Sunday, March 1, 2009

Illustration, obfuscation

This post began life as a comment on this post over at Helen's Cast Iron Balcony, but once I'd violated the three-paragraph comment rule I decided to bring it over here. There are, at last sighting, no comments yet on Helen's post. My guess is that we're all too horrified to speak.

In brief, Helen links to two recent newspaper articles by conservative antifeminist Miranda Devine and shows the two really vile caricatures of women that were drawn to illustrate these articles. In her post, Helen asks among other things whether the writer has any influence in what the illustrator draws.

I've had two experiences of what might loosely be called the opposite. The first occurred in 1983 when I edited a book of Australian short stories that included far more than the (then) usual number of stories by women, as well as stories about cities and migrants, and focused, in the detailed introduction that I wrote, on the traditional idea of the 'Australian' as a white Anglo-Celtic bushman or Anzac being something we needed to move on from. I was then horrified to discover that the publisher had chosen, for the cover of this anthology, the Tom Roberts painting 'The Breakaway', which shows an apparently white Anglo-Celtic male on a horse chasing a sheep with a lot of native trees in the background.

When I brought this up with the publisher he literally did not understand my point (it was 1983) and just kept saying over and over 'But it's very Australian, and it will sell the book because it's an image that people will recognise.' If I'd been older and more experienced I would have tried harder to explain how his response was exactly the kind of thing I was talking about, and was trying, in terms of cultural stereotypes, to move beyond, but I still don't think I would have won. (I love that painting, which didn't help.)

Two years later I wrote a conference paper on media and other cultural representations of Lindy Chamberlain (who was still in jail at the time) that got picked up by one of the dailies for the weekend features and given to an artist to illustrate. I certainly had no say in the illustration and I assume this is the norm, at least with newspapers where there simply isn't time for such consultation.

The illustration, which I didn't see till the paper came out, exemplified all the sexist media habits and assumptions that I was attempting, in the article, to deconstruct and undermine. It was a head-and-shoulders caricature of Chamberlain looking bloated, ugly and malevolent, wearing a lurid orange tent-like dress patterned in ironic little hearts. It's possible that it was a kind of meta-comment, but frankly I doubt it.

Now I was, and remain, a fan of the artist in question as a usual thing, but this particular drawing was unfunny as a caricature, unsuccessful as a portrait, and -- most importantly -- wildly misleading as an illustration of the text that it was supposed to be derived from. To this day I don't know whether he and/or the dude from the publishing house were either just so impermeable to feminist ideas that they were incapable of processing what I was saying, or whether their responses constituted active (conscious or subconscious) resistance to what I was saying, attempts to use their images to undermine my words.

'Illustrate': to illuminate, clarify or shed light on, to add lustre. The drawings shown at Helen's post certainly illuminate and clarify Devine's meaning and line of argument in both cases. But sometimes illustration can, in defiance of its name, be used to obfuscate: to conceal, confuse, darken, cover up.


Ampersand Duck said...

Yet another useful post that I can link to when I try to explain this sort of thing to students and clients!

Many is the time I've been cranky as hell about the combination of text and image in the press and on book covers. Fewer are the times I feel something sings -- and annoyingly, I don't recognise enough when the combination is RIGHT, because it doesn't scream or sing, it just floats in front of the eyes and lets the eyes rest.

I'd like to see what light (lite) Laura can shed upon this, as it's her Special Subject.

Anonymous said...

Ah yes, but that particular image was wonderfully deconstructed for a book edited by Chris Lee (sorry Chris, can't recall the title). It simply added a long black plait to the stockrider, which created a suggestion of a/femininity b/ye exotic east. Brilliant!

In our current dire climate we need eternal vigilance, eternal small deconstructions. Even if it is only to read NEW SCIENTIST on public transport when looking particularly girly. Which was my response to Marieke Hardy saying on "the Book Show" that she didn't "get science". Lucy Sussex

lucy tartan said...

It's YOUR Special Subject, o book cover designing woman!

Teh weird just keeps piling up, that anthology is actually on my desk right this minute (I'm giving a lecture shortly for T'ian's Aust Lit course, on some short stories, including "The Cost of Things" - and it was just last week I was wondering why that picture was on the cover, since it didn't seem to have much to do with the contents beyond being, you know, Aussie. So mr publisher could stick that in his pipe and smoke it, if he still smokes a pipe.

When I read Helen's post I thought that because Devine is a staff writer there might perhaps be some communication between her and the illustrator. I have the impression that there never is any communication when it's a freelancer who's written the piece. I'd be interested to know if that's right.

Back to teh weird, Lucy, the students who take my women's writing subject next semester will be reading your story 'Kay and Phil', as well as Swastika Night. lol...

Kerryn Goldsworthy said...

And more of teh weird: the link you've just posted to the current LP fire thread features a drawing by the Chamberlain-caricature person. (Your point about a staff writer having more communication with the illustrator is well taken BTW. It could be as simple a matter as hovering around his desk/easel/board/whatevs.)

I love 'The Cost of Things'. Elizabeth Harrrower is one of this country's most underrated writers.

Duckie, I love it that you find uses for posts here. Lucy, I haven't seen that take on the Roberts painting. Brilliant though, as you say.

WV 'flamon'. I take this to be an exhortation, Laura, as per your joke about ralphing the kidney and rocking the casbah.

Lefty E said...

Jeez, you're a start Pav! You cant have been too long out of shortpants in '83.

Lefty E said...

.."star", that was.

Anonymous said...

Sitting here reading this after a news broadcast, revealing that yet another woman has been sexually assaulted by a group of marauding NRL players. Described with the usual depressing lack of interest by a fine member of the Queensland Police. Nothing to see here, move along please.
If only the Devine collaborator would give us a depiction of the footballers with the same edge.. not likely - that would be..over the top. Unfair.
And I would be very surprised if someone on the subby desks at Fairfax didn't 'engage' with the illustrator as to the required outcome. Probably not Miranda. Though, she is awfully important...

Anonymous said...

My anecdata, for what it's worth, is that the one and only large newspaper cartoonist of my aquaintance works from a studio beside his house. Nowhere near the journos. As far as I know his only interactions with the paper are via the relevant editor.