Friday, 16 September 2011

A Tolkien Tapestry - Cor Blok

Eh? A non-musical post?

As a life-long lover of Tolkien's vast Middle Earth mythos, I'm always intrigued by artistic developments related to it. For several years I'd been aware of, and very intrigued by, the few and seldom-seen LOTR-themed images by the mysterious and exotically named Cor Blok. Some (e.g. The Game Of Riddles, or The Cow Jumped Over The Moon) I really didn't like, but others (Frodo's Vision On Amon Hen, or The Battle Of The Hornburg II) were tantalisingly compelling.

Every now and again I'd trawl the web in search of more Cor, and every once in a while I'd be able to add another poor quality 72dpi jpeg to my scant collection. I longed to discover a book of Blok's LOTR art. But such a thing didn't seem to exist. Now it does, and now I've got it. My excitement at the prospect was such that I pre-ordered it as soon as I learned of it's existence, before it had even hit the shelves. A slight delay in it's arrival only heightened anticipation.

Well, now that I have it, I must confess I'm a little disappointed. I'd hoped, as had Tolkien before me (Tolkien and Blok corresponded, even meeting once, and Tolkien thought highly enough of Blok's art to buy several pictures, including his own favourite - and one of mine also - The Battle Of The Hornburg II, even considering Blok as a potential candidate for an illustrated edition of LOTR), for more in the vein of the second of his Battle Of The Hornburg artworks. It's no surprise that this piece also adorns the cover; it's probably amongst the best in the book, and certainly amongst those with the broadest appeal. Feedback on the recent Tolkien calendars of 2010 and 2011, both featuring Blok's art (and of both of which I'd been blissfully unaware of!), show that his take on things Tolkienian is not favoured by all. That didn't ever bother me. But, truth be told, even seen in a favourable setting, as here, in a well printed and well put together book, some of these pictures do seem rather poor (Bill Ferny Hit By An Apple is the picture I like least!).

Blok's an interesting, intelligent guy, and his intro to the book is a good, informative read. Some of his ideas and artworks succeed. But some don't. There are several reasons: the method employed for most (but not all) these pictures doesn't always translate brilliantly into print (and these are very good quality reproductions), with the silk-paper layering and underpainting effect not as tangible as might be the case when seen 'in the flesh'. This method also meant Blok's art is all on the smaller side, a constraint which may have fed into another choice he made, regarding his stylistic approach - in essence he leaves out a lot of detail, both in terms of figures and settings, but this is especially noticeable in terms of contextual detail - which I feel is a ploy that's frequently responsible for any weakness these pictures may have, and is at odds with the approach Tolkien took, in which details of character and setting are so important.

Nevertheless, as well as a sizeable chunk of work that I feel is less successful, there are a lot of pretty solid pieces to enjoy here, and some really great artworks. Ironically, given Blok's avowed policy of leaving out 'unnecessary' detail, the aim being to give the viewer more imaginitive elbow room, the pictures I think work best are those depicting events or scenes on a grander scale, in which the figures are smaller. This befits the grand narrative sweep of Tolkien's world. And in fact Blok himself, quite rightly, observes, in a note on the picture titled Weathertop, one of his successes to my mind, that "landscape with Tolkien serves not merely as a backdrop to the action: it contributes greatly to the atmosphere".

Occasionally he departs from Tolkien's narrative 'facts', as in Slaying Of The Nazgul (of which scene there are three versions: interesting in that they illustrate how his ideas evolve), where he has Eowyn slay the Lord of the Nazgul with a spear rather than a sword. That seems like justifiable artistic licence, as it really adds compositional drama. But when, in his second version of The Hobbits Sacking Bilbo's House, he has stairs to a second floor... No, that's just wrong! Remember the description of Bilbo's home in The Hobbit: "no going upstairs for the hobbit"! Nevertheless, the second version of this picture remains the better of the two, with the medieval influence on the composition being an effective idea.

Overall I'm not too keen on how he handles figures. The idea of 'less is more' is great, but I just don't like how he's done it. Learning how this style evolved out of his own invented 'Barbarusian' mythos is fascinating, but it doesn't necessarily cause one to like it any better. This said, there are occasions where the approach he's adopted does work remarkably well, such as 'Gandalf Relates His Adventures'. Undoubtedly though, one of Blok's strengths is how he stands out from the crowds of more conventional 'sword and sorcery' type illustrators. In fact I like him better sometimes the more abstract his figures are: his final LOTR piece, 1962s The King Of The Nazgul, for example, which is almost like a hyper minimalist de Kooning painting (from the latter's brief B&W period, with approx 95% of the detail stripped out) is, to my mind, far better and more sinister than the earlier painting, The Sorcerer King, made circa 1958/9, which looks banal in it's naivety, and ridiculous rather than ominous.

Despite these criticisms, and despite a degree of disappointment, Blok's work remains unique in it's relation to Tolkien, and it has an otherworldliness to it that chimes well with the monumental act of creation Tolkien achieved in building his whole mythos. And on a positive note, there are many delightfully atmospheric pieces here, my favourites, like Amon Hen and Hornburg, but also the previuosly unspublished Weathertop, The Last Bridge, Country Of The Trolls and The Petrified Trolls, depict larger scenes, and include more landscape and context, but even some of the figure based or minimalist paintings work very well to, for example The Firework Dragon II, Gandalf Persuades Bilbo, and the very evocative and highly stylised The Crebain, or the darkly moody Legolas Shoots The Nazgul Down.

As a body of work, Blok's Tolkien Tapestry, gathered together here for the first time, in its most complete (thanks to the arduous sleuthing of editor Pieter Collier, who tracked down several pieces that had gone off the radar) and well printed manifestation ever, is intriguing, perplexing, sometimes dissatisfying, and occasionally brilliant, and I'm really glad Harper Collins put this book out, allowing me to really get to grips with this until now elusive Scandinavian interpreter of Tolkien's bestselling masterpiece.

Can I recommend it? Well, not without circumspection, and a few provisos. But, if you're a Tolkien nut, and open-minded and eclectic in relation to art, then yes, I would recommend it.

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