Graphic novels as works of translation: Working as an illustrator

Bob Moulder

This chapter will examine a positive aspect of silence as an aide to communication, by developing this to consider the silence of a page without words, where visual elements use gaps and empty spaces, and, further, poses the question of how can silence itself be suggested visually?

In my practice as a professional illustrator and graphic novelist, language is substituted and replaced - partly or wholly - by images. Graphic novels bring together three distinct disciplines: writing; narrative illustration; design. I set out to explore how silence can be created, shown or simply occur in the integration of these disciplines on graphic novel pages. A graphic novel - unlike a conventional novel, which is written as a continuous text -has to be conceived in terms of individual pages and spreads.

Image as silence

First though, I want to consider how we look at pictures, devoid of text, generally. On a visit the National Gallery in London, say, wandering through the various galleries on your own, you will encounter a sequence of works of art. How we view and interact with paintings will depend on a variety of factors, not least our prior knowledge of art history, but, as we regard each work, is this contemplation silent or does sound come into it?

You may be in the Dutch 17th-century galleries, for instance, and encounter Rembrandt’s Self-Portrait at the Age of 34, painted in 1640. Do you strike up a conversation, say hello, ask him where he got the jaunty, rather anachronistic hat? Probably not, and certainly not out loud. You probably eye one another up in silence.

You move on. Here’s an altogether livelier scene; Emanuel de Witte’s Adriana de Hensden and Daughter at the Fish Market from 1662. With Adriana arguing the toss with the young woman trying to serve her, and a busy market scene in the background, does sound now come into your contemplation? Do you imagine the conversation between Adriana and the serving girl; hear the street cries of other traders or the noisy seagulls undoubtedly hovering about?

An Art Quest project I worked on with Children and the Arts, and the New Walk Museum and Art Gallery in Leicester, involved getting local

Graphic novels as works of translation 129 primary school children to engage with the paintings in the museum’s Victorian Gallery. How could I get Key Stage 2 children (8-10 years old) to spend time investigating the pictures? As I would do with adults, I put them into pairs to ensure a dialogue took place, and among the activities I set was one asking them to find a noisy painting, though noises could be loud or soft. Children came back with soundscapes for paintings ranging from stormy maritime scenes with howling winds and crashing waves to the gentle sounds of an interior genre scene; the tick-tock of a clock, the clink of tableware. In pastorals, farm animals moo-ed and brayed, in street scenes vendors shouted their wares. Indeed, I surprised myself and realised how, by specifically looking for sound, I engaged more intimately with the works.

Do any of us immediately register the sound in a painting? Probably not, or at least only incidentally. And yet sound - or silence - may be crucial to our understanding of a picture. Certainly, works by the German Romantic artist, Casper David Friedrich, such as Wanderer above the Sea of Mist (1818), positively radiate a semi-mystical silence vital to the work.

By contrast, though, is a painting by a later German artist, Anton von Werner, A Billet Outside Paris (1894) showing a group of Prussian soldiers making themselves at home in the parlour of a Louis Quinze chateau during the siege of Paris in the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71). When I showed the painting to a group of adult students, they noted one soldier singing and another playing the piano, but they simply interpreted the scene as one of a bunch of jack-booted Prussians having a drunken evening carousing and singing bawdy pub songs. However, von Werner witnessed the scene as a war artist and remembered the piece of music; it was Das Meer erglänzte weit hinaus ['The sea sparkled out in the distance'] from The Swan Song by the Austrian composer, Franz Schubert, put to a poem by the German poet, Heinrich Heine. Far from a bawdy pub song, this was a delicate, moving Lied, a masterpiece of German Romanticism. When I played the piece of music, reaction to the painting was utterly transformed. Far from trashing this beautiful rococo chateau, these soldiers were making clear: ‘We Germans are not barbarians ... we too can produce beautiful art and culture.’ When von Werner first exhibited the painting, he would have mentioned the piece of music in an accompanying caption. The Swan Song was certainly popular at the time, so most people coming to see the work would have been familiar with it and it would have run through their heads as they viewed the painting. So, in this case then, the silence of the painting was broken, initially by words, in the form of a caption with the original exhibition, and today by modern audio technology.

In a way, therefore, it’s as if the visual artist is confronted with a default silence surrounding their picture and constantly having to prompt the viewer to register the sounds occurring in the scene, or alternatively, to underline the silence as a significant element. A novelist describing similar scenes can refer to noises which lodge immediately in the mind. Bizarrely we are left with the situation: words = sound, image = silence.

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