While much contemporary illustration prizes a clean line and a solid colour, there is an alternative world where the baroque and the bohemian hold sway. In the highly decorative work of the likes of Vania Zouravliov, Izzie Klingels and Laura Laine, the hair of ethereally beautiful women falls in cascading tresses, symbols of sex and death litter the page and the organic replaces the industrial.
Such work is celebrated in The Purple Book, an ambitious and lavishly-produced publication whose title nods to its heritage in the fin de siecle world of Aubrey Beardsley and his ‘illustrated quarterly’, The Yellow Book. Its subject is best described by its subtitle – Symbolism & Sensuality in Contemporary Art and Illustration. Flowers, butterflies and skulls abound, as does naked flesh.
It’s all a far cry from co-author Angus Hyland’s last book, Symbol, a survey of the highly reductionist world of graphic marks in corporate identity systems. Angles, boxes and clean lines have been supplanted by sinuous curves and dense detail. So why has the designer and Pentagram partner, who has authored a number of books on both the worlds of corporate identity and contemporary illustration, made the leap from symbols to symbolism?
Hyland says that he was attracted to the work in The Purple Book as “it was completely outside of my thought processes as a designer – it deals with the imagination. Graphic design does lots of wonderful things – it communicates, it comes up with lots of great ideas, it’s smart and clever and all the rest of it – but rarely does it dip into the realm of pure imagination, fantasy as it were. I think that’s what I found attractive about most of the work we were looking at for this,” he says. “I’d become a little tired of the style that was currently fashionable, which is quasi graphics illustration. I just became interested in something slightly more rarefied. It might have been driven by the need to escape the reductionism of the modernist aesthetic as we were really channelling that for Symbol. [It was a case of] get me out of the church and into the opium den!” he jokes.
Hyland’s co-author on the book is Angharad Lewis, design writer and former editor of Grafik magazine. “Angus had a folder of images in which he’d been collecting examples of work by contemporary illustrators,” she remembers. “It stemmed from him having seen the Cult of Beauty exhibition at the V&A [a 2011 show on the late 19th century Aesthetic Movement]: I think that he had seen a connection there with the work of some contemporary illustrators.”
“I guess that’s where I came in – to bring out those connections, draw a line between symbolism and surrealism and connect that to what illustrators are doing today,” Lewis says. “As we looked in to it more, it became obvious there was this theme running through the work, even though the illustrators’ styles are quite varied. It was almost about reviving illustration traditions from previous eras that had strong connections with literature.”
That link to literature led to the key feature of the book. “It’s hung around five commissioned pieces of illustration for either surrealist works or symbolist works or, in the case of Ulysses, a modernist piece,” Hyland says. Christina Rossetti’s poem Goblin Market is illustrated by Laura Laine; Edgar Allan Poe’s short story Eleonora is illustrated by Vania Zouravliov; Jules Julien takes on Story of the Eye by Georges Bataille; Andrzej Klimowski suggested he tackle a Polish story, Szamota’s Mistress by Stefan Grabinski and the Molly Bloom soliloquy by James Joyce is accompanied by work from Martine Johanna. Interspersed with those pieces are interviews with the illustrators concerned along with a selection of portfolio work from others who fit the overall aesthetic.
“We looked at our artists and tried to work out whose style and whose approach to the narrative could best work with each text,” Lewis explains. “We were very keen to avoid a portfolio book without context – we wanted to have something original in there and really delve into the relationship between the illustrators’ work and text.”
The nature of the subject matter means that much of the work is highly sexual. Almost all the naked or partly clothed forms on show are female. Were the authors concerned about this imbalance?
“Over half the artists featured are women,” Hyland points out, “and we were conscious this is about female fantasy as much as male. I didn’t want it to appear like some middle aged man’s closet book, but if you try to bring male nudity into it, the work is simply not there and when it is, it’s much more overtly sexualised, usually. [Adding that type of work] would have made it a different type of book but also it would have been more of an artificial construct, rather than to stick within the genre.”
“We did try to bring in examples showing men,” confirms Lewis, “but there is a real dominance of the female form [in the work]. The fact that a lot of the people creating it are women means that they are taking possession of it in a way. Although there is an erotic element to the work, it is very firmly defined against pornography: there’s far more to it than just showing a naked body.”
Where has this work come from? “I’ve no idea if it fits in with what the current trends are,” Hyland says. “We are in a state of permanent post-modern revolution now so you get little pockets all over, which can be seemingly contradictory. I find it very difficult to see where ‘it’s at’ – I would hate to be a trend forecaster today because the cycle of change is so quick. But it seems fairly obvious that, because the quasi graphics style of illustration is not largely craft-driven – if anyone can do it – it eventually dissipates through over-saturation. Whereas anything that requires more time, more skill, more personal vision, you’re always going to have less of it because it’s harder, but it provides a more visible alternative. Most graphic design has a sort of Puritan ethic, but there is an alternative baroque strain and this work fits into that.” Writing in her introduction, Lewis in turn notes that “what all The Purple Book illustrators share … is a strong sense of the fantastical – both in the stories they tell and their styles of representation. As illustrators, they create their images by accessing parts of the imagination unfettered by reality, demanding that we do the same.”
With its heavy, uncoated cream paper, lush textures and matt black endpapers, the design of the book exudes a certain opulence. Lewis, again in her introduction, says that it “celebrates the still living, breathing heart of the printed book for its unique, enduring pleasures – as a tactile and intimate object, a place of private reverie, of concentrated attention and as an unparalleled vehicle for the transportation of the imagination.”
Hyland has a consultancy role at the book’s publisher, Laurence King, and the richness of its production can be seen in the context of the way in which LK, whose target market is mainly the art and design worlds, is changing its attitude towards its titles. “We’ve been banging this drum for a long time, but if you spend money producing books, chopping down trees, milling paper, printing, binding and sending it out around the world, it should have a value in its own right,” Hyland says. “It’s not good enough just to print a book now, it has to be conceived as an object in its own right, it has to be desirable – fetishised – and what perfect subject matter to do that with.” The Purple Book, he says, “was a deliberate attempt to go right into the baroque, to go way out to create a more tangible object. To make something as big as possible [it’s 340mm tall by 245mm wide], with as much production as we could get into it.”
As Hyland says in his introduction, “the anodyne and standardised showcase of artwork has become something of an anachronism. The Purple Book looks back to a tradition of the beautifully-crafted publication; a book for books’ sake. It is the only way forward for the printed book, as a tangible and sensual object of beauty and desire – anything else would be a waste of good material”.
The Purple Book: Sensuality & Symbolism in Contemporary Art & Illustration, by Angus Hyland and Angharad Lewis, is published by Laurence King, £35