Interview: Gwabryel

leviathanToday, we are happy to introduce Swiss artist Gwabryel, who very graciously decided to talk Lovecraft with us. Gwabryel is a lover of all things horror and his work has appeared in several of Centipede Press’s collections. His collection of images featuring gigantic Lovecraftian structures would make good old Cthulhu proud. Without further ado, say, “Hello” to our newest ami:

IFP: Your subject matter tends to be related to horror literature. What attracts you to horror?

G: For me, this kind of literature is not only stories of monsters or crimes because there is another message that can speak of human concerns. The literature of horror or fantasy is very interesting because it tells everything that is beyond the comprehension of human beings, that which leaves no response and no solution. A horror story can communicate to all audiences metaphysical concerns, for example: the mystery of life and death.

In Lovecraft’s stories, we can guess that the Great Old Ones, the evil gods who came from elsewhere, are elements that symbolize the fear of the unknown. Lovecraft believed that humans do not control their destiny. In his work, the majority of his characters are fatalistic and resigned. From a philosophical point of view, Lovecraft’s ideas are similar to those of Schopenhauer: the world is absurd and meaningless, what we perceive are merely appearances and all is illusion.

I also recall the novels Carrie by Stephen King and The Mist, which has a critique of dogmatism. Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley, raises the question of humanity and ethics of science.

In the field of cinema, Alien (1979) is not only a horror movie with a monster. Mostly, it is an allegory of the feminist struggle against male oppression and against sexual oppression.

The film Night of the Living Dead (1968) by George A. Romero is a good example of a horror tale with committed message. Through this horror film, the director reverses the values established by showing a black man (stage actor Duane Jones) in the role of hero. It’s also a criticism against the media, a challenge of space experiments, an anti-racist message. It’s very interesting.

IFP: How did you discover Lovecraft?

The City in the SeaG: Even though I live in Europe, I’ve always been interested in American literature. It is a rich literature with great writers like Faulkner, the Beat Generation (Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs and others), Edgar Allan Poe, John Steinbeck, Alice Walker, Marilynne Robinson, Chuck Palahniuk, Edward P. Jones, Eugene O’Neill, etc. So, it was logical that I read Lovecraft, who has the distinction of having created his own mythology and its codes, based on his night fears.

IFP: How did you begin painting Lovecraftian images?

G: I started painting for my diploma in my art school. Lovecraft is a great writer in regards to painting and illustration because his texts offer a great opportunity to explore a full graphic universe. The proof is that his writings have influenced cinema, art and contemporary literature.

IFP: Do you have a favourite Lovecraftian illustration by an artist other than yourself?

G: In general, I’m fascinated by the work of H. R. Giger, who is one of the greatest contemporary artists. His paintings – Katarakt (1977) and Landscapes series, or Bio-Mechanical Landscapes – depict unknown and frightening places that remind me of some descriptions of Lovecraft’s worlds. There is also the book H.R. Giger’s Alien, with images and atmosphere reminiscent of the Cthulhu Mythos.

I was also influenced by the great illustrator Michael Whelan, who has done a superb image called “Lovecraft Mythos Diptych” (1980) for the cover of Lovecraft’s books. It is a cult painting, where we see a huge red, reptilian evil eye in the sky and a tree with heads screaming. I think that is one of the best examples of Lovecraftian artwork. Michael Whelan has also done another superb work called “Arise” and that is the album cover of the band Sepultura. It is a magnificent work that represents a kind of enormous temple composed of living elements (eyes, heads, mouths) and primitive elements (like Stonehenge stones, totems, etc.) and marine elements (algae, giant crab claws) and it looks like a Lovecraftian building.

I also find the work of Francis Bacon (1909-1992) is reminiscent of the tortured world of Lovecraft, such as the painting Study after Velazquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X (1953) that represent a sinister bishop who screams. Another painting by Francis Bacon is a triptych called Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion (1944); it reminds me of the indescribable Cthulhu Mythos creatures.

IFP: Can you tell us about your technique and general creation process?

The SpyG: I collect ideas, I take notes in notebooks. I collect phrases, descriptions, colour of clothing, environments, silhouettes, and then I collect these items on paper, little by little, as building blocks. Then I work the image with acrylic paint. At first, I was working in oils, but it took too long to dry. Mostly, I paint on paper 100% cotton, similar to the Arches Paper.
IFP: Are there recurring elements in your artwork?

G: Sometimes, I paint very thin characters. It is an allegory of death that shows us that whatever we do, we are all destined to die. It is a kind of fatalism. The image of beauty or youth of a woman should not make us forget that we are all vulnerable to death.

I also paint people who are blind or with white eyes; this is a metaphor of being lost in the anonymity of life. The white eyes also remove some humanity and it shows that we are sometimes blind to the horrors of this world, a manifestation of anxiety.

There are elements like walls made of stone, they are negative elements that are an allegory of the determinism of the human condition. This symbolizes a kind of metaphysical prison. We are all prisoners of something, for example: our fears, our desires, our fears, etc. These dependencies prevent us from being free. This reminds me of the theater piece No Exit by Jean-Paul Sartre, who described hell as being locked in a room together with other people for eternity.

In my artworks, people are often alone or have no direct contact between them, a bit like the characters of the painter Edward Hopper. Loneliness is a scourge of our society and even if our media is becoming more developed, people talk less and less in real life. In my artwork, loneliness is also an allegory of death, because when one dies, there is nothing but loneliness. I paint this human loneliness in my work for La Maison d’Ailleurs (Swiss Museum of Science Fiction) entitled Lovecraft’s Commonplace Book, inspired by the sentence: “Person gazes out window and finds city and world dark and dead (or oddly changed) outside”. In this illustration, we see a lonely girl who hides her face instead of seeing a ghost town through the window. This is a picture of loneliness and the lack of silence and waiting, like so many riddles of existence and desire, time and death.

IFP: Can you tell us about some of the work you’ve done for Centipede Press?

Children of the CornG: I am very proud to work for Centipede Press. It is a publisher of very good books of excellent quality.

I made three interior illustrations, which are in the art book Knowing Darkness: Artists Inspired by Stephen King. The first illustration is inspired by Jerusalem’s Lot, a story where a very Lovecraftian cursed book, De Vermis Mysteriis, brings misfortune upon a region. The image shows the hero, who tries to burn the book to protect it from a monstrous worm. Children of the Corn is the second illustration; it represents the corn god (He Who Walks Behind the Rows) adored by the religious sect of children. There is no detailed description of the corn god in the text. King writes that it is just a kind of giant. So, I imagined a huge and terrifying deity with a crown of thorns because references to Christian religion (the crosses in the fields, churches) were numerous. The third illustration is called The Monkey and is inspired by the eponymous text by Stephen King where a windup monkey clapping cymbals causes someone to die nearby. In 1985, the great illustrator Don Brautigam had already painted a very grim and perfect monkey with a somber mood for the cover of Skeleton Crew. I had to find another way to represent this. I made a fairy-tale atmosphere reminiscent of children’s books.

I also made the cover of the book on the writer Frank Belknap Long (a friend of Lovecraft) in the series Masters of Weird Tales. The image is based on A Visitor from Egypt and I painted a fire in a city that symbolizes the vengeance of an ancient Egyptian god against Westerners who have looted the tombs and pyramids. In the foreground stands the figure representing the Egyptian god, with a stigma crosshair Ankh; the hieroglyphic symbol of eternal life.

In the art book Artists Inspired by HP Lovecraft, I can speak about the painting, The Nautical Looking Black, inspired by a scene of The Call of Cthulhu. Early on, the hero learns about the death of his uncle George Gamell Angell, Professor of Ancient Languages. A mysterious-looking sailor allegedly shoved him near the port by accident, but the story makes us realize that the teacher was murdered. For this illustration, I was inspired by a picture of Louis Daguerre, The Ruins of Holyrood Chapel (1824), and by the works of Victorian painter Walter Sickert. In my painting, I wanted to focus attention only on the sailor and give a hellish environment. Behind the sailor, I painted a car and a lamp to show the modernity, and the masts of sailboats to show the past. I received many e-mails from readers of Lovecraft who said that my painting was really what they had imagined while reading the text. I also painted two other images that are also inspired by the book The Call of Cthulhu. In the first picture called When the Great Old Ones Ruled the World you can see Cthulhu with a long rod which represent him as a god and not only a giant octopus. The second picture called The Unholy Worship shows a scene described by the inspector Legrasse. It is the act of worship dedicated to Cthulhu and celebrated by a primitive tribe. In fact, for this illustration I was inspired by an image called Flesh Eaters (1979) painted by the great Frank Frazetta. And I was very sad when I read that he died three month ago on May 10, 2010. I think that Frank Frazetta was the greatest artist of Fantasy Art because he was the first one in this genre and he has influenced all the illustrators in the field of the fantastic.

Another of my works is the book cover of Edgar Alan Poe, Masters Of Weird Tales. This illustration is inspired by the poem The City in the Sea, which recounts the vision of a city in the sea belonging to Death. In my painting, I did a city that is literally controlled by the Grim Reaper carrying a scythe. There’s a kind of tower with a dome that is close to the viewer to give an idea of depth, but also symbolizes the past. At the rear, modern buildings symbolize the future and sitting in the middle of town, I painted the giant personification of Death, who rules everything.

jerusalem's lotI also painted an interior illustration for the forthcoming book called The Tangled Muse. This is a book with the best texts of the cult writer Wilum Hopfrog Pugmire, considered one of the most talented authors of weird fiction in the Lovecraft tradition. My illustration shows Inhabitants Of Wraithwood talking about an underground world, an allegory of sin and redemption, and even punishment. I tried to paint the general mood of the story. The overall colour is a dark blue and the scene is deliberately difficult to distinguish, a bit like a dream. In fact, we must approach very closely to distinguish details. In the foreground, I painted the anti-hero, who represents youth, but whose emaciated ascetic symbolizes death and trial. In the background, I put things like a Mormon temple, which represents redemption. I also painted a crow observing the scene, as in the original text, the protagonists often hear crows cawing: a tribute to Edgar Allen Poe.

I even painted the cover for Dragonfly by John Farris, which Centipede Press will re-release shortly. John Farris is a cult writer whose novel, The Fury, was adapted by Brian De Palma in 1978. In the illustration for Dragonfly, I integrated all the elements of the book, namely, the disabled heroine, the mysterious anti-hero, the sea, and the threat symbolized by faceless eyes in the sky.

IFP: What are you working on right now?

G: Right now, I’m working on several scenarios for comics. The themes are mostly social issues, where there’s criticism of human relationships that are becoming increasingly catastrophic and lead to misunderstandings. There’s another different scenario that is in more humorous and ironic.

IFP: What is your dream project?

G: Like many people, I have several dream projects.

I would like to make a book cover for author S.T. Joshi, the leading expert on Lovecraft. Stephen King, Jonathan Safran Foer, those are authors I would like to provide illustrations for their books.

I love the films of Jim Jarmusch. He is an author who tends to like extremes: he likes B-movies, detective novels and horror movies, science fiction, and at the same time, he likes artistic films such as the films of Jean-Marie Straub or Jacques Rivette. I know that Jim Jarmusch writes poems and that he will release a book one day, so I would like to illustrate his forthcoming book of poetry.
I find that music singer/songwriter Nick Cave is very interesting and innovative. This is why I would one day like to work on the cover of one of his albums.

IFP: What do you do when you are not painting?

G: I watch a lot of American films of the 50s with cult actresses like Dorothy Malone (Written on the Wind – 1956, The Tarnished Angels – 1958), Rita Hayworth (Gilda – 1946, Down to Earth – 1947 ), Lauren Bacall (Dark Passage – 1947, How to Marry a Millionaire – 1953), Debbie Reynolds (Singin’ in the Rain – 1952, I Love Melvin – 1953) , Sandra Dee (Gidget – 1959) , Cyd Charisse (The Band Wagon, 1953), Mitzi Gaynor (Les Girls, 1957), Carroll Baker (Baby Doll, 1956), Gloria Grahame (In a Lonely Place, 1950), etc. I could name almost all American actresses of the 50s. They embody years of happiness and a happy time.

I watch a lot of films of Hong Kong directors like Tsui Hark, Ringo Lam, Johnny Too. I try to watch all the old Chinese films of the Shaw Brothers Studio or The Golden Harvest Studio. I also like Chinese literature with important authors as Mo Yan, or new generation writers such as Wang Anyi, Mian Mian. Unfortunately, I cannot read anything I want because I do not have enough time.
IFP: If you could have dinner with any fictional character, who would it be and what would you eat?

G: I’d go eat at a restaurant with Oskar Shell, the highly gifted hero from the novel Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2006) by Jonathan Safran Foer. He is a contemporary hero and represents the future (because of his young age), but is also in search of his origins through a quest to fill the gap of his missing father. In addition, Oskar Shell likes the same things as me: astronomy, entomology, pacifism, origami. He is a Francophile and we could speak French, which would be easier for me. For dinner, I think we will order a vegetarian menu of molecular gastronomy. Because molecular gastronomy fascinates me and it would be a vegetarian meal because in the novel, Oskar Shell is vegetarian (like his creator, Jonathan Safran Foer).

IFP: If you could be a Lovecraftian creature or character, who would you be and why?

G: I’d like to be Andrew Phelan, the hero found in the book The Trail Of Cthulhu by August Derleth . He drinks golden mead, which allows him to travel beyond time and space, he can ride the Byankhee interstellar creatures that are similar to bats to reach the big library of Celaeno in the stars. Andrew Phelan is a holdout against the onslaught of evil and he is a character who fights for freedom.

Bio: Gwabryel lives in Switzerland and is a graduate of the School of Contemporary Arts where he studied with Gregorz Rosinski, an artist well-known in Europe for drawing the comic series Thorgal. Gwabryel is currently a freelance illustrator and also writes scripts for comics.

the great stone pillar

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IFPInterview: Gwabryel