Kurt Vonnegut's Fantastic Faces
By Peter Reed
Most readers interested in the fantastic in literature are familiar with Kurt Vonnegut, particularly for his uses of science fiction. Many of his early short stories were wholly in the science fiction mode, and while its degree has varied, science fiction has never lost its place in his novels.
Vonnegut has typically used science fiction to characterize the world and the nature of existence as he experiences them. His chaotic fictional universe abounds in wonder, coincidence, randomness and irrationality. Science fiction helps lend form to the presentation of this world view without imposing a falsifying causality upon it. In his vision, the fantastic offers perception into the quotidian, rather than escape from it. Science fiction is also technically useful, he has said, in providing a distance perspective, "moving the camera out into space," as it were. And unusually for this form, Vonnegut's science fiction is frequently comic, not just in the "black humor" mode with which he has been tagged so often, but in being simply funny.
Less generally familiar than the fiction, however, are Vonnegut's creations in the graphic arts. These reveal the same postmodern heterogeneity of mode and subject found in the fiction-realism and abstraction, the fantastic and the mundane, sentiment and irony, humor and melancholy.
Vonnegut's vision of the fantastic in daily life surely must have been influenced by some of the extraordinary events that occurred while he was still a young man, such as the suicide of his mother on Mother's Day 1944 while he was home on leave; his surviving as a prisoner of war the Allied firebombing that destroyed Dresden; the death of his sister Alice from cancer within hours of her husband's death in a train crash. His fiction struggles to cope with a world of tragi-comic disparities, a universe that defies causality, whose absurdity lends the fantastic equal plausibility with the mundane. Much the same outlook pervades the graphic artworks that have increasingly occupied Vonnegut in recent years.
The drawing of the locket bearing the "Serenity Prayer" slung between Montana Wildhack's breasts in Slaughterhouse-Five (1969) is the first appearance of artwork in one of Vonnegut's novels.' The simple felt-tip pen drawings in Breakfast of Champions (1973), however, were what first called general attention to Vonnegut as a graphic artist. They came as a surprise at the time, first as being an unusual addition to a novel, but also for their frank, often naive and simply funny qualities. Most startling-and to some at the time, offensive-were the depictions of an asshole and "a wide-open beaver. " But the drawings earn their place in the novel, and must be seen as integral to it. Some make graphic the ludicrous disparities that often exist between words as signifiers and what it is they signify. Others simply function as embellishments or even punch lines of jokes. In their almost child-like simplicity of line they have a certain ironic propriety in a novel where the central event is an arts fair. Above all, they are part of-and draw attention to-the seemingly naive, even adolescent, perspective by which Vonnegut deconstructs and demystifies American culture and society in this novel.
Vonnegut continued drawing, frequently making doodles with a felt-tip pen on pages of discarded manuscript. From these he evolved "felt tip calligraphs," abstract faces drawn with brightly colored soft felt tip pens.' He was invited to enter a show where artwork by writers, including Norman Mailer and Tennessee Williams (both accomplished painters) were exhibited. He said, "I've drawn all my life, on the edges of manuscripts and things like that. But I started thinking, 'This is the amateur approach.' ...So I decided to take myself seriously as an artist... My father was an artist, my grandfather was an artist, and I have three children who are accomplished artists."
More formalized drawings, similar in style but composed to a much larger scale on parchment, followed. Some thirty of these were exhibited in a one-man show at the Margo Fiden Gallery in Greenwich Village, opening on October 15, 1983. Vonnegut also experimented with smaller etchings, whose subjects were often self portraits, usually profiles with bushy hair and drooping cigarette, roughly similar to the one that appears at the end of Breakfast of Champions.
The medium used in more recent graphics had its origin in a request by an old friend from Vonnegut's days as a PR writer at General Electric to assist in the dedication in 1993 of a new college library. Ollie Lyon, once a fellow "flack" at G.E., had gone on to reside in Lexington, Kentucky, and become chair of the Development Council for Midway College. He invited Vonnegut to perform one of his "How to Succeed in a Job Like Mine" evenings as a fund-raiser for the new library. Vonnegut additionally created one of his self-portraits for a poster advertising the event. Another friend of Ollie Lyon, the bookseller John Dinsmore, provided the connection with Lexington artist Joe Petro III, who silk screened Vonnegut's graphic for the poster. Since then, Vonnegut and Petro have continued their collaboration, with Vonnegut producing images on large sheets of acetate, which Petro then silk screens.'
From that beginning, the number of graphics in the Vonnegut catalogue has grown steadily. Over the years Vonnegut had come to speak of finding writing more onerous. Galapagos (1985) presented scientific as well as literary challenges, and his labors with his most recent-and he says, final novel Timequake (1997), extended for several years. Painting, on the other hand, he found fun. As Vonnegut describes it, writing is labor, and the writer's reward arrives when he or she hands the manuscript to the editor and says, "It's yours. " The painter, he says, "gets his rocks off while actually doing the painting. The act itself is agreeable."' After a career as a writer extending very nearly half a century, such a release is surely deserved.
Among the earlier products of the alliance with Petro were those with a clear ancestry in the Breakfast of Champions illustrations. There was the self portrait, reproduced with minor variations and several color combinations. The notorious signature rectum from the novel reappears as "Sphincter," also in a range of colors. "One Eyed Jack" is a derivation of the profile, evidently evolved from the self portrait. One of several similar graphics, it dates back to the time of the Margo Fiden Gallery exhibition.
With its elaborately overlapping curlicues around the eyes, it precedes a series of increasingly fantastic faces. Vonnegut's interest in making abstractions of faces is long-standing: "The human face is the most interesting of all forms. So I've just made abstracts, of all these faces. Because that's how we go through life, reading faces very quickly" (Horizon 5). "One-Eyed Jack" has been expressed in varying color combinations. An early version was in orange and green, a combination that Vonnegut seems to like but which Petro rejects because "the colors don't play off each other well. 117 There were three editions, known by their dominant background color as the Red, Cerulean Blue and Dark Gray Editions. They were screened on 30 x 22 inches paper, roughly the size of most of the graphics, all signed in pencil by Vonnegut.
More fantastic is "Egyptian Architect" of 1993. The interest in coils at eyes and nostrils, seen in various self portraits and in "One-Eyed Jack, " continues. Not evident in earlier work are the interest in background and depth and the play with triangles, pyramids and things Egyptian, which are to reoccur elsewhere. The minimal use of color emphasizes whiteness and negative space, pushing the two faces right up into the framing of the border and elongating the distance to the pyramid in the background. The pyramid is black and pale gold, the background sky is aqua, and the seven colored panels in the eye of the left-hand figure are alternating pale gold and aqua. Other triangles are formed between the two heads and between the right-hand head and the border. As in some of Vonnegut's earlier drawings, what appear to be two faces may be one plus its reflection. (The singular noun of the title adds credence to this reading.) The vertical line dissecting the right-hand face intersects the flat line of the horizon, a line that continues in the straight mouth of that face. There is consequently a counter-pointing of the curling and the straight, another recurrent characteristic in Vonnegut's graphics. The expressions on the faces are at once arresting and amusing. The left-hand profile wears a look perhaps suggestive of intellectual self-satisfaction, while the full face looks questioning and startled.
"Cheops" (1994) continues the Egyptian motif, though Vonnegut insists that he does not work with a theme in mind and that titles are assigned later. Both paintings actually have a science fiction feel to them as well, of alien beings and vast spaces. "Cheops" would appear to be one of those paintings that Vonnegut says he begins simply with intersecting lines (Vonnegut 10/18/95). This time there are two lines dissecting the image vertically and two running horizontally. The horizontal lines produce startling affects, among them the impression of two horizons. Above the upper horizontal a dramatic face looms against the sky like a huge supernatural presence, its eyes fiercely commanding. The abstraction of the face seems to stand in contrast to the solidity of the pyramids while repeating their triangles. The downward pointing pyramid, hovering over two pyramids standing on the second, lower horizon, adds to the affect of some vast desert mirage. The two solid blocks of color at the bottom, yellow and red, lend a solidity that invites the eye into the deep blank spaces above. But "Cheops" should not be viewed too literally, combining as it does aspects of the representational and the abstract in one compelling postmodern image. "Cheops" rewards "count the triangles" even more than does "Egyptian Architect." The geometric qualities of both paintings might remind the viewer of Vonnegut's heritage as the son and grandson of architects.
"Astronomy" (1996) seems both whimsical and compelling. The bold blue eye, heavily underlined with dark red eye bags, and the fixated expression created by the set of jaw and mouth, command attention. The astronomer's unblinking gaze, riveted on the star, is emphasized by the connecting line. The inner square around the face-suggesting a window, perhaps creates a sense of enclosure, like a double frame. Also remarkable is the appearance that the whole inner drawing is one continuous line. The simple device of a double line at the bottom of the frame (filled-in in red) can appear to move the subject back and leads to the impression of the star's being not just in front of the face, but distant at an angle, seen through the window behind. Thus "Astronomy" is all flat surface, or a perspective piece with depth, as you wish. Something in that expression, above all, remains to arrest our attention.
Only in Vonnegut's more recent graphics do allusions to his own fiction occur. The first to do so was "Absolut Vonnegut", created in 1995 as one of a series of Absolut Vodka advertisements by renowned American artists. It features the familiar self-portrait profile, an open window in the background, and a vodka bottle on a table in the foreground. The wooden table is heavily grained, an exercise Vonnegut enjoys and which he has employed in several pieces. The hands playing with a loop of string and the cat's head stopper to the bottle make obvious allusion to his novel Cat's Cradle (1962). In the novel the cat's cradle becomes the symbol for traditional explanations that really do not explain-the child looks at the string configuration that is supposed to represent a cat's cradle and sees "No damn cat. No damn cradle. " The novel mocks religions, political doctrines and various national and societal affiliations whose claims to explain and give meaning to existence are as illusory as the string figure.
In "Absolut Vonnegut" the reference to his fiction is allusive. Earlier he had said, "I don't want to draw on my reputation as a writer by putting a lot of quotes from my works into my drawings or by illustrating my books. They have absolutely nothing to do with my books, and I'm proud that they don't" (Horizon 5). One graphic that overtly refers to his fiction is "Trout in Cohoes". This depicts the science fiction story teller who is such a favorite character to Vonnegut aficionados. Kilgore Trout has been seen as Vonnegut's alter ego, the embodiment perhaps of his worst fears of what he might have become in those early years when he was dismissed as a science fiction writer and not re-viewed. Trout is a parody of the science fiction writer who spins out stories at an astonishing rate with dazzling imagination, while fame and fortune continue to elude him. He figures most prominently in God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, Breakfast of Champions, and Timequake. The latter, Vonnegut's most recent and apparently his last novel, gives Trout the central role, and features this illustration as its frontispiece. "Trout" has been screened by Petro in an edition of 77 on 22',x3O,' White Rives BFK paper, signed and numbered "by Kurt Vonnegut and Kilgore Trout." There is also an edition of 18 in which the cage appears in gold.
Trout appears as unkempt and unshaven as one would expect from his portrayals in the novels. The surprise is his eleven eyes. Looked at they tend to give the impression of a vibrating head, which would certainly reflect Trout's constantly agitated state of mind. Perhaps they express Trout's fractured vision, his way of seeing beyond the surface of things, his way of looking at the world-or worlds-with a kind of multiple vision. "Cohoes" refers to the fact that in Breakfast of Champions, and again in Galapagos, Trout is said to live in a basement apartment there. The birdcage in the background is the home of Trout's parakeet, Bill. In Breakfast Trout offers Bill three wishes and the chance for freedom. The wise bird returns to his cage, which Trout calls the smartest choice of all because then Bill will always have something left to wish for. As in several other graphics, Vonnegut lets the image spill over the heavily drawn frame. The affect is to call attention to the non-representational nature of the art, or to emphasize its artifice, much like the self-reflexivity in Vonnegut's fiction. The subject's protruding over the frame enhances the sense of depth, also felt in the way the left hand wall angles behind the border, as if Trout were looking out of a framing window. The mouse hole in the skirting seems a characteristically whimsical touch. When "Trout in Cohoes" was exhibited as a new acquisition at the University of Kentucky, David Minton, reviewer for the Lexington Sunday Herald Leader wrote, "The portrait of Kilgore Trout possesses all ' the clear and open wit and humor (black humor admittedly) one finds in his novels...
When an author or visual artist can create such an impression in his work he is doing something right.(8)
A slightly different version of Trout's portrait was commissioned by the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1997. It shows him wearing a purple heart and, with its more luxuriant hair, bears a passing resemblance to a self-portrait.
Also in 1997, Bill's cage itself became the subject in four editions of "Gilded Cage." The four have different size cages in gold against gray and black backgrounds, all of these signed and with a hand-drawn profile in the bottom right corner. (Fig. 7) Apart from the story of Bill's three wishes, the birdcage has other significance in Vonnegut's writing. His early (1961) collection of short stories was called Canary in a Cathouse. He also writes (notably in Wampeters, Foma and Granfalloons, 1965) of the artist's being the equivalent in society of the canary carried into the coal mine, whose death is the warning of lethal gases. "Nov. 11, 1918" obviously alludes to the day the First World War ended. November 11 is also the date of Vonnegut's birthday, although his year was 1922. He quite often makes reference in his writing and speeches to this date, and to the fact that for many years it was commemorated as Armistice Day, with a minute's silence at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, the very time that the armistice was signed. The painting depicts a giant hand on a pedestal, holding a globe. Since the hand is obviously a sculpture or monument, this makes another instance of art representing art, a similar case of self-reflexivity to that often found in the fiction. With its red nails and its red palm, the hand might be seen to imply a world about to be consumed by some dreadful maw. But the soft plumpness of the hand seems comforting, suggesting the healing embrace of peace. Significantly, Vonnegut originally titled this composition "Peace Monument. " The darkened segment of the globe presumably represents the war-ravaged Europe. This would appear to be one graphic where theme was important to Vonnegut, and of course pacifism has been a cause consistently advocated in his writing. The fictional planet Tralfamadore features prominently in the novels The Sirens of Titan (1959) and Slaughterhouse-Five. Its inhabitants are rendered differently, in the earlier novel being robots resembling big tangerines with spindly legs and suction-cup feet, and in the latter little green folks who look like plumbers friends topped by a small hand with an eye in the palm. In Slaughterhouse-Five, the Tralfamadorians take Billy Pilgrim to live in a zoo-like geodesic dome on their planet. They kidnap the B-movie starlet Montana Wildhack to be his mate. Tralfamadorians see in four dimensions, so that they see past and future as well as the now. Perhaps that explains the facial expressions in Vonnegut's two graphics, "Tralfamadore #1" and "Tralfamadore #2!"
The two "Tralfamadores" are similar, the pairs of figures in each much alike and in the same stances relative to each other. The two figures could be of different species or genders. The one on the left has a cleanly geometric head, and appears to have a small round body and tripod legs, like Salo, the Tralfamadorian robot in The Sirens of Titan. The figure on the right has the appearance of a nose and hair, and the comically terrified eyes that suggest a human abductee. In each the scrutinizing stare of the left-hand figure is answered by the "What next?" expression of the figure on the right. Another reading might be that the two figures represent an admiring Billy Pilgrim and a startled, newly arrived Montana Wildhack. In both versions there are geometric designs in the lower right corner. In #2 these could represent the geodesic dome where Billy and Montana are held on Tralfamadore. Regardless of how these two graphics are interpreted, they are quite compelling, with their startling juxtapositions of expression, their humor, and their attractive line and balance.
"Prozac" features five three-armed objects, seemingly floating one ahead of the other. The perspective created by their receding into the distance is emphasized by the floor or ground below, and by the two tiny birds in the upper right corner. The rectangles or cubes at the end of each arm of these geometric figures have one half colored yellow, the other left white. Alternate panels of the surface below are blue. Perhaps the impression of floating in space is a humorous allusion to the lifted spirits Prozac induces. Or perhaps the figures suggest a model of the molecular structure of the drug. More certainly, the picture seems to imply Vonnegut's poking fun at a society on Prozac. Like Nov. 11, 1918, the two "Tralfamadores," and "Astronomy," "Prozac" was silk screened in 1996.
By 1998, Vonnegut and Petro were able to offer a catalogue of some fifty works. The selection offered here, while illustrative, cannot capture the full range of style and subject presented by the whole collection. Certain characteristics remain constant in the majority of these graphics, however, regardless of subject. Largely because of how they are composed with India ink on sheets of acetate they are dominated by black line. Small areas are then filled in with color, often in differing combinations at the silk screening stage. The effect is of cleanness of line, often of geometric pattern, and of space. Vonnegut frequently uses "negative space," heightened by small areas of color that increase attention to the blank spaces. Sometimes the image is silk screened onto gray stock with the white areas painted. Both Vonnegut and Petro like to use white as a color, and this technique also intensifies the sense of space given by the white areas (Petro 10/16/95).
Vonnegut enjoys the work of Paul Klee and Georges Braque, calling the latter "a special hero," and is intrigued by what the cubists did in "breaking up the chaotic into geometric forms, pleasing shapes" (Vonnegut 10/18/95). New York artist and formerly cartoonist Saul Steinberg is a friend. Perhaps one can find little reminders of these men's works, and that of others, in Vonnegut's paintings: a touch of Miro in the "Tralfamadores," for example, or of Calder in "Prozac." Like his architect father and grandfather, these artists have been part of the culture he has lived in, and their influence is inevitable. For Vonnegut there is no sense in avoiding such models if he finds something in them to try. "The notion that someone can make a big discovery and then nobody can make use of it would be very poor science," he says, alluding, as he often does, to his scientific training. He can look at a feature of pictures by Paul Klee and say I can do that sort of thing" (Vonnegut 10/18/95). But his art can hardly be called derivative. There is a consistent individual style that becomes as recognizable as his pros6. The sense of humor, of satiric wit, so characteristic of his fiction, is usually evident in the graphics, too. It is the element of enjoyment in their creation that Vonnegut invariably emphasizes when speaking of his graphics.
Just as Vonnegut's prose style has often been characterized as honed-down, so too there is a spareness to his graphics. That is the chief distinction between the vigorously colored felt-tip calligraphy of the early 1980s and the later silk screened art. And in both, the relative simplicity of expression counterpoints the generosity of imagination and vision, making the work more compelling. Vonnegut's concise verbal pronouncements often deflate those myths habitually proffered as giving meaning to daily existence. Yet at the same time his ranging imagination captures the fantastic that permeates the mundane, the fact stranger than fiction that makes daily life forever beyond rationalization. That sense of the fantastic, of the chaotic that fills life with surprises both painful and comic, finds expression in his graphic art as it does in his fiction.
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