Illustration feature: Gargantua and Pantagruel

In his entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, the English illustrator William Heath Robinson is described as ‘shy, quiet, diffident, prudish, and unadventurous’; his interests are listed as ‘reading, pottering in his garden, going for country walks, and the company of his cats’. It’s hard to imagine anyone less obviously in tune with the spirit of the scandalous Renaissance priest François Rabelais, or less equipped by nature to reimagine in pen and ink the gluttony and grotesquerie of Rabelais’ masterpiece, Gargantua and Pantagruel.

But that is what Heath Robinson did. In so doing, he enhanced his own growing reputation as an illustrator, bankrupted his publisher, and established Rabelais as a lasting feature of the fantasy artist’s essential canon in the first half of the twentieth century.

The history of the illustrated Rabelais is long but threadbare. In 1565 – around twelve years after Rabelais’ death – Richard Breton of Paris published Les Songes drolatiques de Pantagruel (‘The Droll dreams of Pantagruel’), a series of 120 extraordinary woodcuts attributed to Rabelais himself. However, historians, smelling a marketing ploy, suspect that the actual creator of the woodcuts was one François Desprez.

The freakish grotesques Desprez created for the Songes – some frog-like, some half-human, half-musical instrument, others retching or vomiting, most simply indescribable – show a clear debt to the Flemish visionary Hieronymus Bosch, who had died around half a century earlier, in 1516. Unsurprisingly, Desprez’s images went on to influence another painter of nightmares, Salvador Dali. The great surrealist produced a set of 25 lithographic renderings of Desprez’s work in the 1970s.

But between the eras of Desprez and Heath Robinson, only one illustrator stands out as a notable interpreter of Gargantua and Pantagruel: another Frenchman, Gustave Doré. Doré was one of the most prolific – and most successful – book illustrators of the 19th century; with his team of more than 40 woodcutters, he produced more than 90 illustrated editions.

Darkness was Doré’s medium. The subjects he chose for his atmospheric illustrations reflect an affinity for works of madness, gloom and twisted imagination. Among the most celebrated are The Rime Of The Ancient Mariner, Danté’s Divine Comedy, Edgar Allan Poe’s gothic masterpiece The Raven and Milton’s Paradise Lost; he also earned acclaim for illuminating some of the Bible’s more macabre episodes, including the murder of Abel by Cain and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.

The tall, lean figures that people Doré’s vision of Dante’s hell or his images of Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner could hardly be further removed from the extreme rotundity he would depict in his illustrated Rabelais. The gluttonous giants Gargantua and Pantagruel are chubby-faced, round-thighed and barrel-chested, hatched with sweeping curves. As a whole, the work seems looser and sloppier than Doré’s more sober projects; the result is a fitting sense of gross exuberance.

If Doré introduced the (somewhat outlandish, at face value) concept of Rabelais as a fitting subject for fine-art illustration, Heath Robinson cemented Gargantua and Pantagruel as something of a necessary testing-ground.

Robinson approached the dapper, monocled publisher Grant Richards with his plan for an illustrated Gargantua in 1903. It was to be just one of a number of echoes of Doré’s portfolio in Robinson’s career: he went on to illustrate, like Doré, Poe and Cervantes, among many others.  It was also to be largest body of work that he had attempted in his career so far; Richards, in a letter to a friend, described it as the work with which the artist was ‘ambitious to make himself famous’.

Richards perceived that such a work would have to tread a careful line: on the one hand, Gargantua had ‘a good deal of interest of the grosser kind’, and would attract attention accordingly; on the other, care would have to be taken to avoid charges of obscenity (the controversial artist Aubrey Beardsley, an associate of Oscar Wilde and, artistically at least, an influence on Robinson, would have been on the publisher’s mind – but where Rabelais was a safer bet than Beardsley in this sense was that, for all Rabelais’ gluttony and carnality, there was no homosexuality to worry about). Robinson’s agent AE Johnson observed that, in any illustration of Rabelais, ‘it is at least probable that a too sympathetic interpretation would cause commotion in the modern lending libraries!’.

Robinson created 254 black and white illustrations for Gargantua. Two are reproduced in the book as frontispieces; 98 are full-page drawings, and the rest are character heads (compared by the critic James Hamilton to ‘portraits of actors in character’) and small-scale scenes printed within the text.

Many of the drawings have a profoundly dark character (certainly more so than Doré’s illustrations of the same work); the treatment of shadow – strikingly deep black or characterfully cross-hatched – is central. Others have a crowded, bustling sense of amplitude, and recall the Flemish crowd scenes of painters such as Pieter Bruegel (1525-1569).

Both the blackness and the bustle are well-suited to Rabelais’ work. Like Doré, Robinson also dwells skilfully on the lavish curvature of double chins and well-fed cheeks.

But the work was not entirely well received. To the critic at the Times Literary Supplement it was ‘weird and clever’; however, the Athenaeum, while praising the draughtsmanship as ‘as good as any Mr Robinson has done’, found the illustrations as a whole ‘a somewhat inadequate commentary on the text’.

In what perhaps should have acted as a warning to all illustrators contemplating Rabelais, the paper’s critic added: ‘We must remember that [the text] is to the ordinary reader such a thick-set hedge of mystification that any attempt to illustrate it must be either inadequate or obscure.’

In 1905, Grant Richards was declared bankrupt. Robinson’s costly Gargantua was, to say the least, a contributory factor. Robinson would, of course, go on to a new life as a British national treasure thanks to his war-time cartoons and celebrated drawings of crackpot mechanical contrivances; Gargantua, too, would be reinvented, as a new generation of illustrators followed Heath Robinson’s lead.

However, most mainstream 20th-century illustrators of Rabelais’ masterpiece, while following in Robinson’s footsteps in their choice of subject matter, took a very different path in terms of style; perhaps mindful of Robinson’s difficulties, they decided, for the most part, that fine pen-and-ink work was out – and broad-brush was in.

A striking example of this is Samuel Putnam’s 1929 American edition of the work. The illustrator, Jean de Bosschère (1878-1953), had, like Robinson and Doré before him, worked on editions of Don Quixote and of traditional fairytales – but in style he was most unlike his predecessors. De Bosschère worked with bold blocks of contrasting tones, arranged almost collage-fashion; the results, in his Gargantua, are striking, sometimes playful, often dramatic, but lacking the atmospheric richness of Heath Robinson’s version. Indeed, de Bosschère’s interpretation could be said to have more in common with François Desprez’s unsettling visions of 1565.

André Derain (1880-1954) took a similarly bold approach in his series of woodcuts for a 1943 Gargantua. Derain had been, with Henri Matisse, one of the founders of the Fauvism movement, which prioritised the bold use of colour over naturalistic representation. His Gargantua follows the same pattern: the 180 woodcuts are spirited and rich in primary colour, and possess an engaging timelessness. In a similar vein, the great American poster artist E. McKnight Kauffer (1890-1954) presented a hugely joyous pink-faced Gargantua against a bright yellow ground on the cover of Professor Donald Douglas’s Gargantua for the Modern Library.

It’s fascinating to note that, while popular commercial artists were adopting this forceful, almost primitive approach to the interpretation of Rabelais, artists working in the margins – that is to say, erotic artists – continued to illuminate Gargantua in a style much closer in manner to that of the ‘shy, quiet, prudish’ Heath Robinson. It’s fair to say that these highly sympathetic illustrations would indeed have caused commotion in the modern lending libraries.

Two artists stand out in this regard. Louis Icart, known for his illustrations of Don Juan, Casanova and Madame Bovary and works such as ‘White Underwear’, presented his vividly coloured Gargantua in 1936. But for the coarseness of the content and the preponderance of pink bare bottoms, the drawings might be from a children’s book; Icart’s penmanship is smart, witty, playful in its detail and extravagant in its bawdiness – Rabelaisian, in fact, in the best sense.

More thoroughly filthy is the 1920s Gargantua of Gaston Barret (1910-1991). Barret – best known for a series of daring drawings for the Marquis de Sade’s 1791 erotic fantasy Justine – sketches his cartoonish scenes from Gargantua in skilful black and white, with evident enjoyment of bawdy detail (and equally evident appreciation of the naked female form).

These two artists perhaps approach closer than their mainstream counterparts to the true spirit of Rabelais’ masterpiece. It’s true, of course, that many elements of Rabelais’ humour are what we would now classify as ‘broad’, and it might be felt that a proper interpretation requires the illustrator to adopt bold strokes and Fauvist colour.

However, one of the defining traits of Gargantua is its author’s obsessive passion for abundant detail. This cannot be achieved with a broad brush. Rabelais – an intellectual and an innovator – was no primitivist. He was curious, endlessly inventive, infinitely fertile, and possessed of a fantastical vocabulary; any artist seeking to illustrate Gargantua should perhaps seek to express these qualities above all others.


Published in Illustration magazine, Spring 2012.

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