The Poetic Power of Illustration: Interview with William Grill

Bandoola: The Great Elephant Rescue, by William Grill

 
 
When I came across William Grill’s book The Wolves of Currumpaw four years ago, I had no idea that I was in for a complete shift of view on children’s books, illustration and storytelling. William Grill’s illustrations evoke the kind of creative freedom that children have, that complete freedom of the mind, something priceless that we, as we grow up, will try the rest of our lives to recapture without succeeding. His style of drawing, those effortless, unrestrained, natural-flowing, simple yet remarkable strokes of pencil leave enough room to the imagination. It’s the most striking feeling. The writing is spare, yet the illustrations carry so many details and sincere understanding – they are drawn from real life, from actual observation, from looking and seeing, truly seeing.

I bought The Wolves of Currumpaw for my son. Then I bought Shackleton’s Journey for myself. And I bought the latest Bandoola: The Great Elephant Rescue because William Grill’s books already feel like classics. But there is more to them than the storytelling and drawings. You just have to hold any of them in your hands to understand why. Every single detail, from the cloth spine to the cover artwork, feels very much hand-crafted. It helps children imagine. Adults, too. “When we are no longer children, we are already dead,” Constantin Brâncuși said. William Grill’s books help us remain children.

William’s first book, Shackleton’s Journey, won the 2015 Kate Greenaway award and has been translated into over 14 languages. His second book, The Wolves of Currumpaw, won the 2016 Bologna Ragazzi prize for non-fiction. When not drawing himself, William enjoys teaching and encouraging others to draw, and he is currently working alongside another author for a new book. I am honoured to have Will as my guest today, talking about drawing, childhood, unhindered creativity and worldwide journeys that fuel his work.
 

Bandoola: The Great Elephant Rescue, by William Grill

 
 
What is your earliest drawing memory?

One of my earliest memories was drawing at the kitchen table next to my older brother Kit. I can remember looking at what he was drawing and wanting to be as good as him. Another specific memory was when I was about seven, at school where we were drawing fruit, I chose to draw a pineapple which took ages – though I was quite pleased with it. Most lessons I struggled with, but I remember feeling like this was something I could do if I tried.
 
 
Your style of drawing is so simple and sincere yet exceptional and striking. When I looked at your illustrations in Shackleton’s Journey, I imagined being in the open sea, 500 miles from the nearest civilisation, on a tiny boat, and I felt chilly staring at Endurance trying to cross the Weddell Sea. As for your drawings of Lobo, in The Wolves of Currumpaw, they just let my imagination roam free. Were you allowed the freedom to draw whatever you liked in your childhood? Did you have a teacher or art teacher in school who encouraged you to draw?

Thank you! My mum was always very encouraging with art that we made, I think that made all the difference. My mum also had a partner for a while who was good at drawing and painting, I can remember him teaching me about using different grades of pencils, etc. I don’t think my art teachers did anything out of the ordinary. Seeing my brother and his friends drawing things really did make me want to draw more and be better.
 
 

“It’s a shame children don’t get much time to draw at school, and those who don’t draw neatly aren’t necessarily ‘bad’ at art or being creative.”

 
 
Do you yourself work with children? Because I believe that children’s books authors are a great source for educational alternatives and who could help creativity and open up possibilities more than schools usually do.

I try and visit schools every March and October – it’s a great thing to do for me as much as it is for them! I get quite inspired by what they make, often wishing I had the same energy and freedom that some of their drawings have. I hope that my visits encourage those who like to draw, or those who are maybe less academic (like myself). It’s a shame children don’t get much time to make or draw at school, and those who don’t draw neatly aren’t necessarily ‘bad’ at art or being creative – I get a lot of pleasure seeing those come out of their shell or being proud of a drawing they’ve made.
 

I wholeheartedly agree. What about the books of your childhood? What was the book that sparked your imagination more than any other when you were a kid?

I used to love What Do People Do All Day, by Richard Scarry. The busyness and detail of the book, the characters, and the fact that it made me realise that outside school the world is full of possibilities and different personalities, all interconnected and working in unison.
 

We should learn from children’s ability of seeing no boundaries and no storytelling boundaries. What did you dream to be when you were a child? How early on did you know you wanted to be an illustrator and children’s book author?

When I was five, I used to want to be a builder, I think I thought a builder could make anything he wanted! And then, when my mum took me to a carpenter’s workshop to pick up a kitchen table, I used to want to be a carpenter.
 
I didn’t want to be an illustrator until I was about 21, when I was in my first year at Falmouth University. I didn’t think children’s books were for me until I got a publishing offer by Flying Eye Books. Luckily, about two weeks before the end of my course, my tutor encouraged me to bind my Imperial Trans Antarctic Expedition (now Shackleton’s Journey) drawings in a dummy book for the D&AD design show in London. As a dyslexic, I’d always struggled with reading and writing, so the thought of being an author seemed impossible.

 

The Wolves of Currumpaw, by William Grill

 
 
There is a lot of research that goes into your books. For The Wolves of Currumpaw, for example, you also went on location to New Mexico. How important is actual observation for your work?

I try to get as much research as I can first hand. Drawing on location, speaking to people who are experts in their field, seeing a country in person can all give you little or big rewards that, to me, are worth it – a chance upon a particular view, a gallery, a local artwork that inspires you… It makes you more connected with what you’re researching, not just the visuals, but the other senses as well: smell, temperature, sound, they all contribute to the experience you’re trying to distill into your book. Direct experience gives you more confidence in the story you are telling. Seeing Lobo’s territory in New Mexico, for example, was so useful, it was really different than how I had imagined it, and being there in real life just made me care about the story so much more.
 

Do you always carry a sketchbook with you?

Always!
 

You also went to Myanmar as part of your research for Bandoola. Did that have a great impact on your story? And if so, how

Visiting Myanmar was hugely useful for gaining a deeper understanding of the environment, elephants and the working relationship between humans and elephants. There isn’t a great deal of books or documentaries about timber elephants, and the idea of seeing them in real life was alluring. There are things you see and feel in person that you just can’t get from watching a screen or reading a book. I got a better sense of the scale and strength of the animals, but also of their sensitivity. Meeting and observing the oozies (elephant riders) gave me a greater appreciation of their skill and connection with their elephant, incredible to me where nature is quite far removed and sanitised. The oozies walk around the jungle bare foot, while I tried the same, they were cut up by bamboo after half a day’s walk tracking an elephant!
 

What else fuels your creativity?

I watch a lot of films and documentaries. With film, there’s so much you can learn about composition, colour, image quality and storytelling, while documentaries can open your eyes to so many different subjects that I wouldn’t be able to access through books because I’m a slow reader! I also love looking at paintings, prints and textiles, they all give me inspiration and ideas, too.
 

Which are your favourite films and documentaries?

Favourite films: Days of Heaven, Badlands, Alien, The Thing, Predator, O Lucky Man, Wings of Desire, Memories (animation), The Man Who Planted Trees (animation), Five Easy Pieces, The Sting, Dawn of The Dead (original), After Hours, Dead Man.

Documentaries: The Hermit of Treig, When We Were Kings, Cosmos, Koyaanisqatsi, The White Diamond, Encounters at the End of the World, Stories We Tell, The Century of the Self, BBC Documentary – Hells Angels, London 1973, OJ: Made in America, Touching the Void, The King of Kong.
 
 

“I try and make the text as short as possible.
Exposition can be patronising, and, by leaving space
for interpretation, it can make for a richer experience for more readers.”

 
 
All your books, Shackleton’s Journey, The Wolves of Currumpaw and Bandoola: The Great Elephant Rescue, are non-fiction books, based on real events, and, more than that, man versus nature stories. What exactly sparked your interest in these subjects and in re-telling these stories?

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been intrigued by animals. Growing up in the countryside, working on a farm when I was younger and having a mum who taught philosophy at school all probably have something to do with my interest in how we interact with the natural world. Animal ethics in particular really got me thinking about it when I was a teenager. As I wasn’t the most academic person at school, I found myself participating in as many outdoor pursuits as I could. I suppose all of this combined to make me drawn to these stories visually, but these stories also carried value and meaning to me that I want to share.
 

Shackleton’s Journey, by William Grill

 
 
I think it’s extraordinary how your books introduce children and young audiences to real-life stories, historical events, cultural diversity. Your books are also beautiful, hand-made works of art in themselves. Do you believe the world of children’s books today underestimates the depth of topics young children are capable of understanding?

I think children are more capable than we might assume, and if we present them with a challenging topic, they may rise to that occasion. To me, it’s about how you present that information. On the rare occasions we got to discuss ethical issues at school, I found it so much more engaging and stimulating than regurgitating information – like I was learning something about real life, and, in doing so, it made me wiser in some way. Something I really believe in is cross-curricular learning, and critical thinking. As challenging as it may be, if a book can combine aspects of science, history and maybe even ethics, whilst being emotionally engaging and relevant, then I think children will get far more out of it.

 
In your books, the drawings alone could easily tell the story. Do you prefer to tell stories in images rather than with words? How important is it for you to leave space to the reader and his imagination?

I hope that’s the case. When I make a book, I write a list of bullet points out of all the major events or information, then the writing stops and I make a small storyboards based on these points – I want the images to drive the book. Then I’ll make the text work around the imagery. I try and make the text as short as possible.

Like in film, often the sound and visual can make a point that is more powerful in poetic form than literal form. When we over-explain, it’s far less interesting to us as a reader… it’s satisfying to fill in the gaps sometimes. Exposition can be patronising, and, by leaving space for interpretation, it can make for a richer experience for more readers. If I could, I’d have far more wordless pages, but that means more pages, which isn’t practical for the publisher. One day I’d like to make an animation, as I feel music and sound can help tell a story, which can reduce words further.
 

I really feel that true comprehension comes from the images in your stories, from thoroughly looking at the images. That’s where the true alliance between you and the reader occurs. Have you considered creating a purely fictional book?

I would love to create a piece of fiction one day. I get fleeting ideas, but haven’t yet had something that I’m compelled to do. Hopefully that will happen at some point. I still feel I am learning how to tell stories working with non-fiction. The closest I’ve come is planning to adapt a classic piece of fiction. There’s just so many non-fiction subjects I’m drawn to at the moment that should keep me busy for a long time to come.
 

Are you working on a new book currently? Anything you can share with us?

I’m currently working on a new book alongside an author – it’s nice to just focus on images for a change, we get on well and make decisions together, which is good! All I can say is that it is non-fiction, and really about appreciating the world around you.
 

In this time and age, what to you wish people appreciated more?

Tough question! There are so many things… I think I just wish that we appreciated our planet more, as obvious as it sounds, from the small and insignificant to all the amazing animals that exist on it. Humans have really only been here for a fraction of time compared to many species (flora & fauna), and it’s questionable how long we will be around for, and what we’ll leave behind, but when we do make an effort and think beyond ourselves, we can do great things.

Thank you, Will, for sharing your work and creative process with us.
 
 

williamgrill.co.uk | Instagram: @william.grill

 
 

 
 

MORE STORIES

I draw on everything I know and feel: Interview with photographer Chris Boulton

Beyond Ernest et Célestine: The Art of Gabrielle Vincent:
Interview with Fondation Monique Martin

Art will set you free: In conversation with photographer Bill Phelps

Posted by classiq in Books, Interviews | | Comments Off on The Poetic Power of Illustration: Interview with William Grill

Our Summer Manifesto


 
 

Life itself was Abbas Kiarostami’s greatest inspiration,
so this summer we let ourselves be guided by his words.

 
 
His films emerged from the simplest of things, from the smallest of moments. Abbas Kiarostami knew how to find the fascinating in the banalities of life. He didn’t make up extraordinary stories and extraordinary worlds in his movies, but he looked for ordinary lives in exceptional moments. He wanted people to believe in his movies. He liked making movies that showed by not showing, that left questions unanswered, that did not explain, that worked up the viewer’s imagination, and was against the kind of cinema that didn’t ask the audience to think. Rules weren’t an obstacle for him, but rather a way to forever stimulate his imagination. In the simplicity of the people in his native Iran, he found a poetic understanding of life that much compensated for the lack of their technical development.

He was a firm believer that films bind us together in incredible ways, and, even more importantly, that cinema moves us beyond reality, bringing us closer to our dreams. In his filmmaking, he was driven by the philosophy that “you have to have the courage to experiment and take risks without being intimidated by the fact that only six people might see the result”. This is a director whose films I want to watch.

Life itself was Abbas Kiarostami’s greatest inspiration and he and his life lessons have become the inspiration for our summer manifesto.
 
 

Cherish the incidental. Embrace the accidental.

The most wondrous period in the life of a human being is childhood, when encountering even the most minuscule things becomes a process of radical exploration. It’s a pity we leave those times behind so quickly.

Don’t waste a single second. Be yourself now.

Do all you can to enjoy life.

Small projects keep us agile for bigger ones.

Do your work with no expectations beyond personal satisfaction.

Education might be the key to society’s problems, but it can also suffocate, erase personality, and crush the imagination. Knowledge for its own sake isn’t useful. It has to be personalised. Collective thinking troubles me.

Do nothing on anyone else’s terms.

Laziness is a sin.

Can anyone other than you determine the true value of your work?

Self-confidence is vital. But self-importance is unappealing, the most unpleasant of traits. Humility pays dividends.

The more forms of connectivity there are, the more I take shelter from such things.

There is no one in the world who doesn’t have a story to tell.

 
 

MORE STORIES

This summer we’re channelling: Juliette Binoche in Abbas Kiarostami’s “Certified Copy”

One day that summer: Pienza, Tuscany

This summer we’re channelling: Sigourney Weaver in “The Year of Living Dangerously”

Posted by classiq in Books, Culture, Film | | Comments Off on Our Summer Manifesto

Read Instead…in Print


 
A photo of a good book about cinema. No discursive, pretentious analyses, no verbose scrutiny. Because the idea is to invite you to read the book, not read about it here. But instead of using social media, I use my journal. Back to basics. Take it as a wish to break free of over-reliance on social media (even if it’s just for posting a photo of a good book) for presenting my work, cultural finds and interests. These are things to be enjoyed as stand-alone pieces in a more substantial and meaningful way than showing them in the black hole of Instagram thronged with an audience with a short attention span. This is also a look through my voluminous collection of books about film that I use as research in my adamant decision to rely less and less on the online and more on more on print materials.

Read instead…in print #14

He had a reputation of being temperamental, self-promoting, impossible to work with. But he also did not compromise, could not fake anything, was completely dedicated to his work – a fiercely independent and authentic filmmaker. He didn’t like to be liked, but he wanted and fought for the freedom of doing what he liked unhindered. He begged, borrowed, stole, got bank loans without collateral to make his movies. But his movies don’t judge, don’t tell you what to think; he doesn’t judge his characters, doesn’t separate from them, he accepts their moral and emotional untidiness. The viewer gets involved with his films because they are raw, unfiltered, unpredictable, complex, overwhelming, just like real life is. And John Cassavetes loved life just as it was – and he made films about it.

He pioneered a new form of art – an art liberated from the conventional, simplistic canons of beauty, romance, heroism, right and wrong. And John Cassavetes lived for his art.

And this great book, Cassavetes on Cassavetes, by Ray Carney, tells it all. One of the best, most emotionally charged and most revealing film books I have read so far.
 
 

“I think you can do more through positive action than in pointing out
the foibles and stupidities of man. Pictures are supposed to clarify people’s
emotions, to explain the feelings of people on an emotional plane. An art film
should not preclude laughter, enjoyment and hope. Is life about horror?
Or is it about those few moments we have? I would like to say that my life
has some meaning. We must take a more positive stand in making motion
pictures, and have a few more laughs, and treat life with a little more hope
than we have in the past. I believe in people.”


 
 

MORE STORIES

Bring back a sample of dirt: Costuming “Once Upon a Time in the West”

Behind the scenes of “Ford v Ferrari”: Interview with production designer François Audouy

Editorial: Every night is Opening Night

Posted by classiq in Books, Film, Read instead...in print | | Comments Off on Read Instead…in Print

June Newsletter: Desperately Seeking Cindy…


 
 

Photos: Classiq Journal

 
 
… or Charlotte…

Sepia soaked long summer days and Cindy Crawford in frayed faded cutoff denim and simple white t-shirts, white shirts or bodysuits, most probably Alaïa, on sandy beaches. I don’t think I am alone in saying this, that we find life to be the most covetable when exposed to the summer elements – a blast of wind laden with sand in the golden hour, a sun fade, and the taste of saltwater. Or that Cindy Crawford’s athletic, healthy, curvy body still is the epitome of natural beauty. Maybe it’s the very nature of summer – wistful, adventurous, brazen, free – that brings to mind a time pre-Instagram when models and actors had more mystery and grace, and everyone, the public, had their own lives to live. You could only imagine your favourite actor’s or supermodel’s glamorous life and getting to see, for example, Cindy’s famous workout routine, which she filmed in different locales, from the beach to a rooftop, was enough of a sneak peek into her private life. It was enough. You respected their privacy. Because they wanted to keep their privacy.

There is this line towards the end of Tonne Goodman’s book, Point of View, which explores for the first time her life and work, charting Goodman’s career from her modeling days, to her freelance fashion reportage, to her editorial and advertising work, through to her reign at Vogue. She says: “I took part in the evolution from models to celebrity covers.” And that is it. That’s what makes all the difference. Celebrity culture has replaced culture, has replaced fashion, has replaced everything.

Will we ever be able to reclaim our sense of freedom?

Desperately seeking Cindy… or Charlotte… Charlotte Rampling. In her book, Who I Am, (more about it further down in the newsletter), Charlotte Rampling writes “I don’t open up.” I respect that. Charlotte Rampling’s fame is different from that of her peers. People have not learned to read Charlotte Rampling, because she never plays their game. Therefore her presence, in real life and in her movies, is as fresh as her first film. “Ever since I was a small child, I’ve had this feeling – it’s in my nature, and so it’s not even pretentious – that if everyone’s going one way, I will go the other, just by some kind of spirit of defiance.”

Her choice of films was not the result of lucky breaks and good timing. Never easily impressed, she has always sought out the more difficult path, and challenging, even controversial and troubled parts, driven by emotional and intellectual curiosity, such as Luchino Visconti’s The Damned (1969) and Liliana Cavanti’s The Night Porter (1974). “European films were what it was about for me – the sensations I needed, the depth, the storytelling, the characters, the directors, and the freedom that you can’t really find in American films… I could have been a superstar in America – I was certainly taken out there. But I said, ‘No way, José, I’m not staying here in this madhouse.” Her intense gaze is the first thing you notice. Yet you receive no answer. It keeps you guessing. She once said that doing cinema is not about watching yourself. Just like watching cinema is not just about watching.

Will movies ever be able to reclaim their freedom?

 

 
Viewing

The films of Christian Petzold. It’s been a long time since I dove into the work of a filmmaker the way I recently have with Christian Petzold’s films. I think Nina Hoss, the protagonist of many of his films, has a point when she says that he is one of the very few author-filmmakers, true auteurs, left – he both writes and directs his movies. Petzold is very good at creating microcosms with his films. Barbara (2012) is set in East Germany, 1980. Barbara (Nina Hoss) is a doctor who works in a hospital in a small provincial town. This is her punishment for attempting to emigrate to the West. She used to work in the biggest hospital in Berlin. Now she is kept under constant surveillance, secluded in the country, with nobody to trust. She does her job systematically, patiently, and she waits. We are waiting, too, patiently, as the tension builds. I loved this film on so many levels and I have recently written about the many visual aspects of the film.

In Phoenix (2014), Nelly (Nina Hoss) is a German-Jewish cabaret singer who survives the concentration camp but her face gets disfigured and has to undergo reconstructive surgery, then tries to return to her old life in Berlin. Her husband doesn’t recognise her and “hires” her as his wife so that he can claim her inheritance. Christian Petzold skillfully merges suspense, revenge, trauma, desperation, destruction, and under his direction a subject that has been (much too) often approached in cinema upends convention, and that has much to do with the way it is told. The ending scene is sublime, the perfect ending, and a perfect ending is not that easy to come by in cinema.

With the same Nina Hoss in the leading role and another beautiful performance, Jerichow (2008) employs noir elements and is the kind of neo-noir that I have been longing to see post-2000s. But beyond the classic film noir theme, a very contemporary issue subtly and when least expected permeates the film: immigration and the Turkish community in Germany. Christian Petzold’s films are films to think about, not to pin down.

There is this recurring visual element in Yella (2007) that is more on the subconscious level until the very end and I like how the film tantalises the mind and does not quite answer all the questions. It is the story of a young and reserved young woman, Yella (Nina Hoss), who leaves her hometown in former East Germany for a promising job at a big company in the West, while trying to escape her unstable ex-husband. The past has a way of making its way to the present in each film, but it appears in a whole different light every time it’s encountered.

Scarecrow (1985)
Jerry Schatzberg

I don’t have one favourite actor. I have many. Film noir is still my favourite genre and I would almost always choose a classic film over a more contemporary one. But my love for movies has stemmed from Al Pacino’s generation of actors. And one night last week I felt like rewatching Scarecrow. And I believe that watching Pacino in any of his 1970s films would be enough for anyone to love film. His presence and magnetism are visible to the naked eye.
 
 
Reading

Who I Am, by Charlotte Rampling, written with Christophe Bataille, is not a biography (and it most certainly is not a celebrity biography), nor a life story, nor a narration. Going back and forth, glimpses into the past, snippets from the present, scattered memories, a search for words and understanding of the unknowable, a look into a rebellious spirit, a poem to her sister who died young.

Hilton Als is an author, a Pulitzer-prize winning critic, a New Yorker writer. But the subject of this interview with him is mainly his approach to Instagram. I get it. I like it.

Légende magazine No 8. Because it is entirely dedicated to Rafa Nadal.
 
 
Listening

Patti Smith, Wave.

New Order, Movement.

In the latest episode of his podcast, Frame & Sequence, Todd Ritondaro talks to photographer Jamie Beck about her life in Provence, photography and her love for everything hand-made.

 
 
Making

A selection of artisans’ and artists’ works, limited editions, independent publishings, textile collections and sunny cuisine, one of a kind pieces. A place of meeting, of art and culture and craftsmanship. Sessùn Alma, a project created by the beautiful French brand of the same name, Sessùn. It is a select store located in the Old Port of Marseille, small cafe, shop and space for daydreaming and reading – “This is Marseille. A port is where stories are told,” goes a line from Christian Petzold’s film Transit. Some books and crafts are also available in the online shop. The brand’s encounters and talks with beautiful people in the heart of their studios or workshops are no less fascinating.
 
 
Exploring

The great outdoors! School is almost out for the summer!

 

 

”A new approach is needed to re-enchant the world and establish the commonality of all life on Earth.
This is not just the task of politics and philosophy. It requires the effort of all those who tear down
convention in order to preserve what is meaningful. That is, the preservation not just of environments,
but myth, irrationality, autonomy, and joy — whether by direct or poetic means. New islands — of thought,
literature, art — are already emerging. We find these points of orientation, mapping a scattered community
that spans continents and disciplines. To represent a world of many worlds, not a globe.”

Isolarii books

 
 
The regulars: The interviews, newsletters and podcasts I turn to every week and/or every month because they are that good. Craig Mod’s all three newsletters: Roden and Ridgeline. Wes Del Val’s book-ish interviews. Soundtracking, with Edith Bowman. Alicia Kennedy’s newsletter. The Racquet magazine newsletter. The Adventure Podcast: Terra Incognita. The print magazines Monocle and Sirene.
 
 

Becoming, by Cindy Crawford with Katherine O’Leary

Posted by classiq in Books, Culture, Film, Newsletter | | Comments Off on June Newsletter: Desperately Seeking Cindy…

Orphée’s Death is Wearing Elsa Schiaparelli: María Casares in “Orpheus”

María Casares in “Orphée”, 1950. Andre Paulve Film; Films du Palais Royal

 

“The Point is not to understand, but to believe.”

In the Greek mythology, the musician Orpheus descends into the underworld to retrieve his lover, Eurydice, from the dead. Jean Cocteau used this legend as a starting point for his film, a visionary dream-like medium, a glimpse of the phantoms that haunted the poet throughout his life. “His story is so enchanting that it would be crazy to look for another,” Cocteau wrote in Cinémonde, in September 1950, about his source of inspiration, “a mythical bard, the bard of all bards, the Bard of Thrace”. The opening of the film takes us to the Café des Poètes, in St Germain. Cocteau’s Orphée, played by Jean Marais – “Marais illuminates the film for me with his soul” – is a handsome, successful and envied poet, but a vulnerable, fragile and isolated figure nonetheless. His wife, Eurydice (Marie Déa), is a simple, middle-class girl. His Death (María Casares) is an elegant Princess who travels in a Rolls Royce with her chauffeur, Heurtebise (François Périer), “a young Death serving in one of the many sub-orders of Death”, who falls in love with Eurydice.

Orpheé is a film that stands alone. Jean Cocteau had manifold astonishing achievements in all areas of art, from poet, novelist and painter, to playwright, ballet inventor and filmmaker – he was “a gifted, versatile and fecund creator,” as Cecil Beaton described him. He used the medium he thought most appropriate to express a certain idea. And through his films, he wanted to express ideas which could not adequately by expresssed by any other means. And he wanted his films to reach the public, even if the public misunderstood them. The important thing was that the film stirred up thoughts and feelings in the viewer. “Orphée’s Death and Heurtebise reproach Orphée for asking questions. Wanting to understand is a peculiar obsession of mankind,” Jean Cocteau wrote about his film. He didn’t seek out technical perfection, but invention. Orphée has had a powerful influence on cinema due to its inventive filming and visual language and because it literally opened up other worlds. It connected with the imagination on a deep level. The conflict between the real world and the unknowable becomes more likely a bridge between the real and the supernatural because the fantastique brilliantly finds a way in the contemporary setting, in the everyday, in the ordinary. “Do we understand anything about the workings of fate? This is the mysterious mechanism that I have tried to make tangible,” Cocteau said. “The film is a thriller which draws on myth from one side and the supernatural from the other. […] The closer you get to a mystery, the more important it is to be realistic. Radios in the cars, coded messages, shortwave signals and power cuts are all familiar to everybody and allow me to keep my foot on the ground.”

Cocteau set his story in contemporary Paris, a ravaged post-war Paris. He used real life extras wearing the fashions of the day and dancing to contemporary jazz at Café des Poètes. “The costumes in fashion at the time of the performance should be adopted”, he believed. He carefully supervised every aspect of the movie making, as he firmly believed that a film worth making should be scripted, directed, edited, and even produced by the same person. The costumes were no less important and although he entrusted the costumes to designers, the best there were, his control over this particular visual aspect is very clear. Coco Chanel had designed the costumes for his play Orphée, in 1926, and for the film he chose Elsa Schiaparelli.

Jean Cocteau, who told Cecil Beaton that he had led his life “in an unreality made up of fun”, though warned him to be wary of artificial beauty, praised Schiaparelli’s eccentricity as a dressmaker and wrote that her influence spread beyond “a few mysterious and privileged women who destroyed the ‘moderne’ style. In 1937 a woman like Schiaparelli can invent for all women – for each woman in particular – that violence which was once the privilege of very few, of those who might be called the actresses in this drama-outside-theatre which is the World.”
 

María Casares in “Orphée”, 1950. Andre Paulve Film; Films du Palais Royal

 

Schiaparelli was the enfant terrible of French couture. She started out knowing nothing about dressmaking, therefore her courage had no limits, her designs becoming more and more daring over time. Between 1927 and 1940, “Schiap” continuously revolutionised fashion with practical innovations that we now take for granted, from wraparound dresses, overalls and shirtwaist jackets, to swimsuits with built-in bra (for which she received a patent), wedge heels and folding eyeglasses. She was the first designer to open a ready-to-wear boutique and to stage a runaway presentation as a show, with a set, music, and the skinny models. She brought irony and comedy into fashion, she made it fun for women everywhere whereas insisting on its practicality: “Women’s looks should correspond to their way of life, to their occupation, to their loves, and also to their pockets.”

The fashion designer frequently worked with artists Bebe Bérard, Jean Cocteau, Salvador Dalí, Vertès, Van Dongen, and with photographers Hoyningen-Huni, Horst, Cecil Beaton and May Ray, which “gave one a sense of exhilaration,” she confessed. “One felt supported and understood beyond the crude and boring reality of merely making a dress to sell.” Toward the end of the 1930s, Salvador Dalí hailed Schiaparelli’s workshops as the “beating heart” of Surrealist Paris, and the two of them produced the first true hybrids of clothing and art – they collaborated on a “skeleton” dress with a padded ribcage, and a suit with “bureau drawer” pockets, he decorated the now famous skirt of a white evening gown with a bright red lobster. But working with Jean Cocteau on designing his film and theater costumes – her art as a dressmaker had already merged with Cocteau’s own art, as he had sketched some of her embroideries, like the heads she reproduced on the back of an evening coat – was also a way for her to use her métier as genuine creation, as creator of characters, not just dresses. “A dress can not just hang like a painting on the wall, it has no life unless it is worn.” Dress designing was an art, not a profession for her. “I feel that the clothes have to be architectural: that the body must never be forgotten and it must be used as a frame is used in a building. The Greeks, more than anybody else except the Chinese, understood this rule.”
 

María Casares in “Orphée”, 1950. Andre Paulve Film; Films du Palais Royal

 

María Casares’ Princess is dark and almighty powerful yet humanly tragic, because love does not escape her. With her long black architectural dresses and her glossy black hair swept back, she is inescapable, enticing and dominant. The ultimate femme fatale. “Death in my film is not Death represented symbolically by an elegant woman, but the Death of Orphée. Each of us has our own which takes charge of us from the moment of birth. So Orphée’s Death, exceeding her authority, becomes Cégeste’s, and Cégeste says to her – when she asks: ‘Do you know who I am? – ‘You are my Death’, and not ‘You are Death’.”

When speaking about Elsa Schiaparelli‘s creations and muses in the book Schiaparelli & Prada: Impossible Conversations, Andrew Bolton and Harold Koda use the expression jolie laide, which describes an erotic alchemist whose potent allure – an elixir of nerve, will, and ardor – transcends her homeliness. María Casares, one of Schiaparelli’s muses, was one of the most memorable women in France to fit the description. “The charisma of these performers gave a radiance to their witchy features that makes the prettiness of a perfect face seem insipid by comparison,” the authors conclude.

Never a conventional beauty herself, Elsa Schiaparelli was never afraid of being different, using her imaginative creations to flourish and raise above the others – “I would be the only woman of my kind in the whole world.” Despite being who she is, the Death of Orphée, and despite her essential coldness and somber look, the Princess has this invincible female vitality fueled by fantasy, and Eurydice’s warm, domesticated femininity indeed seems insipid and dreary by comparison. Eurydice is firmly rooted in the pastoral environment, static, undemanding, dull, while the Princess is exciting, mysterious, appealing, dangerous, ….from another world. Orphée’s choice is inevitable.
 

Editorial sources: The Art of Cinema, by Jean Cocteau, compiled and edited by André Bernard and Claude Gauteur / Schiaparelli & Prada: Impossible Conversations, by Andrew Bolton and Harold Koda / Vogue on Elsa Schiaparelli, by Judith Watt / Cecil Beaton Portraits & Profiles, edited by Hugo Vickers

 
 

MORE STORIES

A study in black Yves Saint Laurent: Romy Schneider in “Innocents with Dirty Hands”

The class, the witt, the style: Revisiting The Thin Man and its style

Emotionally caged and extravagantly clad: The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant

Posted by classiq in Film, Film costume | | Comments Off on Orphée’s Death is Wearing Elsa Schiaparelli: María Casares in “Orpheus”