Illustration by John Holmes, published by Flamingo, Fontana Paperbacks, 1984
What I like about the two cover illustrations from the mid-1980s is that they are so faithful to Magritte in content and treatment that pastiche no longer seems like the most accurate word to describe them. Holmes’ paintings based on two of the Belgian artist’s trademark motifs, the bowler hat and the green apple, could almost be forgeries or fakes, except that Holmes’ technique may well be better. Not that there was any intention to deceive — readers of Barthes would have had no trouble picking up the visual references. The elegantly centered title pieces above the stately, symmetrical images help to give the covers an air of intellectual precision perfectly in keeping with Barthes’ brilliantly lucid essays.
Both books carry a back cover credit for Holmes. This was a step forward because the covers he produced in the 1970s, often for science fiction and horror paperbacks, were frequently uncredited. This oversight even includes Holmes’ most famous cover for Germaine Greer’s feminist classic The Female Eunuch, a book I bought as a teenager. For years I wondered who had done the painting. The same is true of the anonymous cover image for J.G Ballard’s The Atrocity Exhibition, which I acquired around the same time — it was Coulthart, commenting on an earlier post, who suggested that the bandaged figure is probably by Holmes. The style is an exact match and I am certain he is right. Magritte’s influence can be seen in both covers, though it’s less direct here, in Holmes’ cruel fragmentation of the female body reconfigured as a hanging torso, and in the way he makes a protagonist uncanny by concealment, in this case by medically improbable amounts of surgical dressing.
After my lecture about Uncanny at CalArts in October, design teacher and Design Observer contributor Lorraine Wild astutely zeroed in on the Magritte knockoffs airbrushed from my talk. There is no getting around them and in the next phase of my research into Surrealism and the graphic image, I intend to grasp the plastic nettle and explore the influence of Magritte on conceptual illustration more thoroughly.
The Dictionary as Art Concept