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 inBarcelona, 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, thingslook 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 Slovenianbiennial 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, thesame 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 atMTV 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.” Nowfreer 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 illustrationmeets 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 theContemporary 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 theU.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.