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Free to see, free to draw

Rockwell exhibits ‘Istvan Banyai: Stranger in a Strange Land’ through May 5

  • The work of Hungarian-born Istvan Banyai is often playful and thought provoking. He is best-known for the 1996 wordless picture book “ZOOM.” (“Objectivity,” 2011. Illustration for The New Yorker ©Istvan Banyai. All rights reserved.)

    The work of Hungarian-born Istvan Banyai is often playful and thought provoking. He is best-known for the 1996 wordless picture book “ZOOM.” (“Objectivity,” 2011. Illustration for The New Yorker ©Istvan Banyai. All rights reserved.)

  • Banyai, here at his Connecticut studio, is a master of various illustration techniques, from art nouveau and film noir to psychedelia and surrealism. (Photo credit: Bill J. Killon, 2012. ©Norman Rockwell Museum. All rights reserved.)

    Banyai, here at his Connecticut studio, is a master of various illustration techniques, from art nouveau and film noir to psychedelia and surrealism. (Photo credit: Bill J. Killon, 2012. ©Norman Rockwell Museum. All rights reserved.)

  • The illustrator took poetic license in creating an image for a story about a hiker trapped for five days by an 800-pound boulder. (“The Amputee Climber, Aron Ralston: Between a Rock and a Hard Place” Illustration for Outside Magazine. ©Istvan Banyai. All rights reserved.)

    The illustrator took poetic license in creating an image for a story about a hiker trapped for five days by an 800-pound boulder. (“The Amputee Climber, Aron Ralston: Between a Rock and a Hard Place” Illustration for Outside Magazine. ©Istvan Banyai. All rights reserved.)

  • Banyai excels at surreal juxtapositions and unusual perspectives. He has been a frequent contributor to The New York Times, The New Yorker and Rolling Stone magazines. (Green! Shanghai, 2009. Hemispheres Magazine cover, October 2009. ©Istvan Banyai. All rights reserved.)

    Banyai excels at surreal juxtapositions and unusual perspectives. He has been a frequent contributor to The New York Times, The New Yorker and Rolling Stone magazines. (Green! Shanghai, 2009. Hemispheres Magazine cover, October 2009. ©Istvan Banyai. All rights reserved.)

  • For a cautionary tale about innocence and crime in the cat community written by Sara Gran, the illustrator framed the story in feline film noir. (“Tails of the City” Los Angeles Times Magazine 2012 ©Istvan Banyai. All rights reserved.).

    For a cautionary tale about innocence and crime in the cat community written by Sara Gran, the illustrator framed the story in feline film noir. (“Tails of the City” Los Angeles Times Magazine 2012 ©Istvan Banyai. All rights reserved.).

  • Banyai originally began studies in architecture. He explains that, given this background, he often depicts images with a minimalist, simple line approach with no shading. This image of Marilyn Monroe echoes a well-known photograph by Richard Avedon.  (“The Love Goddess Who Keeps Right on Seducing,” 2012. Illustration for New York Times article by Maureen Dowd. ©Istvan Banyai. All rights reserved.)

    Banyai originally began studies in architecture. He explains that, given this background, he often depicts images with a minimalist, simple line approach with no shading. This image of Marilyn Monroe echoes a well-known photograph by Richard Avedon. (“The Love Goddess Who Keeps Right on Seducing,” 2012. Illustration for New York Times article by Maureen Dowd. ©Istvan Banyai. All rights reserved.)

  • The work of Hungarian-born Istvan Banyai is often playful and thought provoking. He is best-known for the 1996 wordless picture book “ZOOM.” (“Objectivity,” 2011. Illustration for The New Yorker ©Istvan Banyai. All rights reserved.)
  • Banyai, here at his Connecticut studio, is a master of various illustration techniques, from art nouveau and film noir to psychedelia and surrealism. (Photo credit: Bill J. Killon, 2012. ©Norman Rockwell Museum. All rights reserved.)
  • The illustrator took poetic license in creating an image for a story about a hiker trapped for five days by an 800-pound boulder. (“The Amputee Climber, Aron Ralston: Between a Rock and a Hard Place” Illustration for Outside Magazine. ©Istvan Banyai. All rights reserved.)
  • Banyai excels at surreal juxtapositions and unusual perspectives. He has been a frequent contributor to The New York Times, The New Yorker and Rolling Stone magazines. (Green! Shanghai, 2009. Hemispheres Magazine cover, October 2009. ©Istvan Banyai. All rights reserved.)
  • For a cautionary tale about innocence and crime in the cat community written by Sara Gran, the illustrator framed the story in feline film noir. (“Tails of the City” Los Angeles Times Magazine 2012 ©Istvan Banyai. All rights reserved.).
  • Banyai originally began studies in architecture. He explains that, given this background, he often depicts images with a minimalist, simple line approach with no shading. This image of Marilyn Monroe echoes a well-known photograph by Richard Avedon.  (“The Love Goddess Who Keeps Right on Seducing,” 2012. Illustration for New York Times article by Maureen Dowd. ©Istvan Banyai. All rights reserved.)

“I feel like an outsider. I’m really an oddball guy
who managed to get sort of like a jackal. I sort of eat
what the pigs leave behind ...”

Istvan Banyai, July 2012 interview

Spend just a few minutes with the Hungarian-born illustrator Istvan Banyai and you become impressed with his intensity, youthful playfulness and his piercing perception of our often surreal culture. His work has ranged from movie posters for Federico Fellini and animated shorts for MTV and Nickelodeon to children’s books and illustrations for The New York Times, The New Yorker, Vanity Fair and Rolling Stone magazines.

A pioneering, two-gallery retrospective of the expatriate’s art at Stockbridge’s Norman Rockwell Museum displays his mastery of various techniques. This ranges from Art Nouveau, psychedelia and high contrast graphic novel images to sharply detailed line illustration.

“I can only see what makes sense to me,” Banyai said during an interview with the author Steven Heller last year. “If I am lucky to have that, immediately a picture comes to mind. Now I just have to draw it.”

His approach to illustration often echoes his architectural background. A minimalist line drawing of Marilyn Monroe, without shading, evokes the well-known Richard Avedon photograph of the movie siren caught off-guard, revealing insecurity.

In 1994, when astronauts aboard the International Space Station were possibly the only Americans to escape the media’s obsession with O.J. Simpson, Banyai depicted the disgraced pigskin legend reading a magazine. The image, however, flirts with infinity. Simpson reads a magazine of himself reading a magazine of himself reading ... ad infinitum.

In 2003, the adventurer Aron Ralston spent five days trapped by the weight of an 800-pound boulder in Canyonlands National Park before freeing himself by amputating his right arm. Outside Magazine commissioned Banyai for a story illustration. He avoided any sensational rendering, as well as the claustrophobic interior of the slot canyon where the hiker was trapped. Instead, he depicted the nightmarish image of a climber dangling over a precipice with a huge rock impaling his hand.

Banyai and The Beatles

The artist, now 63, was a child living in Budapest at the time of the Hungarian Revolt. His country struggled behind “The Iron Curtain” and when students peacefully protested for more political freedom in October of 1956, they were fired upon by soldiers. One day later, Soviet tanks rolled into the capital and within a month, citizens and students joined Hungarian soldiers, taking to arms against the Russian Army. The rebellion was in vain. The estimate is that over 20,000 Hungarians were killed.

“It was a rather gray world at the time,” Banyai told the exhibit’s curator, Martin Mahoney, in an interview last July. “The country was occupied by the Soviet Army. Drawing became a vehicle to express my frustrations.”

While studying architecture at Budapest’s Moholy-Nagy University, he became intrigued with the limitless expression that art could provide. Under the iron hand of the Russians, however, art was confined to propagandistic images of political icons and heroic workers.

During this period, he was able to sneak into a standing-room-only auditorium to see the 1968 animated film “Yellow Submarine.” It depicted The Beatles successfully freeing the Art Nouveau citizens of Pepperland from the music-loathing Blue Meanies. The film featured breakthrough animation techniques, including a sequence filmed entirely with radiant “black light” colors. Banyai was spellbound.

“It blew my mind,” he recalled.

At the time, Russian youths could face arrest just for the ownership of a Beatles record. Hungary, he explained, was not a rigidly controlled “barracks” like the Soviet Union.

Banyai was also energized by the works of illustrators ranging from America’s Winsor McCay (“Little Nemo”) to the Belgians Jean-Michel Folon and Tomi Ungerer.

His artistic perspective was coupled to a strong sense of alienation. In the Mahoney interview, he recalled the Hungarian poet, Jozsef Attila, who wrote “‘I don’t have a mother. I don’t have a father. I don’t have a country. I don’t have God.” “I think I have completed that,” Banyai said.

“ZOOM” and “RE-ZOOM”

In 1976, Banyai completed, entirely on his own, a four-year project, the animated short “Gobble, Gobble.”

As Viennese waltz music plays, a man enters a restaurant and consumes everything available. He grows in size to tower over a city and eventually leaves earth to munch on the universe. When he mistakenly swallows the sun, he is reduced to a fried egg on the skillet of the restaurant where the odyssey first began. He is served to another customer.

In 1980, the artist was given governmental permission to travel with his family to France to animate the sci-fi movie “Time Masters.”

“We declined to return,” he quipped.

The country of 246 cheeses was an eye-opener, with its mix of racial and ethnic peoples.

“In Communism, there was no ethnicity,” Banyai said. “No African-Americans, or blacks and no Oriental people. I felt like a zombie at first. Then you quickly adjust.”

The expatriate may have remained there but for the vicissitudes of French bureaucracy. Unable to establish a citizenship, in 1981 he brought his family to a more welcoming America.

“Los Angeles in America was another shock,” he said. Commercial illustration demanded slick, post-modernistic images.

He had been educated in a less-is-more “Bauhaus kind of school where form and function is the same. Everything I learned had to be thrown out the window. It was a brand new value system with the West and all this commercialization.”

He then moved to New York and, in time, became a sensation. In 1995, he produced the wordless children’s book “ZOOM,” which was released in 18 countries and received a Top Ten listing by the New York Times that same year.

The book begins with the colorful abstract ribbon of what may be a mountain range. The next panel pulls back to reveal it as rooster’s comb, which in the next panel is viewed by two children, who are actually toy figures. The next panel pulls back to reveal the figures as the images of a toy farm in a magazine advertisement viewed by a boy aboard an ocean liner.

After 31 illustrations, you find yourself far from planet earth, a small white dot on the final page. The experience may remind you of a Matryoshka Russian “nesting doll,” composed of several wooden figures, each hiding another within.

“It just shows that we live in a universe,” Banyai said. “I mean, I have no homeland, really. What’s my reference point? I think ‘ZOOM’ is my reference point.”

The book was followed by “RE-ZOOM” as well as a clever animation on the same theme for Nickelodeon. Several other children’s books have followed, skillfully playing with your point of view.

The almighty dollar

During an opening night interview, Banyai, in a cheery, openhearted manner, was outspoken in his views. In a brief speech he’d given earlier, he said that the debate, ongoing since Norman Rockwell’s time, continues as to whether illustration should be considered art.

“We still do not get what we deserve,” he said, asking the audience to demonstrate at New York’s Guggenheim Museum for the rights of illustrators.

“Call the TV stations!” he said, jokingly. “Make some noise!”

An appreciative audience laughed.

Banyai was asked what required the biggest adjustment to living in America.

“The money,” he said. “Everything is money here. Not so much in Europe. People don’t appreciate certain things if there’s no money in it.”

He noted that in Communist Hungary, money was secondary and people seemed to take more delight with simple pleasures.

“In America, if you do something well, you try to turn it into a buck,” the illustrator said. “In America if you do something you like (for its own sake) you’re an idiot. Why don’t you make it profitable?”

“I’m not putting down America,” he continued. “It’s just that this is a different culture, based upon the marketplace, which is on hype and on drugs and it takes (business) to the farthest extreme.”

Banyai also railed at what he sees as an increasingly cold, computerized illustration business bereft of creative, artistic ideas.

“‘Original’ is taking a risk,” he said excitedly. “They don’t want to take a risk. They want to go for the total, 100-percent proven formula which will give you your money back a hundred times more. Otherwise they don’t talk to you.”

Banyai and his wife have found peace in a woodsy Connecticut residence.

“I’m in my backyard and I light a candle and civilization is out and I’m reading in the woods,” he said, describing these interludes as a luxury.

“I’m like the old priest in the cloister,” Banyai joked “You know what I mean? It’s coming to that.”

“Istvan Banyai: Stranger in a Strange Land” continues at the Rockwell through May 5. An eponymous 16-page exhibition catalogue is also available at the museum. Open daily from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; weekends, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Adults, $16; college students with ID, $10; ages 6 to 18, $5.

The museum is less than three miles from downtown Stockbridge. Signs direct motorists to Route 102 west and then Route 183 south. For more information, www.nrm.org.

Don Stewart is a freelance writer who lives in Plainfield. He has written for The Recorder since 1994

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