Monday, January 7, 2008

Talking Pictures

And through the drifts the snowy clifts
Did send a dismal sheen;
Nor shapes of men nor beasts we ken—
The ice was all between.

The ice was here, the ice was there,
The ice was all around;
It cracked and growled, and roared and howled,
Like noises in a swound!

From The Rime of the Ancient Mariner Rime by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Coming from a literature background, I used to have a bias against illustrations of the great imaginative works. Seeing someone else’s interpretation of the words often seemed to limit my own mental picture. Once you’ve “seen” a page come alive, it’s hard to break that connection. The exception to that rule has always been the work of Gustave Dore. Born January 6, 1832, Dore meets the challenge of illustrating such grand imaginative works as Coleridge's Rime of the Ancient Mariner and, rather than limit further dreaming, serves as a springboard into the author’s world. Dore captures beautifully the loneliness of the Mariner’s ship venturing through the barren icescape into an uncertain future. By dwarfing the huge ship within the walls of ice, Dore manages to replicate Coleridge’s poetic attempt to diminish the role of humanity within the grander scheme of nature. Dore’s ice even seems to crack and growl like the living presence of Coleridge’s epic.

John Milton's Paradise Lost provided another text upon which Dore could work his magic. In the scene above recounting the battle between the good and bad angels, Dore comes tantalizingly close to rendering the limitless scale of that battle. Milton in his blindness paints such beautiful pictures in words that it’s hard to imagine anyone even accepting the task of visually depicting that work. Dore’s Biblical illustrations (done in 1866) and engravings for Dante’s The Divine Comedy similarly render these spiritually charged scenes with a liveliness that never violates the reverence of the original. I’ve always seen Dore as the father of the sword and sorcerer school of fantasy art. Dore teaches us by example just how to remain true to the written word yet still infuse your own creativity.

As a native son of Philadelphia, however, Dore’s illustrations for Edgar Allan Poe's The Raven (an example appears above) bring a smile to my face. Poe’s popularity in America always seemed to lag slightly behind that in France. Dore’s illustrations of Poe’s works broadened that French audience even further. Poe’s macabre sense of theater can easily stray into camp if not done sensitively. (Vincent Price’s Poe-inspired films always walked that line tenuously, sometimes falling into the cheesy range, but never failing to be scary fun.) Hogarth and Dore both elevate the illustration to new heights but never cross over into one another’s territory, Hogarth working the sociopolitical and Dore the purely imaginative. As much as I love Hogarth’s socially conscious wit, it’s always nice to escape into literature with Dore nearby.

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