Vivian van der Merwe on Illustration

Portion of a Jane Commin interview with Vivian van der Merwe, March 2001
(Edited and abridged in May 2005)

JC: What role does something like illustration play for you?

VVDM:  I’ve always liked the idea of illustration and doing illustration. Ironically, when I was a student and wanted to enrol to do illustration as one of my minor undergraduate subjects, but that happened to be the very year in which they dropped illustration from the curriculum. It is interesting how illustration still gets tagged on to graphic design, or sometimes fine art, as an idiosyncratic little realm within which peculiar bookish people work. It’s odd that illustration is still stigmatised in this way. I wanted to do illustration, because I’d always been interested in language and literature and poetry. I spent my teenage years reading hundreds of books, and I mean literally hundreds of books. The idea of a marriage between text/language and visual art really appealed to me, but the more I think about it, the more I realise it’s a very, very complex relationship. In recent years I’ve become much more aware of the danger of over-simplifying these things through trying to force analogous relationships onto them.

I increasingly suspect that text and image will never ever meet in a simple, convenient, conceptual marriage. Yet, they do interact and they are related. There’s no doubt about this. Language can indeed be described as a form, or mode, of making things knowable, communicable, and perhaps even visible. One can also argue that visual art is a form of encoding things and ideas, and presenting the world through visual codes. But ultimately, I suspect that we can’t ignore the physical mechanics of the human brain: The human brain deals in a very different way with visual phenomena as opposed to linguistic data. I now see this as a kind of significant paradox, an awkward and often contradictory relationship.

JC: I’ve been reading about semiotics, Roland Barthes and a bit of Derrida. It all focuses on issues about the text and language and seems to mostly exclude visual language from the scheme of things, unless it is included in the sense that there is nothing outside the text, where the text is everything. It’s not like art or visual has a special place in that scheme of things and that kind of bothers me.

VVDM: I once had an interesting discussion with the philosopher Johan Degenaar about the problem of artists forcing simplistic connections between art and language. One of the terms that became very fashionable in the art-world in the late 70’s was ‘visual metaphor’. This was during the time of the transition from Structuralism to Post-Structuralism. It became a sort of all-encompassing term that art people used in order to give a sense of philosophical or theoretical importance, to their discussions. In critical discussions on art, wherever someone seemed confused, they’d start talking about ‘visual metaphor’, but in a very erudite and trendy manner, and all was forgiven! As a young and very reticent undergraduate student it took a lot of guts to openly ask my lecturers what they meant by “visual metaphor’”. The answers that followed were confusing and unconvincing, and certainly left me none the wiser as to what they’d meant by “visual metaphor”. My readings of Barthes, Derrida and the others convinced me that artists are generally not great philosophers, and love pouncing on new words to disguise that fact. In a later conversation with Johan Degenaar I suggested, that speaking as a visual artist, the concept of ‘visual metaphor’ was an oxymoron, and that simply calling the metaphor “visual”, meant denying a great deal of what metaphor is all about. So I avoid using the term ‘visual metaphor’ because, in the context of visual art it seems inherently vague and unintentionally oxymoronic.

JC: Do they mean sign or signifier?

VVDM: Symbol, sign, signifier, signified. It seems that there are many people, in the art-world, who like to give the impression of philosophical erudition, and who use this jargon completely arbitrarily. One day it’s ‘visual metaphor’ and the next it’s ‘symbol’, and so on. I find this obsession with imposing linguistics and Post-structuralist theory onto visual art a bit limiting, and even pretentious, sometimes.

JC: But it’s quite nice in a sense that artists or people who make art end up saying “Well, language shmanguage”.

VVDM: On one level yes. But on another level I think art people are often guilty of using, maybe abusing, philosophical language and theoretical jargon in order to give the impression of being academically and/or philosophically erudite. Really, just reinforcing what I’ve just been saying I guess. Call it intellectual posturing if you will. And when people use language, or abuse language in that way, then they shouldn’t expect to be taken seriously by the philosophers and theoretical experts. When art-people try to force, and thereby institutionalise, often in the most arbitrary way, the issues around visual image, visual thinking, visual processes into linguistic models, you easily end up with confusion and bigger problems than the ones you’re actually trying to address. This is where I often see a serious lack of critical insight in art-speak.

When entire theories are then simply cut and pasted from philosophy and linguistics onto art there’s a real risk of classic dilettantism. It’s inevitable. The Postmodernist concepts of intelligent appropriation and eclecticism should never be mistaken for pseudo-philosophy. In essence, that’s what bothers me most about the perceived relationship between language and painting. That’s why I increasingly doubt, as a painter, that painting will ever obey linguistic theory.

I haven’t written much in the past couple of years, but I used to write a lot. When, as said earlier, illustration wasn’t an option in my undergraduate Fine Art course, I focussed on painting as a Fine Art Major. I also did English, and Italian, as BA subjects, but dropped them during my second year because it limited my time in the painting studio. But in some crucial way, this academic and theoretical exposure to languages allowed me to see the differences and similarities between my writing and my painting far more clearly.

JC: Have you always separated your poetry and writing from your painting or drawing?

VVDM: I’ve never really thought of the act of making poetry as distinct from making painting or drawing in one sense, but now that you pose the question that directly, I suppose I’ve also not confused them with each other. They’re different, but they do have things in common too.

JC: I mean someone like Gus (Ferguson) obviously combines some of his own illustrations with his poems.

VVDM: Yes, but nevertheless maybe they do ultimately arrive in the world by different routes or chemistries. I suppose it’s also different for different artists and writers and illustrators. It’s such an individual thing, and even with one artist-illustrator there are perhaps days when the word and image come from the same impulse, and other times when one precedes the other. I don’t think there’s an empirical way, or a methodology, or even a predictable pattern.

JC: So, when you think of illustration or when you wanted to do illustration, I mean doesn’t that term in itself make you feel limited? When I think of illustration it’s like, oh well, I’m illustrating the text, I’m making the text clearer, whereas I think in fact illustration is doing so much more.

VVDM: When I was a student, one of my great heroes was William Blake. If you look at William Blake academically and formally he’s entirely eccentric. He’s really a Romantic maverick in every sense of the word. As a visual artist he’ll never be remembered as a great painter, or a great artist. But in another sense, Blake was a real visionary, a one-of-a-kind English mystic. The way in which he used his craft, his visual art, and the way it sits in relation to his text is quite unique – incredible stuff really. Often the text almost starts to serve the image. It’s a real two-way discourse, without the one taking precedence over the other. That’s something I really admire. So, in reply to your question: good illustration is not an inferior genre.  

JC:  I think it’s problematic in English departments that you are taught Blake and you have his poems typed out on the page, while that is not how they were conceived. They were within a plate and within images and if the poem is about the tree, his image of the tree was the poem as well. It’s the separation that bothers me.

VVDM: I agree with you. I think that the minute illustration becomes a secondary annotation, marginal, without direct and visible bearing upon the text, it becomes like a decorative appendage.

JC: Can you think of great illustration, something that stood out for you?

VVDM: Apart from Blake, also some of the other British illustrators from that time.

JC: What about books that struck you particularly in childhood and images that stood out for you?

There is one book that still lives with me. My children love it too. It’s De La Motte Fouqué’s “Undine” illustrated by Arthur Rackham. There are endless European variants on the story of Undine, even in ballet. It’s a children’s story and yet it’s completely unlike the typical modern illustrated children’s stories. This book wasn’t conceived in that kind of way. The illustrations are highly sophisticated, very detailed, and often very dark. The story and illustrations never leave you feeling they were “toned down” or graphically simplified for children. When I re-read the book now, I still feel that same archetypal mystery and magic.  

Illustrations that I didn’t like were those in those Dr Seuss books. I found them unattractive from the first moment I saw them. The way in which they were simplified seemed awful to me; and still does. The over-simplified forms, spaces and compositions seemed like something an adult would do to try and appear child-like. The colours evoke unpleasant feelings. It was like that lithographic colour simplification that you get in cheap posters when you’re working with a limited range of the wrong inks. It was the synthetic feel of the colour. They simply felt unappealing, almost inhuman, unnatural, synthetic and alien. And then there was the way in which he tended to create caricatures. Maybe there was something slightly humorous about them, but little else.

Perhaps illustrators assume too often that young children are visually unsophisticated or visually unintelligent.  Maybe that’s why too many children’s book illustrations look simplistic or naïve. It’s as if people think that children only see in primary colours, bold lines and simplified shapes, or can only cope with small amounts of visual information. Although young children might be verbally less developed, there is nothing to say they are visually less sophisticated or visually less intelligent than any adult. Maybe this reinforces my suspicion that language acquisition and linguistic articulacy are completely different animals to visual cognition and visual intelligence.

JC: Obviously in art the bible is a big text, which is used and illustrated, not necessarily in conjunction with the present text but through cathedrals and through the whole renaissance. How do you see that form of illustration?

Byzantine art is something I have a deep love for. If you look at Byzantine aesthetics, if you look at the complex relationship between eastern and western culture that happened around Constantinople or Byzantium during that time, you see a fascinating marriage between Christian religion, the Bible (its text) and art. For me, Byzantine art expresses and illustrates the mysteries and profundities of the Bible more beautifully and more eloquently than any other of the great European art periods. Byzantine art represents the remarkable marriage of Persian mysticism, mathematics and rationality with the Romanised theologies of early Christianity. Byzantine art expressed the spirit of the age, and the text of the Bible in a way that was remarkably abstract and non-figurative, and very sophisticated, when compared with the figurative didacticism of the later Gothic or Renaissance periods. My own painting, incidentally, has often been influenced by, and sometimes pays tribute to, Byzantine art. The way in which Byzantine art used the architecture of pictorial space and colour, the way in which they structured and abstracted forms, is quite exceptional. You sense that Byzantine art is driven by a deep religiosity and a spiritual view of the relationship between the universe and the world that is highly complex. In my opinion it was probably one of the greatest moments of Biblical illustration.

JC: In a modern context of illustration, what function does illustration serve? If we have the photograph, why do we have the impulse to illustrate? What do we (as in fine art) feel that illustration is adding to a text?

If you define illustration (and the same applies to painting) in a modern context, as a pictorial expression produced by a technological culture, then you run into problems, because then you are subjecting illustration to the specific laws or rules that govern technological progress. The wheel had to be invented before they could invent the internal combustion engine before they could get to the moon and so on. You can’t reverse those things. The modern world and modern culture have evolved by this kind scientific rationale and logic. So, on the one hand you get illustration that harnesses the very best that technology has to offer. Is the art of film not a good example of this? Where film uses the best of text (script and dialogue) in conjunction with unlimited visual effects, imagery and more, I suppose you could think of this as a whole new, or modern, form of interdisciplinary illustration.

When, for example, people wondered about the new technology of photography replacing painting in the 1870’s, they were wrong. Quite the opposite happened. Photography liberated painters from the tedium of having to represent or mimic the world. In the same way film and graphic technologies add to illustration rather than replace it. The camera cannot replace the paintbrush.

Illustrators now have a bigger and better arsenal of equipment and media at their disposal and should feel excited by this, and yet the simple hand-drawn image is as relevant, direct and potentially as meaningful as ever. Technology doesn’t replace something like drawing, but it certainly can add to it.

JC: I think in a lot of ways film replaces text.

VVDM: In principle yes, but the economics and politics of film are very complicated, and despite having done some art direction in film and video, I don’t even begin to understand the full extent to which the medium of film is governed by economics. This is something that Jacques Derrida spoke about when he visited Stellenbosch. Derrida pointed out that the sheer cost, and therefore politics, of making films plays such a big role in the medium that it inhibits free creative potential. He was once approached to collaborate on a film but found that peripheral politics surrounding the medium scared him away from the project. And yet, the philosopher and writer, Umberto Eco’s story, “Name of The Rose”, resulted in an interesting visual narrative. Either way, we’re living in a culture that increasingly takes meaning, and its values and myths from moving images, on television, film, video and almost everywhere.

JC: The capitalist, market economy politics?

VVDM: The problem is that making a film costs an awful lot of money, and there’s a whole matter of distribution, production, and the making of the film. Yes, it’s a market and industry that’s driven by big economics, focussed on massive profits, and it doesn’t provide for the truly independent and creative artist or storyteller. But as new digital technology becomes more sophisticated and more affordable, I hope we’ll see millions of talented people bringing inspired and inspiring material to our screens.

JC: A final question, and quite a big one. I’ve been reading Steiner and his writing on the real presence in art. I’m wondering if you could say something about what you feel is the presence within the visual arts, that is not in the text, that illustration or visual art gives or provides that a text can’t provide? Why would we illustrate if there wasn’t something the text was unable to say?

VVDM: Do you mean are they (art and language) unique and why?

JC: Well obviously they are unique, but there are places where they overlap and it is the spaces between that interest me. What can provide that part of the bridge in art that the text needs it to provide (for the two to overlap)?

VVDM: I think painting is a good analogy here. For me painting is an activity that engages those parts of the human brain (sometimes called the visual centres in the brain) where language simply doesn’t work, or can’t cope. I think language does have limitations, and I’m also thinking very much of George Steiner here, his reference to language and silence. If you look at poetry/ literature in the twentieth century, where people try to push language to its expressive limits, you eventually get to a point where language actually falls silent, where it stops working as language and becomes something other than language. I think when you push language to its limits you reach a kind of silence, a space beyond words, codes, semantics and semiotics. There is no language. I feel that’s painting really begins. And maybe even physics, music and other kinds of mental activity too. Visual creative intelligence, (it functions by God knows what kind of rules, if there are even any) functions in a way that is very unlike language. I’m convinced that when I’m painting (and I often think about how I’m thinking when I’m painting) I don’t think like I think when I’m talking or verbalising, interpreting or decoding.

And yes, the postmodernists do tend to go on about everything being some kind of language or language-like system. But if you’re working from within a literate and language-centred context or paradigm then obviously you’ll look for linguistic analogies in everything. As a child I suffered from some or other form of mild autism which caused serious alarm and I was sent off for some or other therapy. I can’t recall much of the treatments, but what I do remember is that I was always highly conscious, and aware, of non-verbal phenomena. I was, for example, super-aware of texture, so much so that my fingers would end up bleeding as a result of my obsession with feeling everything; especially very smooth and soft textures. Sometimes language and verbal communication felt violently intrusive. It felt as if language was limiting my ability to see, touch, hear and feel. I still feel angry at the insistence that everything can be decoded and deconstructed, and the idea that everything is language-like. Certainly, my own experience is that there are ways of sensing the world, and seeing, that are profoundly disconnected from language.

JC: It’s far more abstract thought?

VVDM: Yes. I find things like autism and idiot savantism very interesting in this regard. One the one hand they’re seen as psychological abnormalities, anomalies or dysfunctions. And yet, someone who is classified as “highly gifted” is also, strictly speaking, not normal, or abnormal. If the norm is the universal average, then it’s obvious that giftedness is abnormal. In some way, it’s the old the genius vs. madness question. And until we really know how the human brain works, and how human consciousness works, and how creativity works, we’ll have to accept that there are certain modes of mental activity that probably cannot be encompassed through language. At best, we can work with the analogous relationships between these things. We can speculate and wonder, but quite honestly, I find that painting is so time-consuming, that I simply don’t have time to grapple with these questions through reading and writing anymore.

JC: So that’s almost like saying that the intellect is not involved?

VVDM:  Well I suppose it’s a different form of thought or thinking. Intellect tends to solve things through deductive thought processes. I worry when people play the two (visual art and language) off against each other and suggest some kind of hierarchical relationship between the two. Yes, maybe intellect, as we commonly understand the term, doesn’t really feature when I’m painting. And anyway, I don’t know whether painting actually equates well with the notion of proving, or disproving, anything.