Cor Blok met and corresponded with J.R.R. Tolkien in the 1960s, and Tolkien admired the artist's work so much that he purchased two paintings, one of which, The Battle of the Hornburg, appears in the Tolkien Official Calendar for 2011. Many of the other paintings have never been seen before, and appear for the very first time.
Some people may already be familiar with one or two examples of your work, which have been reproduced in anthologies and books of postcards; but they may not be aware that they form part of a collection. Can you clarify when they were made and how many of your Tolkien paintings are in existence?
Most of the paintings were done in 1959 and 1960, a few in 1961 and a single one (as far as I can remember) in 1962. According to the (not quite complete) record I kept there were 140 of them. But in later years I have destroyed a number of them – about a dozen I should think – because I found them lacking in pictorial quality. About seventy remain in my possession, most of them not of what I consider first quality.
The paintings have a very unique style; can you explain a little about this?
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. To give an example: The Game of Riddles – one of the earliest pictures – presents nothing but the two figures of Bilbo and Gollum, in postures that indicate what they are doing, against a plain blue-grey background. In a number of later paintings, particularly those of events taking place in a landscape setting, I admit to having deviated from this principle by adding more detail. Even then, however, I have attempted to steer clear of the obsession with detail which characterizes so many Tolkien illustrations, sometimes to the extent of suggesting ‘horror vacui’.
What you call the unique style of my paintings is derived from a certain type of Medieval miniature and mural painting from Barbarusia. Barbarusia, of course, does not exist. It is an invented country somewhere in mid-ocean, invented to provide a setting for a fictional art history running from Palaeolithic cave paintings to a local version of 20th century Futurism. It started with parodies on Baroque furniture and architecture done when I was following courses to become an art teacher at the Academy of Visual Art, The Hague, but soon the parodistic element retreated into the background as I became more and more fascinated by the game of devising variations on specific stylistic prototypes. A number of these were taken from actual historical styles, like Roman wall painting or Gothic architecture, but I also invented styles of my own. One of these concerned a group of early Medieval miniatures and murals from Central Barbarusia, and it is from this style that the ‘pictorial code’ used in my Tolkien illustrations derives.
Barbarusian art is also the source of the special technique used in the illustrations, which involves a very thin brand of Japanese paper painted on both sides and applied to a background covered with gouache still slightly wet. It was invented in order to make my frescos and miniatures look damaged by the passage of time.
The ‘Barbarusian project’ started in 1953. I continued to work on it at least until 1957/58; a rumour that I presented it as a graduation project from the Academy in 1956 is absolutely unfounded. It was exhibited at the Gemeentemuseum, The Hague, in 1960; for this occasion I made a few three-dimensional objects to complete the otherwise two-dimensional show, which opened on 1st April.
Why did you choose to illustrate The Lord of the Rings; this style and technique could equally well be applied to the Edda or even the Bible, for example?
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, when I started to read it seriously I came to feel that the story would lend itself to being re-told in pictures in the manner of my ‘Barbarusian’ paintings. Eventually, this proved true enough to keep me busy for three years. During this time I read both the translation and the original.
Though it all happened fifty years ago, can you recall what influences were particularly important in the case of these illustrations?
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.
I understand that Professor Tolkien bought some of your paintings and that you visited him. Can you recall particulars of this visit?
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. Mine turned out not to be the first attempts at illustrating The Lord of the Rings, and Tolkien declared himself not in favour of coupling pictures with his texts – not even his own drawings; a point of view which I thought and still think absolutely justified. He did like my pictures, however, and even bought two of them afterwards (to which I added one other as a present). 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.
Later, some of your paintings were used as covers for the Dutch translation of The Lord of the Rings. When and how did this happen?
This was the Spectrum paperback edition in three volumes, published in 1965. I do not recall exactly how this came about. A couple of years before, I had translated Hans Jantzen’s book ‘Ottonische Kunst’ from the German for Het Spectrum, a commission one of the curators at the Gemeentemuseum had secured for me. So there was already a connection. But I showed my pictures privately to several people at the time, including translator Max Schuchart, and I am not sure whether any of them was instrumental in this business. Incidentally, translating a monograph on Ottonian art and architecture is another instance of my preoccupation with early Medieval painting.
You are best known to Tolkien fans for your illustrations to The Lord of the Rings, but you have also written books, haven’t you?
I certainly have. Apart from Beeldspraak, already mentioned, there is Beeldvertalen (‘Translating Images’) published in 2003, which in many ways continues the lines of thinking developed in its predecessor, expanded into a general introduction to the ‘reading’of visual images. Beeldvertalen is based on my experience as a teacher in various art schools and the universities of Utrecht, Maastricht and Leiden. I have written a ‘catalogue raisonné’ of all works of Mondrian in Dutch public collections, published in 1974, and a history of abstract art for the German publishing firm of DuMont Schauberg, published in 1975, and contributed to many publications on modern art, museum policy, art in public space, and connections between art and science.
Have you produced any other art work besides the Tolkien illustrations?
I have, but I have never tried to make a living from 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’ succeeded 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 me, 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. From about 1973 onwards virtually all my energy as a visual artist has been invested in this graphic novel – shaping and altering form and content, deleting false starts, learning about relationships between image and text. The book is now finally complete but for a few very small details. Each of the ‘chapters’ is constructed on a different ‘ground plan’; some are all image and no text, others consist of text with images added in the margin or in the manner of illustrations; still others combine them in different proportions. The language is English, but owes a lot to James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. I will not attempt to give a synopsis, because the book has no plot in any accepted sense – episodes are related, but they succeed one another rather like events in a dream.
One final question, if I may be so bold as to ask about wishes and dreams for the future?
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.
This interview was conducted by Pieter Collier of The Tolkien Library and is reproduced in its edited form with the kind permission of Mr Blok and Mr Collier.