Ever since I was a child, carrying around the Dutch paperbacks in my backpack, I was confronted with the art by Cor Blok. His illustrations have a very unique style and it fascinated me to see how an illustrator could tell a passage from tolkien's books with minimalistic means and leave space for my own imagination. After seeing the art of Pauline Baynes, Ted Nasmith, Alan Lee and John Howe I knew there were many unique but splendid ways to illustrate the books. Either you decide to make the landscape the major character or you bring in all the details Tolkien did describe so well - or choose the opposite and decide to illustrate the books with minimalistic means.
Since I myself ended up going to drawing school for 15 years and eventually became a master in fine arts at the Royal Academy of Antwerp, the interest in Tolkien illustration always stayed with me. Of course I bought illustrated editions of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, put books on Tolkien art in my collection - like tolkien's World: Paintings of Middle Earth and Realms of Tolkien: Images of Middle-Earth. One of the most interesting books I encountered was J.R.R.Tolkien: Artist and Illustrator, where we see that Tolkien was not only an author of books, but also master of the fine arts.
However it struck me that these tiny Lord of the Rings illustrations by Cor Blok kept on showing up and looked so different from any other Tolkien illustrations. It did not take long before I learned that Cor Blok was a Dutch artist and that he was one of the few people who got a chance to visit the professor and show his art. We all know Tolkien loved the art by Pauline Baynes, but it seemed he also liked the art by Cor Blok. In fact he liked his art so much that he bought two pieces. Later I learned that the artist Cor Blok had made more Lord of the Rings illustrations and it became a quest for me to find them.
In 2006 I finally had the chance to meet Cor Blok on the Lustrum celebration of Unquendor and learned that many of his Lord of the Rings illustrations had been sold in the 90's. Some contacts were made with owners of Cor Blok illustrations, but it proofed very difficult to trace back all of them. The Peter Jackson movies were released and one 'type' of Tolkien art dominated the scene for years. It was such a great pleasure to receive a mail from Harper Collins to find the contact information of the artist Cor Blok and I could tell them all about his art, that I had fallen in love with such a long time ago. Finally something started moving and the possible release of a Tolkien calendar dedicated to the art by Cor Blok aided my quest a lot. Now I hope that more of the sold illustrations will resurface and it will become possible to get an overview of the complete collection. For certain it is has been an interesting project so far and I hope the Tolkien calendar for 2011 will convince people of the minimalistic approach to Tolkien illustration.
I'm extremely happy to publish the following interview with the artist Cor Blok, where we talk about the art he created 50 years ago and we learn some more about this very talented and interesting person.
Cor Blok interview
TL. The paintings have a very unique style, can you tell us some more about this?
CB. There is a rather long story behind this, but first I want to stress that my main interest in undertaking this ‘Tolkien project’ lay in the experiment of telling a story in a kind of pictorial shorthand, using a limited repertoire of largely standardized means, omitting everything that is not strictly necessary to the narrative.
TL. Why did you choose to illustrate The Lord of the Rings, while this style and technique could equally well be applied to the Edda or even the Bible, for example?
CB. I actually did a couple of Bible illustrations, among them a picture of King Solomon’s successor threatening his subjects by telling them that his little finger would be thicker than his father’s loins – visualized very literally. But The Lord of the Rings happened to come to my notice, I think, in 1958, (in the Dutch translation) and though I was not immediately attracted, I came to feel that the story would lend itself to being re-told in pictures in the manner of my ‘Barbarusian’ paintings when I started to read it seriously. Eventually, this proved true enough to keep me busy for three years.
During this time I read both the translation and the original. (The Edda, since you mention it, I read only much later. I don’t think it would have inspired me. To tell the truth, I found it rather boring and soon gave up. Perhaps it makes one understand why the ancient Scandinavians and Germanic tribesmen produced so little of interest in the field of the visual arts.)
TL. Though it all happened fifty years ago, can you recall what influences were particularly important in the case of these illustrations?
CB. For one thing, ‘Barbarusia’ made me aware of the fact that a ‘style’ is in fact a set of rules like those of a game, which restricts your movements but challenges you to make the utmost of what is allowed, and in the most ingenious manner possible. Also, that a style need not be something that grows naturally from an artist’s personality or from a collective unconscious: one can consciously adopt a set of rules to serve as a ‘style’, even for specific occasions.
During my studies at the Academy I had become very much interested in a great variety of pictorial ‘languages’ – from the ancient Middle East to China, pre-Columbian America and all the so-called ‘primitive arts’. This provided one of the stimuli to create Barbarusian art. Of particular interest to me were the ancient Mixtec and Aztec chronicles with their elaborate and visually fascinating symbolism.
Out of these experiences developed a lifelong preoccupation with visual images as a means of communication. From 1963 until 1965 I worked as a staff member on the Educational Department of the Gemeentemuseum, where I had a large share in the preparation of an exhibition called ‘Taal en Teken’ in the spring of 1965. This led me into research on subjects like Chinese writing, American Indian picture writing and the work of Otto Neurath on pictorial statistics, which partly provided the material for my book ‘Beeldspraak’ published in 1967.
Although done a couple of years earlier, the Tolkien pictures fit into this line of development. More specific influences on the style of the paintings came from ‘real’ (i.e. non-Barbarusian) Medieval painting, Persian and Indian miniatures, and the work of Pieter Brueghel the Elder. I have always admired the latter’s way of circumscribing entire figures within a clear and simple closed outline. The Bayeux Tapestry was also on my mind, but as far as I can recall modern comic strips began to consciously interest me only when the ‘Tolkien project’ was already well under way. Interest in them was stimulated by Roy Lichtenstein’s use of them in his paintings and by the appearance of comics like ‘Barbarella’ and ‘Asterix’ and reprints of the classic ‘Krazy Kat’.
TL. I heard that Tolkien bought some of your paintings and that you visited him. Can you recall particulars of this visit?
CB. Nothing very exciting – unknown young artist visits Famous Author, that kind of thing, though the Famous Author behaved amiably enough. I had been introduced by his publisher, Rayner Unwin, to whom I had in turn been introduced by Mr Jacobi of Van Stockum’s bookshop, The Hague, who was the first to exhibit the pictures. I had brought a selection of my paintings as well as some examples of Barbarusian miniatures, and we discussed these and the desirability or un-desirability of illustrations to accompany a text.
Recently, though, I read in Scull & Hammond’s ‘Tolkien Companion and Guide’ that among the first five that were sent to him through the publisher there were four he thought ‘attractive as pictures, but bad as illustrations’, as he wrote to Rayner Unwin. One could hardly hope, he complained in this letter, nowadays, to come across a talented artist ‘who could, or would even try to depict the noble and the heroic’. I doubt whether many of my pictures would come up to this standard.
Following my visit to Tolkien the possibility of an exhibition at an Oxford gallery was discussed, but in the end nothing came of it.
In 1964, when I was preparing the ‘Taal en Teken’ exhibition, I wrote to Tolkien again, asking questions about his experiences as an inventor of imaginary languages, to which he declined to reply, however, excusing himself on the ground of being ‘much harassed’ by all kinds of business.
TL. Have you done any other art work besides the Tolkien illustrations?
CB. I have, but I have never tried to make a living on it. That is why I opted for an art teacher’s education in stead of a painter’s. Art schools in the ‘fifties, however, were able to teach you some elements of handling form and colour, but unable to tell you what to do with them in actual practice, because due to the diversity of developments in modern art there was no longer one single ‘true style’ for a young artist to adhere to. Consequently, upon graduating from the Academy in 1956 I was completely at a loss and had a feeling that everything was to be started from scratch.
Fortunately, the Barbarusian art ‘project’ enabled me to continue creating visual images by providing a framework borrowed from art history while experimenting with a variety of methods to produce ‘autonomous’ painting. These methods ranged from strict geometrical abstraction to ‘gesture painting’ and various attempts at figuration. These experiments continued when ‘Tolkien’ succeded Barbarusia. Virtually none of these works survived critical evaluation after 1964, when I finally began to ‘come into my own’ as regards subject matter and ways of handling it. Contemporary developments, in particular the work of R.B. Kitaj, David Hockney and Öyvind Fahlström, proved inspiring, together with a long-standing fascination with the early paintings of Giorgio de Chirico and Max Ernst and – bien étonnés de se trouver ensemble – the work of Kandinsky and Paul Klee. Between 1964 and the early ‘seventies I produced a number of oil paintings and drawings and had three exhibitions, the last one in 1968.
In the meantime, I earned my living by doing museum work, teaching in art schools and writing art criticism. This kept me very much aware of contemporary developments in the arts and brought me into contact with many artists.
The ‘sixties witnessed an explosion of exciting new phenomena: English and American pop art, Nouveau Réalisme, Land Art, Arte povera, Conceptual art... which of necessity had to be followed by something like a hangover. I did publicity and educational work for ‘Sonsbeek ‘71’, a manifestation with its centre in Sonsbeek Park, Arnhem, and extensions all over the Netherlands. (Claes Oldenburg’s giant ‘Trowel’ in the Kröller Müller Museum and the ‘Observatory’ of Robert Morris in Flevoland are remnants of ‘Sonsbeek ‘71’.) Naive hopes that this manifestation would bring the glorious breakthrough and general acceptation of the newest art forms were soon disappointed, however.
As for myself, in my contacts with other artists I could not help noticing how many of them ended up repeating themselves or varying a single theme to the point of complete exhaustion. Besides, particularly since the students’ revolts in Paris in 1968 and their sequels elsewhere, the role of art in our capitalist, consumerist society was being criticized with increasing severity, first by a new generation of Marxists, afterwards from other quarters as well. As an art critic, it was my job to reflect on these developments, and these reflections were bound to affect my thoughts about my own artistic practice as well.
I continued to produce ‘autonomous’ work during the early ‘seventies, but also started on a new ‘project’: a kind of comic strip (except that it was not particularly comic – ‘graphic novel’ is the up-to-date designation) in black and white, combining drawings, collage and text in various manners. This enabled me to get away from the isolated picture which no longer seemed to make sufficient sense to me, while retaining the possibility of producing variations on a single theme or motif. The latter fits naturally in the context of making a book because of the required formal continuity between pages and chapters. The graphic novel format also enabled me to use language as a means of expression alongside with the visual medium. The first attempts date from 1967, when my ideas about content and form were still very vague.
TL. One final question, if I may be so bold as to ask about wishes and dreams for the future –
CB. - you mean, now that I have reached a ripe old age? I am planning to write at least one other book on matters of art, including its relationship to science. Then perhaps another graphic novel – and finding out whether returning to the easel would not be so bad an idea, after all.
Cor Blok art call for help
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