Artist or illustrator? Well that depends…

James Pallister notes a blurring of boundaries between fine art and illustration at Berlin’s Illustrative festival

linehoven_derschuesselzuih_0.jpg - Artist or illustrator? Well that depends... - 1968

Illustrative is an annual festival that aims to bring together “the personal work of the world’s finest illustrators and graphic designers”. It’s one of the largest global festivals of its kind and judging on the evidence from this year’s show, it’s on its way to its stated ambition of becoming a barometer for the global developments within illustration and graphic art.

In only its third year, it’s had stints in Paris, Barcelona and Zurich, but in 2009 set its roots down in its home city, Berlin. The festival is a jamboree of all things illustration, including a book, a conference (where I spoke on the UK independent magazine scene) and a stunt that saw weekly Berlin magazine Der Freitag  jettison its photolibrary to make an edition with the editorial artwork entirely composed of commissions by illustrators showing at the fair.

The meat and potatoes of the festival though is the exhibition; a curated selection of illustration work from around the globe. The event was held in a large three-storey villa in the Berlin-Mitte/central district of the German capital, the ground floor of which had a shop selling magazines from across the globe and stands from various invited guests; including UK representatives Don’t Panic, Grafik and small press and screenprinting outfit, NoBrow of London.

The exhibition was comprised mainly of 2D work but a little bit of mixed-media work snuck in, including London-based Damien Poulain’s Totem 49 series (see CR May 09).

My best find was a series of comic strips by Hamburg-based Line Hoven. She works with a scraperboard – a layer of ink painted over a chalk-covered piece of cardboard – and produces strips with an gentle melancholic nostalgia to them; a sort of Lynd-Ward-by-way-of-Charles-Burns style.

Other delights were Ville Savimaa’s fantastical bear-human hybrids, produced on the computer but with the quality of muted airbrush work; the hipster-friendly neons of Antti Uotila; Australian Dan McPharlin’s sci-fi landscapes – think Houses of the Holy-era Hipgnosis – and Icelander Siggi Eggertsson’s ‘childhood quilt’. This geometric stitched quilt showed motifs from his childhood – budgies, keyboards and German Shepherds – surrounding the central image of the Chicago Bulls basketball hero, Michael Jordan.

According to the exhibition’s catalogue, this year’s is charac­terised by ‘a rapid internationali­sation’. The spread of work from across and within continents is impressive. Shanghai, Seoul, and Tokyo get a look in, as well as the usual New York-London-Paris suspects.

Curator and Illustrative head honcho Pascal Johanssen says that this spread of work was at times difficult to achieve: “In areas like Japan and China it’s actually pretty hard to get a sense of what is good within the scene with­out knowing the language.” Partner­ships with local magazines or agencies helped establish a foothold to begin the process of drawing out good work from unfamiliar territories, but getting a genuine cross-section of the best work was difficult.

This year the exhibition had over 5,000 entries. Johanssen claims that sifting through these gave him a pretty good overview of trends within contemporary illustration and how styles differ from country to country. “You can sharply see the differences in style of work that comes from different countries,” he says. “So you see the influence of Russian Constructivist work within Eastern European illustration; the Scandinavian work is very fresh and the French work shows good draughts­man­ship that grows out of its strong comics scene.”

And what about the British style?  “It’s almost a negation of drawing,” Johanssen says, “a mixture of naïve, abstract and figurative drawing that rejects the decorative,”  citing work by William Edmonds of the Leeds-based NousVous collective and Luke Best, represented by Heart, who is part of the London Peepshow collective.

There’s quite a big British contingent here and in the nearby graduate shows that form part of the festival, three of the five schools with students exhibiting are British – The Royal College of Art and Central St Martins in London, and University College Falmouth. According to Johanssen, London is the western illustration hotspot and alumni of its two main schools – he mentions the rca and csm – dominate.

They’re helped by the language which ensures a market stateside,
but also, he says, by their alarming capacity for organisation and self promotion. From his point of view it was this army of illustrators from London – however their actual illus­tration talents compared to their competitors in Brighton, Newcastle, Edinburgh and Glasgow – who were clearly the kings of the hustle. It’s a pretty rare instance of the Brits trumping the Germans on organi­sation and it probably has a lot to do with the irresistible expensive-but- opportunity-rich pull of London.

Berlin, meanwhile is cheap to live in but has no money. Coming out of such an art-rich, cash-poor city, it’s perhaps unsurprising that the exhibi­tion’s focus on the work of illustrators veered more toward showing it as artwork rather than the result of a brief and a commercial transaction.

The signage and captions to the work were pretty minimal, and certainly didn’t provide any details as crass as whether the work was done for a client and what the brief was. This presentation sometimes felt out of sync with the self-identity of the visitors attending.

In reality this focus was due more to its curation than its locale. Johanssen’s interest isn’t in the world of clients, briefs and deadlines. He’s interested in innovation. Now a gallerist, with his own private gallery, his former incarnations were running a software company and then as a scientist at the Berlin University.  Johanssen sees the work within these rooms as the products of genuine cultural innovators whose signifi­cance has yet to be realised.

“Illustrators know how to draw, they know how to paint and yet they are also extremely proficient at using digital tools,” he says. “This means they can innovate, bringing the differ­ent mediums together to produce genuinely new types of work.”

He argues that the illustrators on show this year are dissolving the barriers between illustration and fine art, creating a hybrid cultural space which can have more economic pulling power. “The fine artists that you will find in galleries in the next ten years will be recruited from this generation of illustrators. They will dominate the scene.”

It’s conceivable that if Johanssen is right, then in ten years illustrators could cash in on this shifting position in the same way that a select few architects and industrial designers (like Ron Arad, Dunne and Raby and Nigel Coates) were able to cash in on the pre-recession ‘designart’ boom. But where Johanssen may be keen to push illustration to a cultural field that is more at home in a gallery than on a billboard, he’ll probably find some resistance coming from the practitioners themselves.

When I first got to the fair I’d been really impressed with the lush hand-screened work of NoBrow, who have run a small press from London’s Dalston since January 2009 [see CR Blog]. Later I met up with them in a 1930s themed bar. Over beers I asked them what they made of Johanssen’s thesis that this artwork was occupying a new position.

Though their output, which pushes illustration and comics together in an exciting hybrid, can be seen as creating a new type of work, they had quite strong feelings on what illustration was. As Alex Spiro put it, “an illus­trator is commissioned to make a drawing on a theme. We are similar to writers – who we work alongside – we use pictures to put complex emotions onto paper.”

They articulated the pride of many illustrators that stems from the separation of what they do from that of fine artists. To borrow a quote from John Vernon Lord in Issue 7 of varoom magazine, put together by Paul Davis (who followed my speech at the conference): “An artist can do what he or she wants; there are no boundaries whatsoever, anything goes. But an illustrator should always feel there is an underlying constraint.”

Simultaneous to this is the frustration at perhaps not being taken ‘as seriously’ as artists. This could be exploited by canny gallerists by repositioning illustration within the – ultimately more lucrative – fine art field. But ultimately the two pull in contradictory directions. It’s clear that Illustrative has established itself as an emergent platform for the best in global illustration. Whether it will act as a catalyst to help propel illustration into what Johanssen calls an “autonomous aesthetic” is up to the direction chosen by its footsoldiers.

James Pallister is senior editor of The Critics section in the Architects’ Journal and publisher of MEAT magazine