex’s magnificent No Man’s Land — comes Neurocomic (public library), a graphic novel about how the brain works. This remarkable collaboration between Dr. Hana Roš (and dog knows I love few things more than a female neuroscientist) and neuroscience-PhD-turned-illustrator Dr. Matteo Farinella, with support from the Wellcome Trust, explains the inner workings of the brain in delightful and illuminating black-and-white illustrations, covering everything from perception and hallucinations to memory and emotional recall to consciousness and the difference between the mind and the brain.

We take a stroll through a forest of neurons, then learn about neuroplasticity. (“This is the great power of the brain, it’s plastic!” they tell us in one of the most heartening and reassuring parts. “Once you learn something it is not set in stone, it’s continuously shaped by experience.”) We meet Pavlov and his famous studies of memory in 1897 Russia. We visit the haunting memory caves and the convoluted castles of deception.

This wonderful trailer for the film about the project, directed by Richard Wyllie, takes us behind the scenes of the duo’s marvelous collaboration and creative process:

Pair Neurocomic — which is gorgeous not only to behold but also to hold, bound in indigo fabric with silver-and-gold cover art — with the graphic biography of Charles Darwin, then dive deeper into the brain’s mysteries with the scientific riddle of left-handedness.

Images courtesy of Nobrow

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