Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘illustration’

12 SEPTEMBER, 2011

The Unwilling Tourist: Vintage Czech Illustration Captures the Life of the Refugee

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What the dawn of the Czech avant-garde has to do with UN statistics and outsmarting Hitler.

Lawyer, politician, illustrator, cartoonist and dadaist are not the kinds of vocations that frequently converge in a single polyglot, but they did in Adolf Hoffmeister (1902-1973), whose illustrations, collages, and caricatures of prominent personalities shaped the Czech avant-garde. But parallel to his prolific creative career was a seemingly endless life on the run from political prosecution. In 1939, he spent seven month in prison in Paris, where he had emigrated. After France’s capitulation, Hoffmeister went to Morocco, where he faced time in a concentration camp. He finally made his way to New York in 1941 as a free man before returning to his homeland of then-Czechoslovakia in 1945.

As soon as he got to New York, Hoffmeister published The Animals Are in Cages, released in the UK under the title The Unwilling Tourist — a stunningly illustrated book that captured his experience of life on the run from the Nazis with equal parts humor and poignancy, spotted on the excellent 50 Watts (which you should be reading voraciously, or run the risk of having a profoundly impoverished experience of the curated web). More than a mere treat of vintage illustration — which it most certainly is — Hoffmeister’s work exudes a certain timeless tragicomic lament for the fate of refugees, or “unwilling tourists,” displaced by disaster and turmoil, of which the world netted 25.2 million in 2010 per UN statistics.

From the book’s flap:

Many books have been written by refugees, and all have ground their axe of bitter tragedy almost to the exclusion of everything else; but not so with Hoffmeister. Here is the only one of them whose native fund of humor is still so great that he must take a laughing-stock of tragedy. ‘Laugh, clown, laugh,’ both pen and pencil insist. Yet at no single moment does Hoffmeister lose sight of the final tragedy of the uprooted — for he too has made the hopeless march. But he also made this book one of the most permanent and perfect indictments, both in word and in picture, of all those who have contributed to the creation and the torture of the Unwilling Tourist.”

Though the book is long out of print, you can snag yourself a used copy with some poking around Amazon or sifting through your best-stocked local used bookstore — it’s very much worth the scavenger hunt.

via 50 Watts

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05 SEPTEMBER, 2011

Spitting in the Face of Creativity?

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Lessons in plagiarism from Polish magazine Przekrój.

I adore the work of Israeli illustrator Noma Bar, whose clever and thought-provoking negative space illustrations and minimalist portraits of cultural icons you might recall. Last week, reader Michal Korsun alerted me to something that angers and saddens me in equal parts — Przekrój, Poland’s oldest weekly news magazine, plagiarized Bar’s brilliant portrait of Hitler, on the cover no less.

I passed the image on to Bar’s representation and quickly heard back from the artist himself, who confirmed that it was indeed a case of plagiarism — Daniel Horowitz, the illustrator who created the image (and who has since removed it from his portfolio site), neither sought permission for a derivative graphic nor acknowledged the very clear “inspiration” for the cover. Besides the very cut-and-dry fact that it’s illegal to steal, creatively or otherwise, what’s most heartbreaking about this is that it takes a clever visual metaphor Bar spent time and thought on, adds no value or commentary, and instead just subtracts from the creative merit of the original work — to sell a magazine, remember.

In Noma’s own words:

‘Take a sad song and make it better’…. In this case, [Horowitz] didn’t make it better. The balance, detail and tension in the face — all lost. I would be a bit more encouraged if I felt that I learned something new about Hitlers face — unfortunately, I didn’t. It’s an obvious trace of photo and a random barcode.”

While I’m a vocal proponent of remix culture, it’s important to understand the line between remix and rip-off. The law still struggles with this distinction and, in many cases, draws the line in such a way that it discourages remix. But as far as I’m concerned — and some of the thought-leaders in this space tend to agree — it comes down to a rather simple litmus test: If a derivative work changes the original in a creatively meaningful way, or offers cultural commentary or critique on it, then it’s a new original work of its own creative merit; if it merely parrots or mimics the original while adding no context or commentary, then it’s a rip-off.

That a publication of Przekrój’s stature and legacy is unable or unwilling to make that distinction is a disgrace to both journalism and creative culture.

UPDATE 9/5/2011 10:23PM: Daniel Horowitz has gotten in touch with me to give his side of the story. Here’s what he had to say, published here with his permission — be your own judge:

Just got back to [Brooklyn] from my trip to Europe and I am quite interested to read the many remarks including your own on the subject of plagiarism and the resemblance of my illustration to that of Noma Bars. A much more interesting article would be how two artists arrived at the same conceptual solution independently, which is in fact what is the case, altogether much less sensational than ‘Spitting in the Face of Creativity’.

With my reputation at stake and working for many of the same international clients as Bar does, why on earth would I care to jeopardize my position by plagiarizing anyone’s work, especially in a such an open way. You also accused me that I had the illustration up on my site and then took it down. I make visual metaphors daily for a living, hundreds and thousands over the course of a career, and in this case I apparently wasn’t the first to think of replacing Hitler’s mustache with a barcode.

I was more surprised than anyone when Mr. Bar’s illustration was brought to my attention, and the similarity is more a comment on the fact that we think and solve visual problems alike than anything more.

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29 AUGUST, 2011

People: A Meditation on Human Duality by Illustrator Blexbolex

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The difference between a dictator and a conductor, or why a biologist is the opposite of an astronomer.

From French illustrator Blexbolex — whose poetic meditation on time, impermanence and the seasons you might recall from earlier this month — comes People, a continued exploration of the world building on Seasons. Each charmingly matte and papery double-page spread features a full-bleed illustrated vignette that captures the human condition in its diversity, richness and paradoxes. From mothers and fathers to dancers and warriors to hypnotists and genies, Blexbolex’s signature softly textured, pastel-colored, minimalist illustrations are paired in a way that gives you pause and, over the course of the book, reveals his subtle yet thought-provoking visual moral commentary on the relationships between the characters depicted in each pairing.


People, available in English for the first time, is part Mark Laita’s Created Equal, part Guess Who?: The Many Faces of Noma Bar, part something entirely new and entirely delightful, certain to make you smile, make you think, and make you wish you were a snake charmer.

Images courtesy of Enchanted Lion Books

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