European Illustrators 2008

 
European illustration is
enjoying a moment across the continent. It’s flowering in
galleries and on brick walls, twining vine-like over billboards and
objets d’art, and sprouting madly like kudzu across
newspapers, comics, and publications of every stripe. Artists are making
work that builds on the rich, disparate traditions of the past century,
from French graphic novels and Yugoslavian political cartoons to British
caricature, Polish circus posters, the German Bauhaus, and Scandinavian
minimalism.

As much as any other time in the post–World War II
period, Europe is flush economically, and creatives are reaping the
benefits. The European Union’s eastward expansion and loosening
borders have opened up new markets for Western products, while allowing
plucky Easterners the chance to offer their more affordable services to
the West. Europe’s strong currency, its balance of free-market
policies with universal social services, and its diplomatic knack that
strengthens both trade and reputation have produced a perfect storm of
prosperity, and suggests that the continent is rising as a new
superpower in counterpoint to China and the U.S.

True, many European
countries continue to struggle to integrate their Muslim communities;
unrest still seethes in a newly independent Kosovo; rising oil prices
spark tussles between Russia’s gas company Gazprom and the rest of
Europe. But “unity through diversity”—the driving
philosophy of the EU—still prevails in much of the continent, and
this open-minded attitude has extended to the arts.

“Illustration has been undergoing a major revival in
Europe,” says Julius Wiedemann, editor of the anthology
Illustration Now! and a Cambridge, England, resident. The demand
is so brisk, in fact, that European clients are increasingly turning to
agents to find the right illustrator for a job, observes Liselotte
Tingvall, managing partner of No Picnic, a design agency in Stockholm.
“More and more photo reps are adding illustrators to their
rosters,” she says. These agents’ growing visibility speaks
to more corporate demand in Europe for illustrators’ services.
Michel Lagarde, founder of the Paris-based illustration agencies
Illustrissimo, Lezilus, and Agent 002, supports this thesis.
“Illustration is more accepted for big advertising
campaigns” than it was in France 10 years ago, he says.

But
ubiquity poses its own challenges. Martin Colyer of Reader’s
Digest UK
faults overflowing art schools and editors’
inability to use illustration in challenging ways. “I’m
really depressed by illustration at the moment,” he says. “I
want clarity, focus, and real personality when I see someone’s
portfolio. If I see another dog in a handbag on a nice bit of texture, I
will scream!” Isabel Klett, a German illustrator living in
Barcelona, hopes that illustration’s new exposure will raise
Europeans’ awareness of the medium to the level that it has in the
U.S. “An icon like the New Yorker covers, that gets
attention from all kinds of people—that doesn’t really exist
in Europe,” she notes wistfully.

The wave of prosperity
that’s rolling from West to East hasn’t hit every region
equally. Illustrators in the former Yugoslavia contend with limited
appetite and resources. “Unfortunately, here in Croatia, things
look quite grim for illustration,” says Dejan Krsic, a typographer
and educator. “There is no real space for it, except some book
covers—usually quite small fees—and, of course,
children’s books. Daily and weekly newspapers almost don’t
use illustration at all.” Fitful governmental support
doesn’t encourage illustrators to gather in conferences and other
organized forums. Slovenian cartoonist Sasa Kerkos speaks wryly of the
bureaucratic distrust he encountered when organizing the first Slovenian
biennial for contemporary illustration in 2007. “The ministry of
culture … rarely supports projects that deal with new visual
trends and movements,” he says, “especially if they
don’t completely recognize the ‘old-school’ artists,
experts, and the academy.”

In other pockets of Eastern Europe,
illustrators have seen the tide turn in their favor. Ironically, the
same difficulties that drove emigration from East to West in the early
’90s now fuel opportunities for émigrés to return
home and be successful. “Many illustrators immigrated to Western
European countries, where they could double or triple their
salaries,” says Andrius Milinavičius, creative director at
MTV Baltic in Lithuania. “But the illustrators [who stayed] here
raised their prices, and now they live quite well.”

To hear
Milinavičius talk about it, illustration-led design represents a
first wave of prosperity to Lithuania, a form of cultural sharing that
leads to economic benefit. “We had cheesy design problems,”
he acknowledges, “but things are improving. …This is a huge
machine, and it’s working.”

Like their colleagues
throughout the industrialized world, European illustrators are
rethinking how they use the computer, reveling in multimedia techniques
more than ever. “Adobe Illustrator is much more prone to cast
artists in the same mold,” notes Anders Westerberg, of the Swedish
collective Stockholm Illustration. “It tends to demand a great
deal for the artist’s personal touch to shine through.” Now
freer to mix analog and digital techniques, “illustrators are like
general contractors,” remarks Germany’s Monika Aichele,
“helping themselves to different techniques and styles to the
point where it can’t really be called illustration anymore, but
design.”

This newfound freedom has also helped illustration
proliferate onto 3-D objects and public spaces. From product and
interiors by Spain’s Jordi Labanda and Estudio Mariscal, and art
objects by Germany’s Mijuly, the pen is hardly confined to the
printed page anymore.

Illustration has simultaneously raised its
profile to the point of being accepted as fine art. The recent upsurge
in the art market has led more collectors into galleries, where they can
see illustration—a familiar visual vocabulary from popular
culture—being parsed, played with, and challenged in a fine-art
setting. Baudelaire’s description of illustrators as
“painters of modern life” is being realized as illustration
meets a more democratic wave of art audiences halfway.

So what makes
an illustration worthy of a gallery show? Baron Osuna, director of the
Japan-based Super Windows Project ™, a gallery specializing in
contemporary European artists, looks for illustrations embodying
éclipse de sens, a sensation he calls “a pure state
of grace.” He explains: “It’s the magical moment when
I’m about to understand precisely what’s going inside the
artwork, and then, suddenly, the meaning slips away. This is not an
illustration anymore that illustrates a book, a text, or a song.
It’s something with a proper life.”

With its capacity for
slithering out of context, illustration often slips the confining
boundaries of frames. Exhibitions such as the 2005
“Translation” at Palais de Tokyo in Paris brought
“traditional” contemporary art from the Dakis Joannou
Foundation into dialogue with M/M (Paris)’s illustration and
design elements that curled around floors and walls, patterning artworks
into wallpaper. “For me as a curator, illustration can become a
supplementary tool that instigates my curiosity,” says Marco
Costantini, a Swiss curator, art historian, and lecturer at the
University of Lausanne. For an exhibition opening this December at the
Contemporary Art Centre in Neuchâtel, Switzerland, Costantini
asked Sandrine Pelletier to embellish the show with her illustrations,
both framing and questioning works in their context. “Illustration
allows me to think about an alternative to the ‘white cube’
of the gallery,” Costantini says.

In the end, what makes an
illustration “European”? As with the EU itself, immense
diversity renders a pan-European style impossible to pigeonhole. One way
to answer might be in the approach: “European time is slower, I
think,” suggests Wiedemann. He contends that European illustrators
emphasize concept over technique, an observation that Stockholm
Illustration’s Westerberg seconds. With local clients, “we
are trusted to develop the art and idea ourselves,” he says.
“When we work with U.S. clients, assignments are more
controlled.”

The riddle of globalization lies in how intensely
local our daily lives still are: Kids across the globe may wear Pumas,
but walk down drastically different streets in them. Such
unclassifiable, postmodern times may make influences and geography feel
porous and immediate—until your eight-hour flight from New York
lands in Berlin, and your tired body reminds you just how far
you’ve traveled to get here. (Greeks flying three-plus hours to
Aberdeen might agree.)

Our survey of 12 European illustrators
reflects this diversity. While Von’s watercolor portraits from the
U.K. nod to the Old Masters, there’s a strong note of the Soviet
Bloc in the hand-drawn work of Serbia’s Maja Veselinović, as
well as those of Ivan Maximov and Vania Zouravliov, both from Russia.
The Scandinavian neighbors Grandpeople (Norway) and Hvass&Hannibal
(Denmark) may share a fascination with vintage computer art, but that
fascination pulls them in entirely different directions.

This
selection doesn’t pretend to speak to every influence and trend in
Europe. Think of it as a smorgasboard gathered from Germany, Slovenia,
Switzerland, Belgium, smoothed with vino—a roving platter
of hors d’oeuvres, replenished at every turn by chefs intent on
dazzling. European illustration delights in nothing so much as variety
in motion.



About Jude Stewart

Jude Stewart is a PRINT contributing editor. She has written on design and culture for Slate, Fast Company, The Believer, I.D., Metropolis, and Design Observer, among many others. Her first book ROY G. BIV: An Exceedingly Surprising Book About Color is available for pre-order from Bloomsbury. Follow her tweets on color at twitter.com/joodstew.

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