Monika Beisner: Illuminating Stories
Foreword by Marina Warner
Monika Beisner works from language and stories, rhymes and poems, and condenses them into glowing images: she materialises words in rich colour and lively line, summoning onto the page the pictures that form in her mind as she reads, and then passing these on as gifts to her audience. 'Illumination' - in both senses of the word - describes her art more aptly than the term 'illustration': her pictures illuminate the stories she tells, and they also resemble the jewel-like images found in medieval and renaissance manuscripts.
Though the names of so many artist-illuminators are mostly lost to us now, the scriptoria of convents and courts included women among their number. The legendary figure of Thamar, invoked by Boccaccio in De claris mulieribus, appears at work at her easel or on a vellum page in the many sumptuous manuscripts of Boccaccio's work; Christine de Pizan, in her rebuttal of some of his aspersions on the female sex, returns to Thamar, and supplies two more names from antiquity. Above all, Christine praises Arachne, the Lydian weaver, who was turned into a spider in a famous episode from Ovid's Metamorphoses. She writes, '[Arachne] had a marvellously subtle mind. Thanks to all her reflections she was the first to invent the art of dyeing woollens in various colours and of weaving art works into cloth, like a painter...'
Since Monika Beisner's first picture books of 1971, and her first inventions for children -An Address Book for Children (l978), The Folding Alphabet Book (l979), and other ingenious toy books - she has followed in the footsteps of Arachne, as both a supremely vivid colourist and a dramatic weaver of tales; her method involves condensing rich layers of story into an iconic composition, patterning the elements and figures into an aesthetically harmonious whole. Her method is poetic, making pictures that encode narratives in the manner of a rebus or a game: each image of her Book of Riddles (l983) encrypted several puzzles for the viewer to figure out, and she also fashioned memorable portraits of wondrous and mythical creatures, the kind whose hybrid multiplicity eludes assembly from words alone. How does Scorpio relate to the night sky? Or Pisces? Or Aries? What does a cockatrice or a roc or a catoblepas look like? Reading about the creatures' strange features and even stranger effects does not summon them to the mind's eye as vividly or as memorably as Monika Beisner's illuminated star map, The Heavenly Zoo (l979) or her affectionate bestiary, Fabulous Beasts (l981).
The novelist and historian of children's literature, Alison Lurie, created the accompanying texts for these jewelled picture books, but Monika Beisner has collected, edited, and of course interpreted herself many of the legends and fairy tales she has painted, including a compendium of old and new tales from all over the world about trees, their symbolism, and their mysteries (Von fliegenden und sprechenden Bäumen, l994). Several of her titles display her love of the riches found in the anonymous legacy of stories, from folklore and 'orature'. These are full of 'the cunning and high spirits' that Walter Benjamin found the hallmark of the popular (unlettered) tradition. With books such as Secret Spells and Curious Charms (1985), Topsy Turvy (1987) and Catch That Cat (l990), Monika's gift for depicting wordplay, metaphor, and nonsense wit grew ever more skilled; and she delivers complex meaning with leggerezza, the quality of lightness that Italo Calvino places in pride of place at the beginning of his Six Memos for the Next Millennium.
Calvino was himself a supreme fabulist and storyteller, and for him leggerezza also implied the lightness of being, as in flights of fancy, soaring angels, and winged passions: he discusses in particular the lovers Paolo and Francesca, caught up in the whirlwind of their fatal love from Canto V of the Inferno. This train of thought also underlies Monika Beisner's move from working with legends and folklore to illuminating Dante's Divine Comedy: Dante's poem may be a monumental work of philosophy, natural science, astronomy, an theology, but it is also an indelibly powerful sequence of stories which she - like so many others - reads with huge excitement and enjoyment; its fantastic visions have entertained generation after generation of readers. They possess a unique impact of truthfulness; Dante truly appears to be relating - divulging -something that happened to him with all the intensity of immediate, recent experience. This aspect of the poem impressed Monika Beisner above all, and so the step from her previous subjects to painting The Divine Comedy did not seem to her such a very long or difficult one to take, though this series of images offered her the most complex challenge so far in her career.
Dante's imagination is graphic, and his narrative presents a cinematic flow of intense, sharply focussed envisioned acts and encounters. It is a vision, as well as an adventure, and though he wraps us round in the stink of the pit of hell and the perfume of the earthly paradise and the heavens, sight predominates as the organ of his understanding: Paradiso culminates with his contemplation of the divine mystery, and he tells us explicitly how language fails to utter what the eyes can see:
Da quinci innanzi il mio veder fu maggio
Che 'l parlar nostro, ch'a tal vista cede ...
(Par XXXIII, 55-56)
(From that moment my vision was greater than our speech, which fails at such a sight..'
The Divine Comedy has inspired artists throughout the seven centuries since its composition, and Monika Beisner studied her predecessors closely: Giovanni di Paolo, who worked only on Paradiso, remains her chief inspiration, not so much for her interpretation of that book, but for her Inferno and Purgatorio, where her illuminations, as in Giovanni di Paolo, are crystallised into a tight rectangular space, as if an aperture like a third eye were being opened on the page. Monika Beisner makes a gesture with her hand like the iris of a camera closing as she recalls this discipline of miniaturisation and concentration. The present volume reproduces her work full-size, and so one can see how richly enamelled the egg tempera pigment has become, with no strokes or drawing visible, but a pure glow of dense colour, applied with brushes so small they consist of a half-dozen sable hairs.
The British Library holds several early illustrated Dantes, which Monika Beisner also studied to effect; but in two fundamental ways, she departed from these precursors. Many unfold the episodes of the narrative by showing the figures of Dante and Virgil, Dante and Statius, Dante and Beatrice, several times in the same picture, almost in the fashion of later graphic novels (or comic strips): Botticelli, in his celebrated drawings, adopted this device. But Monika Beisner's desire to saturate iconic patterns with psychological intensity (rather than illustrate the action episodically) led her to reject this. Many early illustrators also frame the journey through the Other Worlds as a dream, opening the manuscripts with an illumination of Dante sleeping. This does not follow Dante's own words or the beginning of his journey in the dark wood, but conforms to the apocalyptic tradition, which includes earlier marvels of mediaeval religious imagination, such as the highly popular Vision of the Knight Tondal, originally written in the twelfth century and lavishly illuminated by Simon Marmion in l475, for example.
Monika Beisner has been scrupulously loyal to Dante's text, rendering gesture and position as described in the poem as well as its unsurpassed precision of spatial, geographical and temporal coordinates: this is an afterlife where, quite unlike the Apocalypse of St John, readers know not only exactly where they are standing, but also what time of day or night it is - to the nearest half hour. It is intrinsic to her faithful realisation of Dante's journey that her pictures depict it as real - she has thought herself into every situation and communicated its material actuality, the passions the protagonists feel, the temperature of their circumstances, the quality of the rock, the light, the flames.
Some of her visual inventions convey sharp anguish, quite rightly, as with the pale faces of Paolo and Francesca, cheek to cheek and tossed upside down in the whirlwind (Inf.V), or with the suicides, who are transformed into a grey-green tangle of barbed and bleeding thorns (Inf. XIII). Other images shiver with sublime metaphysical terror power: the traitors plunged in the deep ice with their tears freezing as they weep and sealing their eyes shut (Inf. XXXIII). Her monsters and devils are, as one would expect from her earlier bestiaries, splendid in their grotesque and vulgar energy (Inf. XXII).
No light enters the Underworld; but in Purgatorio, the pilgrims emerge on the mountain in the air, and so in this book Monika Beisner's palette explores a mistier, azure-emerald spectrum, gleaming here and there with dazzling white, as in the luminous image of the angel-pilot ferrying the souls across the ocean of purgatory (Purg. II). The pigments blaze more brightly still towards the close of this book, when Matelda plunges Dante the Pilgrim into Lethe, the river of blessed forgetfulness (Purg. XXXI) against a background of glorious yellows, golden fruits, a vivid grass-green meadow.
The style of the first two cantiche synthesises each canto into a structured pattern of bodies and background forms, distilling the progressive narrative into a single, arrested illumination. Paradiso, in which Dante's vision turns transcendental and more abstract, demanded a different aesthetic, and it was the most difficult to interpret. Here, each illumination fills a sphere, the symbol of perfection, harmony, unity, and eternity - all attributes of the divine. As in a medieval map of the solar system, circles of different rich and vibrant colour communicate the light and expansion of the heavens. Monika Beisner, drawing on mystical symbols rather than cinematic scene-painting, emblazons page after page with the halos and mandalas of Eastern spirituality and with the crosses, saltires, orbs and animals of mediaeval heraldry, as well as the signs of the Zodiac and their emblems from astrology. These illuminations of heaven communicate a new, intense and radiant leggerezza as Dante and Beatrice float and spin through the infinite universe from planet to planet against a gorgeous pageant of light and starry fires - those stars (le stelle) that close all three of the poem's books.
Throughout the time she worked on the images, Monika Beisner found her immersion in the poem as enjoyable as any secular or popular story from myth and legend, but Paradiso, especially, transported her on the wings of Dante's imagination. 'It is not holy,holy, holy,' she exclaims. 'It is a space odyssey!'
The hundred miniatures took her seven years to complete, and the achievement has been so dazzling - and so successful with audiences (the handsome three volume, slip-cased German edition (2001) went into second impression - that she is now responding to another of the great storytelling tapestries of world literature, Ovid's Metamorphoses. Dante had read Ovid with passionate attention, and he even challenges him openly in Inf. XXV, when he describes the lurid metamorphosis of the thieves, as their bodies commingle and fuse, then separate and transmute again. Bodies and embodiment occupy the centre of both poets' imagination, and their energies engage utterly with the communication of enfleshed, material experience, however transcendent or otherworldly the setting or the circumstances of the narratives they are unfolding. Dante is the only being on his journey who still has a body, as one of the souls in Purgatory notices: uniquely, he casts a shadow. Monika Beisner depicts the salient moment when this occurs (Purg. V). His cast shadow express his anomalous, enfleshed presence to the marvelling souls. But it can also represent for us the phantoms that writing - and reading - summon and bring to life; these may remain wraith-like and incorporeal and remote in the mind's eye until the material glow of paint enfleshes them and renders them visible in somatic terms. Interestingly, both Ovid and Dante have recourse repeatedly to descriptions of art and artefacts, sculptures and paintings, for works enter the material world and can realise phantasms. They clothe speech and turn visions into something palpable to render them present and even stable, rather than vague and transitory.
For example, Dante compares the 'figured pavement' on the terrace where the proud are suffering (Purg. XII) to funerary memorials which commemorate the likeness of the dead; and in the lament he utters for those he finds there, he names Arachne. Monika Beisner shows her in mid-transformation into the spider. Dante's description closes with an exclamation at the mastery of the artistic execution:
Quel di pennel fu maestro o di stile
che ritraesse l'ombre e' tratti ch' ivi
mirar farìeno uno ingegno sottile?
Morti li morti e i vivi parean vivi:
non vide mei di me chi vide il vero
quant'io calcai fin che chinato givi.
(Purg XII, 66-67)
(What master of brush or chisel could have portrayed the shapes and outlines there, which would have filled with wonder a discerning mind? The dead seemed dead and the living living. He saw no better than I who saw the truth of all that which I trod upon while I went stooping.)
This is a claim for the equality of representation to actual event - or even for its superiority. In this Dante wonders again at the power of pictures to convey experience, draws our attention to the way visions, raised in words and in images, communicate the real and the true.
Monika Beisner's illuminations do not aim to commingle reality and image quite so interchangeably, but in their scrupulous, intelligent envisioning of the story Dante tells, she inspires us to see better the living and the dead of his great poem.
Kentish Town, 2005