Friday, December 16, 2011

Visions of the Jinn

I don't usually go in for assembling a best-of-the-year list. It's neither my own style nor the style of my reading: I tend to be reading at least as many old books as new, and my trawling through the contemporary is haphazard enough that I couldn't presume to offer an authoritative assessment.

But this year I'm going to break with tradition because there's one book that, in this age of e-everything, deserves to be singled out for great praise: Robert Irwin's Visions of the Jinn: Illustrators of the Arabian Nights. Published by Oxford University Press, it's a huge--nearly 10" x 13"--and absolutely stunning, with more than 150 full-sized color reproductions of illustrations created for old editions of The Arabian Nights. It's a lavish, eye-popping, amazing book.

I wish I had images to share. They run the gamut of style and technique: the detailed engravings of Dore; the lush paintings of Maxfield Parrish; the black-and-white seductiveness of Beardsley; the solitary, menaced figures of William Heath Robinson; and much more, all beautifully reproduced. Any fan of book illustration will find something here to cherish. Irwin points out that the Nights provided an unusually open field for illustrators:
The material came from diverse sources and was put together by different hands. There was no single narrative voice and this had an important consequence for its later illustration in the West, since unlike other texts that were popular choices for illustration in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the amount of visual cuing provided by the narrative varied considerably from story to story. For example, in "The Story of the Semi-Petrified Prince," the interior of the palace is evoked in some detail, but in other, later tales a palace is often just a palace. So with some stories the illustrators must have found themselves constrained by the text in front of them, while with other stories the austerity of the narrative might set their imaginations free.
What becomes clear very quickly is just how much our impressions of these stories are tied in with the history of their illustration; these are the images that come to mind when we hear of Sinbad and Ali Baba and Haroun al Raschid.

Alongside the reproductions, Irwin presents brief assessments of the key illustrators, including some biographical detail and setting them in the context of their era and their peers. Once in a while, the tracing of influences offers a wonderful moment of the unexpected conjunction of different artistic worlds like this one:
Aged only fifteen, [Frank Brangwyn] worked for a while for William Morris. Late in life, Brangwyn would still recall the tremendous impact that the pattern of a Persian carpet in Morris's house made upon him.
And thus is born an Orientalist artist; Irwin quotes Theophile Teinlen as saying of Brangwyn's work,
One can truly say that these things are painted by a child of the North whose eyes, having seen the Orient, have stayed forever dazzled, marvelling, and filled with sunshine.
Irwin himself is a great scholar of the Arabian Nights (having published a companion whose only flaw is that it's not 1,001 pages long) and of the history of Orientalist scholars and late-Victorian engagement with the East; when he brings all that knowledge to bear on this specific facet of that history, the result is dazzling.

The only drawback of Visions of the Jinn is the price: at $225, it's clearly aimed at libraries and collectors. But if you've spent a lifetime loving these stories and the history of how they entered--and forever changed--the literary history of the West, it's an unforgettable book. I'll be turning to it again and again and again over the years.

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