That early time was certainly wonderful. I lived almost entirely inwardly, almost all in my mind.
Robert Walser, ‘From My Youth’ (1917)
For the last few months, I’ve gone often to a very peculiar place. You can’t find it on any map: it was invented by Jockum Nordström. My survey of the Swedish artist’s mysterious wilderness began last winter at London’s David Zwirner gallery, during Nordström’s show ‘For the Insects and the Hounds’. Conjured via drawing and collage in the thrifty materials of childhood art classes (soft pencils, crayons, coloured card), his sprawling works chronicle febrile scenes within some wintry hinterland. Grinning like Halloween pumpkins, its inhabitants are chiefly little paper figures that seem to have wandered away from a puppet theatre. There’s also a bestiary of unruly dogs with watercolour fur, panicking horses and various other wild beasts. The Thieves (2014), for example, stars a sweet-tempered lion that’s drifted from his tamer’s living room to examine the night sky. Until a few years ago, there was an unsettling abundance of birds, but something has scared them away. The landscape must be erotic as rough couplings occur almost everywhere, creating enough dismal lovers for a great parade. The other festive oddities include apparitions in pyjamas, lost drunks, fearful doubles and boys playing hide-and-seek around the crooked houses. Though he’s actually a middle-aged man, Nordström makes work that looks like the invention of a late Victorian child with scant formal training in art. Disjointing things further is his wonky feel for time; it seems to have paused in a fit of despair somewhere between the publication of Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1893) and the arrival of rock ‘n’ roll.
During the 20 years he has been drawing, painting and making collages, Nordström has explored this region where the prevailing spirit is anarchic, frosty and often inexplicable. Many other artists are traversing a similarly strange private terrain. A long tradition exists within illustration that welcomes us back into certain landscapes familiar from the folklore, fairytales and weird miscellanea we discover in childhood to produce its own array of ghosts. The form has always provided a home for eccentric practitioners, from the great Victorian ‘fairy painter’ Richard Dadd to the American artist Edward Gorey, responsible for tales of morbid whimsy such as The Doubtful Guest (1956). These are outlandish inner worlds, brimming with unnerving visions, traumas and riddles.
As a small boy, I used to linger for a long time in a book containing Gustave Doré’s fairytale etchings, especially upon the page depicting the oddly flirtatious pas de deux between the girl and the wolf in his illustrations for Red Riding Hood (1862). The heroine’s china-doll stare still glows in my memory, alongside the intricate whorls of the wolf’s fur. Illustration lies close to the heart of whatever we fuzzily comprehend as being art’s capacity to enchant looking and thinking; indeed, it’s often first glimpsed in that form. These pictures provide spaces (and shadows) that the mind can dream over and question.
Paula Rego’s illustrations for a book simply titled Nursery Rhymes (1989) are possibly the most ferocious works she’s ever produced; their subject is perfectly suited to her oeuvre’s mixture of startled innocence and dreamtime menace. Malevolent creatures return to life with rollicking horror: a demonic cat plays fiddle (‘Hey Diddle Diddle!’) for a bunch of trudging ogres, while a lordly crow reigns over an attic like an emissary from the nightmarish aviary found in Max Ernst’s ‘collage novel’, Une Semaine de Bonté (A Week of Kindness, 1934).
For the surrealists, this childhood material wasn’t to be outgrown but cherished. All kinds of things that are usually swept under the carpet by parental anxiety – pure mischief and terror, alongside more prickly intimations of danger and grief – come out to play in these stories. They contain all the clues for an uncanny art, as André Breton explained in The First Manifesto of Surrealism (1924): ‘The faculties do not change radically. Fear, the attraction of the unusual […] the taste for things extravagant are all devices we can call upon.’ This imaginative extravagance can be accomplished by humble methods. Nordström’s materials have a quiet pathos, bound up with their meek insignificance and the delicate things they create. In photographs of his studio, you can see the accidental snowscape of fallen paper that collects beneath his desk as he works.
Hans Christian Andersen liked making cut-out figures, too. He returned to this gentle folk form in old age as he grew too ill to write, producing in place of his fables enchanting depictions of their contents, such as ballerinas, swans, palaces and magnificently intricate snowflakes. If Andersen feels like a cosy emblem for this shadowland of the European imagination, carrying with him bedtime memories of rescued innocents and conquered horrors, then revisit the tales. They’re crammed with such cruelty that they threaten to come undone; the nastiness is only redeemed by the curious formal daring that animates Andersen’s work – one tale, for example, is narrated by a roaming breeze. Many of the stories from his life have a gothic shiver running through them. As a poor youth in Copenhagen, Andersen wandered from house to house, singing for families in a frail soprano that earned him the nickname ‘The Little Nightingale from Fyn’. He was so scared of getting buried alive he slept clutching a note that read: ‘I only seem dead!’
The colours of Nordström’s climate are discreetly dreamy: the earth is a soporific pink while the sky is a rotting-bark brown or cemetery grey, although sometimes ‘earth’ and ‘sky’ don’t feel like the right words because they’re just tired stretches of colour that might equally claim to be snowbanks and blank walls. Through several beautiful complications, Garcon et Fille / Bad Grades (2014) shows you a sun as pale as old dough, streaked with raindrops and circled by glum red ribbons. There’s a nude woman lying fast asleep at its heart. Seeking other ways towards a wayward picture, Nordström occasionally makes it look as if it’s the work of many ingenious hands. The Hour of the Wolf (2014) throws together comicbook clouds, jittery paper lunatics in lycanthrope costumes – a wicked nod to Max in his white wolf-suit from Maurice Sendak’s storybook Where the Wild Things Are (1963) – alongside a drawing of a tiny horse that looks as if it were plucked from a carousel. For an additional ghoulish reverberation, the title is borrowed from an Ingmar Bergman film made in 1968 about a painter who goes mad and eventually vanishes during a winter holiday. Smouldering with fear, an early scene runs like a forecast for conditions in Nordström’s territory. Max von Sydow is showing Liv Ullmann, who plays his terrified wife, some drawings capturing figures that have visited in recent nightmares, all unseen by the audience but free to creep into our brains through his evocation. ‘Birdmen,’ he says with a shudder, shaking a page, ‘insects and carnivores.’ Baffled by the last spectre he mumbles, ‘I can’t tell if it’s his face or a mask.’
Outside of his art, Nordström is half in shadow. Go hunting for biographical tidbits, and all you’ll uncover – apart from his marriage to the painter Mamma Andersson, whose works similarly emanate from an interior world fixed around early adolescence – is a substratum of thin gruel. What little there is to examine suggests a docile but purposeful unworldliness. Among the more illuminating facts about Nordström in circulation are that, during boyhood, he longed to be a sailor but found adult employment as an illustrator for a ‘big Swedish newspaper’. He works between Stockholm and a retreat in rural Sweden where he eschews modern technology for months at a time. But it’s apt that his biography is vague. His art is a sly fiction: anything messily confessional would throw the work to those furious wolves. Yet, even as he plays the melancholy orphan, Nordström makes allusions that indicate the opposite: you can find the footsteps of several relatives hidden in the snow. What’s found within his work is the imaginative wreckage left by a childhood spent under the spell of the Brothers Grimm, or the stories subsequently concocted by lonely figures such as Lewis Carroll and Franz Kafka. Their tales are at once traditional and not, sneaking into forms we all know well, even if we’re not quite sure how, to ask their own peculiar questions and play sinister games. It makes them all the more baffling that they feel part of some distant inheritance and yet so quietly modern.
Once the joint subject with Nordström of a show at David Zwirner’s New York gallery in 2004, Marcel Dzama has often rifled through the same fantastical inventory for his drawings and paintings over the last two decades. For all its cute reliance on animal costumes and adorable beasts, Dzama’s oeuvre is checkered by occasional stray wonders that could stop a cynic in their tracks. For Hastily Grabbing Those Innocent Pawns (2013), he conjures up the swooning collaboration between Joseph Cornell and Busby Berkeley that history was too cruel to provide. A diorama reverently arranged within a wooden box, the piece freezes gothic ballerinas and ghosts covered in Dalmatian spots inside an Arctic ballroom to eerie effect. If many of his nonsensical scenes appear to amiably insist, ‘We’re all mad here!’ – à la Cheshire Cat from Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) – without taking many risks or producing real astonishments, certain other pieces have a darker promise which is playful but also surprisingly icy. Gazing into these little worlds, seemingly retrieved from attics and coated in the dust of a lost past, is frequently a creepy experience. Dzama and Nordström have sometimes succeeded in recapturing an atmosphere whose authentic custodian was himself an artist of exhilarating strangeness.
Bruno Schulz was a hunched and fearful little man who taught drawing at a school in Drohobych (then Polish but now Ukranian territory) by day but wrote the freakish carnival of stories gathered in The Street of Crocodiles (1934) by night. Often taking the form of childhood recollections, these tales describe the grimy, magical life within a dream version of his family and town. A stray dog wanders through a field to find ‘a black monster, a scarecrow moving quickly on the rods of many entangled legs’; anonymous characters are glimpsed as ‘rows of pale, cut-out figures, their faces fixed in an expression of anxious peering’. The narrator’s father retreats into a ‘smoke-blackened attic’, attempting to transform himself into a bird. These phantasmagorical events occur within a world mapped with cartographic exactitude, imbuing them with an unaccountably deadpan texture that wholly belongs neither to autobiography or fable. The grungy charcoal drawings he created to illustrate his stories are all shadows and ash; they’re inhabited by mournful boys, with balloon-like heads, and vampiric nymphs. A Jewish-Polish artist, Schulz was murdered by a Gestapo officer in 1942, but his creations allow for the survival of the place he carried around in his head.
Another world following woozily disordered logic can be found in illustrations by the British artist Catrin Morgan. Her drawings for The Age of Wire and String, a novel by the American author Ben Marcus (1996; illustrated edition 2013), are disorientating reformulations of the familiar visual material found within science textbooks, which look as if they come from a dystopian educational system that values opacity and seeks to induce dread. Here’s a map of a half-melted country, there’s an M.C. Escher-style topographic conundrum. Exquisitely drawn in the margin of another page is a masochist’s corset that must be woven from flesh or hair. These are suitably bewildering analogues to Marcus’s mock-clinical prose, which is coloured with menacing lyrical abstractions: ‘The lark, the griffin and the mallard, all the birds of indeterminate temperature and vapour content, function as ignitors of the tide.’
At the heart of such oblique science fiction, there’s a deep supply of metaphysical unease. The withdrawal from the waking world achieved by these artists is often shadowed by special terrors and encroaching claustrophobia. This is certainly the case with works by the French illustrator Tomi Ungerer, who was the subject of a huge 50-year retrospective survey at New York’s Drawing Center last winter. The cartoons collected in the sequence titled Symptomatics (1972) communicate states of deep mental disquiet with grim immediacy: a woman huddles in the corner of a room that’s falling away into a huge empty nothing or a small man fails to climb sky-scraping stairs. According to the show’s catalogue, these concise nightmares were commissioned for ‘a Geigy Pharmaceuticals manual on depression’. During the 1960s (and much of the next decade), he was a commercial illustrator whose work appeared in magazines or advertisements, in possession of a uniquely sinister flair.
Absent from the sprawl were any of the scenes found in two of Ungerer’s finest books, Slow Agony (c. 1976–82) and Far Out Isn’t Far Enough (1983). These mute accounts of his isolation in rural Nova Scotia equate pastoral life with purgatory and give that obdurate premise an unexpectedly harrowing force. (Following his time in Nova Scotia, he moved to Ireland where he still lives.) An untitled drawing from Slow Agony throws you squarely into the murk of a wheatfield to study a modest house dwarfed by a brooding slab of storm-warning cloud. There’s a little piece of blue sky far off enough to be a joke; the wind howls, making preparations for a tornado. When such a disaster arrives, Ungerer assiduously records the damage in a bleak sequence of sketches. He imbues shattered houses with chill metaphorical properties, turning them into eloquent expressions of migrant shock and displacement; his use of charcoal and gouache give every page the texture of a polluted lake.
But Ungerer is also expert at smuggling existential clout into the non sequiturs that make his smaller pieces and single-frame cartoons such a joy. Even by night, there’s a lick of rainbow over a sleeping couple’s quilt; on another page, a drug-addled donkey stops falling apart because he’s bound together with string. Everywhere, Ungerer leaps between his two favourite moods: delirious glee, which manifests itself in alternately sweet or lurid forms, and an all-encompassing alienation that borders on the misanthropic. This means he has all the classic feelings of other comic oddballs like Robert Crumb or Basil Wolverton, combining their taste for exuberant grotesquerie with various gnarly side-effects from the surrealism he ingested as a young man. But there was a perplexing undercurrent to all the pleasures in the retrospective as its curators continually insisted on attempting to find a biographical explanation for every quiver of Ungerer’s wildly versatile imagination as it shifted through acidic countercultural satires – see Mickey Mouse attack anti-war protestors! – slick erotic fantasies and lunar landscapes. Various sources were nominated, from his supposedly spiky temperament to his wartime childhood spent under Nazi occupation, which was tracked through fascinating youthful cartoons. As a precocious adolescent satirist, Ungerer drew Hitler as a morose little doll with a moulting eagle for a sidekick. Illuminating as these anxious reflections on the personal origins of an artist’s singular imprint can be, they can also recast a life’s work as a rather flimsy allegory. Such games of cause and effect are also attempts to tame the strangeness on the surface that makes the best illustration so powerful and mysterious.
‘When we reach the end of the story, we’ll know more than we know now,’ Andersen claims in The Snow Queen (1844). But art isn’t quite so neat and whatever knowledge it supplies isn’t readily comprehensible. These illustrators salvage and regain a childhood experience of the world in which, according to Schulz, reality is ‘as thin as paper’, fantastically unknowable and bristling with hallucinations. Like all storytellers, they are often playing a far more mischievous game than you think: they don’t send you home with morals but make new places for you to get lost in.
First published in Issue 172