ONE OF THE MORE exhilarating recent developments on the otherwise increasingly commercial publishing scene has been the renewed and apparently growing interest in illustrated books and artists' books -- in books that, through their exceptional design or illustration or overall vision, stretch the very limits of what a book can be.
Ordinarily books of this kind originate from small presses, often in prohibitively expensive deluxe editions that most of us would never see, let alone own copies of. But lately several mainstream publishers have begun issuing reasonably priced trade versions of some of these innovative and unusually pleasing books. A case in point is the new Dante's Inferno, translated and illustrated by Tom Phillips.
Phillips is a British painter who, before the appearance of the Inferno in its Talfourd Press limited edition in 1983, was perhaps best known for A Humument, a mixed media experiment produced by freely drawing and painting over the pages of a chanced-upon copy of an unremarkable Victorian novel, A Human Document by W.H. Mallock. From each treated page of Mallock's melodramatic text, Phillips, inspired by William Burroughs' ''cut-up'' writing experiments, picked a few words to be left exposed amid his added-on art work. New meaning, in the form of a series of evocative minimalist poems, was thereby wrested from Mallock's turgid tale.
To illustrate Dante's epic poem -- which this enormously adventurous artist has skillfully translated in robust, unrhymed iambics -- Phillips has taken his archeological recycling methods several steps further, quarrying the visual iagery of both past and present for material for his interpertative prints. Max Ernst-like surrealist collages, Tarot card faces, aerial photographs, archtectural chematics, fragments from Picasso's Guernica and Gustave Dre's Inferno engravings all surface in places like Mallock's novel as others resort to the I Ching, Phillips extracted more minimalist poems, this time searching specifically for messages that seemed to comment on Dante's enterprise. These he has incorporated in his illustrations as floating captions.
In all, Phillips made 136-page graphics in a variety of media almost as eclectic as the sources of his imagery. He has not, in the manner of concentrated illustration, attempted to visualize narrative highlights, but instad has worked on a symbolic, visceral level, without recurring characters, settings or much consistency even of style. The result is often arresting: an image, for example, in sequential grid form of the Vatican coat of arms metamorphosing by stages into a skull and crossbones. But the facelessness -- in the literal sense -- of the illustrations leaves one with the odd feeling of having been left one remove too far from Hell -- too far, that is, to identify imaginatively with the traveler Dante in his harrowing journey.
Nearly all the Talfourd Press edition art was printed in several colors. To reproduce such images with even near-absolute fidelity would hae been an impossible job for any publisher intent on keeping the selling price within affordable limits. Many small sacrifices were inevitable. What one might reasonably have hoped for in such a case were reproductions that put across the feeling of the originals, that gave readers a visual experience in the spirit of Phillips' art.
From this standpoint the Thames and Hudson edition succeeds a third to perhaps a half of the time. Part of the difficulty with reprinting Phllips' book stems from the unusual range of the media employed. Etching, screenprinting, lithography (among other techniques used) all leave characteristic surface marks on paper. These disappear in photomechanical reproduction, robbing each image of part of its distinctiveness.
A more serious problem lies in the quality of color reproduction, which in the Thames and Hudson book is darker overall than in Phillips' originals. In certain instances, these differences don't really matter. But several illustrations have been reduced to mere ghosts or shades of their former selves; as for instance the final print, a depiction of the heavens seen as backdrop to the open book of Dante's completed poem. In reproduction, the artist's once-radiant stars fail to shine.
In a few cases, Phillips has added an extra color, or otherwise heightened an illustration for the new version of the book. The main addition has been a set of detailed notes on his oconographic sources along with sundry thoughts on the work as a whole, which, it is said, the artist is now in the process of adapting for television animation.
Not perhaps since the 19th century French artist Gustave Dore has anyone set about so energetically to illustrate the "classics" as has Barry Moser, a rotund, wildly bearded printmaker, book designer and the proprietor of the Pennyroyal Press in West Hatfield, Massachusetts. Lewis Carroll's Alice fantasies, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and Dante's complete Divine Comedy are among the great books to have lately fallen into Moser's column, both as limited editions issued by the Pennyroyal Press or others, and as far less costly volumes from the University of California. His Huckleberry Finn has appeared in time fo rthe centennial celebration of the novel's first publication.
It is worth a passing glance at the fact that Moser and Phillips, while both accomplished book illustrators, belong to essentially different traditions within the book arts. Phillips is a conceptualizer and image-maker for whom the book has at times served as an expressive medium. Moser in contrast is a printer craftsman. His chief concern is with producing well architected and well made books that please the eye and sit well on the reader's hands.
Moser's woodblock engravings for Huckleberry Finn, especially the character portraits that make up the lion's share, are most of them incisive, shrewdly witty, self-assured to the last observable detail. It may be wondered whether we as readers actually need or want pictures of Huck, Jim and all the other creatures of Mark Twain's (and our own) imagination. A fair answer to this question, I believe, is, "Not necessarily"; but the best of Moser's portraits do add to rather than diminish the pleasures of reading. They accomplish this largely through a skillful manipulation of psychological viewpoint.
In several portraits, characters are presented as having posed for the artist in the stiff-backed formal, take-the-measure-of-my-soul style of the 19th century photographer's studio. In others, subjects seem rather to have been caught offguard, discovered in their game by someone a little quicker than they were. The cumulative effect of this gallery of images (its somewhat lulling repetitiveness notwitstanding) is peculiarly well suited to Mark Twain's ends; to the unmaking, that is, of society's false fronts and respectable hypocrisies.
Huckleberry Finn is one of literature's most crowded rogues' galleries. It comes perilously close to being the American Inferno, chronicling as it does a descent down not just the Mississippi River but certain of the darker bends and channels of human experience. When in the novel's climactic moment Huck at last declares himself wholeheartedly for Him's freedom, sighing, "All right, I'll go to hell," we know he's been to hell before, in the unbroken run of his disillusioning encounters with falsely pious spinsters and two bit thieves, with cold-blooded solid citizens and counterfeit kings and clerics; all of whom we also, through Twain's and Moser's art, have not just seen, but seen through.