Walk about my yard, and you’ll find plenty of these:
Banksia cones have attracted special attention since Joseph Banks lent his name to the trees and shrubs that bear them. We could talk a long time about the huge variety of banksias, the beauty of the flowers, the bizarre sculptures formed by trunk and leaf. Yet it’s the cones of the banksia that have ignited juvenile imaginations…and the imagination of May Gibbs.
The adventures of ultra-cute gumnut babies, Snugglepot and Cuddlepie, would have been rather dull without the terrifying presence of those Banksia Men. Yet when you examine the wonderful illustration above, you’ll surely notice that May has not attempted to create a sensation or distraction. More importance is placed on harmony, grain, intricacy and pattern. Was she merely being tasteful, in a repressed, post-Victorian way? Or did she really know her business?
Well, May Gibbs and her scary Banksia Men are bigger than ever, among both adults and kids. And that’s because she understood how the imagination works: namely, it’s active. Illustration, therefore, needs to be somewhat passive. The imagination wants to go toward things.
When I was young, I could lose myself in the pattern of a bathroom floor while I sat on the toilet. A vermiculite ceiling in a bedroom could become a desert landscape with tiny but definite variations. As for a dimly lit room with an unmade bed or old furniture – that could be a glimpse of hell with all its dark folds and nameless half-shapes. Light, shade, shape, pattern: kids have an inborn need to find and absorb these things through the eyes and manipulate them in the mind. And I doubt we’re suppose to lose that all together. (Some see these idle, imaginative states as a “relaxation response”, critical to neutralising the physical effects of our “fight or flight” response.)
When literacy became general in the last couple of centuries, written entertainment “got big”, as we now say. Walter Scott was probably the grand-daddy of mass consumption novelists, and, in the decades that followed, authors like Dumas the Elder and Jules Verne achieved such fame and financial worth that, in their careers and train-de-vie, they are best compared with the movie moguls and celebrities who came after them, rather than those big name literary figures, such as Fielding, who preceded them.
And part of the show was illustration.
It might be thought that the type of illustration used was dictated by technology available. Yet everyone should savour one of these works with the original illustrations to experience their effect. Whether one is talking about the engravings in a Verne adventure, or the pen-and-ink work of May Gibbs, you are looking at something that is absorptive. Even the most dramatic scenes draw the eye rather than saturate it. The details and very grain of an illustration like the one above demand concentration even while the reader is allowed to rest from reading – at a good pitch of relaxed attention. It’s not like TV, where no loitering is allowed. Here you’re meant to loiter.
Another effect is anticipation. Once the reader is caught up in a text, it’s natural to browse forward and check out the pics of what’s to come. In the best instances, curiosity is aroused without loss of tension. One is not swamped with colour, no single shape dominates. There is no competition with the text, nor over-interpretation. The tease is just right.
Much as young men used to get their sex, as Jack Benny said, through the African pages of the National Geographic…so a young man might be introduced to the works of Dante Alighieri by the illustrations in an ancient library book. Literary education, like sex education, can come graphically, especially if the work is in an unknown language. But unlike sex, it’s the Inferno rather than the Paradiso that attracts:
Gustave Doré was a nineteenth century illustrator who was often called to adorn famous works of previous centuries, though he also worked on contemporary publications. Sex, gore and sleaze made their way into much of his work, as did the sentimental and grotesque when the theme was more “general exhibition”. Whether Doré was a great artist or not – I doubt he was – he was a very handy one.
This is not a fatiguing splatter-fest. Working ingeniously with shadow and suggestion, Doré brought the Inferno to life for generations of anglophones whose access to Dante was through prose cribs or the blank verse of Cary and Longfellow. If your ears couldn’t ring with Dante’s terza rima, you could smell some sulphur. That first important task of enjoying the Commedia was achieved: you were transported, you were taken there.
“Darkness made visible”. Worked for me at age fifteen.