Piecing It Together
How do we see the world? We might think that we see it like a movie, transpiring in cinematic shots and flowing scenes, which each of us directs and shoots from our subjective viewpoint. Scientific studies, however, are finding that we actually only ever perceive the world in pieces, our brains making sense of it from fragments, glimpses, glances, piecing the whole bigger picture together like a jigsaw puzzle, or like a comic strip.
Graduating from the Strasbourg School of Decorative Arts, renowned for nurturing a remarkable number of highly individual illustrators and comics artists, Marion Fayolle co-founded the narrative image magazine Nyctalope (below), where she initially presented several of these pages. Coming to the comics medium afresh, unencumbered by conventions and expectations, Fayolle has stripped it back to its essentials by removing speech balloons and narrative captions and limiting her texts to the briefest of typeset titles offering intriguing clues to the tale that lies ahead. Her choice of wordlessness seems naturally to suit the experience of dreaming, where purely visual reveries can unfold before our eyes. It also returns us to a child-like, pre-literate mental state where our only choice is to look attentively and read what we see.
Fayolle tells her resulting short silent narratives, compiled into In Pieces from Nobrow (below), by organising them mostly within four orderly rows of images, unconstrained by frames outlining and defining them inside panels. She removes all sets, locations and backgrounds except for the minimum of necessary props, leaving the white paper of the blank page as her characters’ open, borderless environment. In a further purification, she eschews all the standard-issue angles and shots, the close-ups and cropping, in favour of showing her characters always from head to toe, full figure, as if they are mute actors in a play on the most minimalist of stages, or dancers choreographed within an empty gallery, a white cube.
Fayolle applies some further subtle constraints to the form. Her players are almost all adults of a certain age, race, class, height and weight, distinguishable mainly by their differing outfits, hair colour and hairstyles, and in the case of men facial hair or lack of it. And where are their shoes? Perhaps shoes tell us too much about a person? Why are all her characters barefoot? We tend to be go shoeless around the home, in the bathroom or bedroom, or relaxing outdoors, on the beach. These bare feet suggest an intimacy and vulnerability between the characters, and provide an additional expressive body part for us to read.
Part of the pleasure in decoding such refined and re-defined comics is how body language becomes our most important lingua franca, our lingua comica. We find that one tilt of the head, one hand gesture, one facial expression, one posture, one physical contact can be as eloquent as pages of prosaic prose, and far more concise. Only occasionally does Fayolle shatter the fourth wall and have their frontal gaze meet ours. Most of the time, she presents them in profile or semi-profile, focussed and intent on each other, and if they are walking or in motion, then mostly from right to left. They are unaware of our presence, of their audience, so we can spy on their private antics like peeping toms. While these pages may resemble key scenes in an animation storyboard, our eyes are free to scan, scroll and refresh all the immobile images on each page at our leisure, not passively watching them flash by ephemerally on a screen, but exploring and enjoying their connections and differences.
A recurring question haunts these pages about the meaning of human relationships - what do men and woman do to each other, or dream of doing? There’s an understated sensual charge, an erotic tenderness, to many of these vignettes. The fantasy of diving into the pool of wax left by your melted boyfriend, or of transforming your long dress into a tent or a table cloth for men to climb under. The tensions between desire or despair, joy or jealousy, possession or freedom, haunt these fragments of life and love. Fayolle also taps into ancient myths and legends, giving them a witty twist. We witness the escalating oddity of a son being watered by his parents and shooting up like a tree, only to devour his own father. Or a sculptor bringing a statue of a woman to life, only to return her eventually to her geological origins. She also plays with hybrid animal and humans - is this a man dressed as an animal, or an animal dressed as a man? Extra amusement comes from the characters’ generally unfazed, deadpan acceptance of the most bizarre occurences. Interspersed are non-sequential, larger vistas, sometimes variations on a theme, for example related to strange solutions to mankind’s dreams of flight.
Fayolle’s meticulous processes also recall antique illustrations and engravings. She creates each image by hand initially in areas of colour, using a stamping technique, close to printmaking and silkscreening, to build up her pictures. Her palette is subdued, his surfaces weathered, her figures’ body parts flesh-toned and textured. She chooses whether or not to add a fine line in Rotring black ink around these colour fields. She makes bodies shift towards us and away from us, in and out of focus, between sharp definition in outlines for the foreground, and shapes of colour, slightly receding and conveying depth and background.
While unmistakably contemporary in their social and sexual mores, these cruel yet amusing visual stories are resonant of the idiosyncratic pantomime strips of the past. Fayolle harks back to nineteenth-century French masters of this form like Caran d’Ache, Theophile-Alexandre Steinlen or Adolphe Willette, or Britain’s greatest exemplar H.M. Bateman in Punch. Of these, Fayolle’s themes perhaps come closest to Willette, famed for his more naturalistic, less caricatured couple of Pierrot and Colombine from Commedia dell’Arte, the foolish lovestruck male and the aloof, elusive female, often taking on darker humour. In one example, titled ‘L’Age d’Or’ (below), Pierrot kneels and begs Colombine, plays love songs on the lyre and then the violin to her, paints her portrait and brushes her face, but she stands stock still, hands clasped, unmoved. Pierrot finally puts a pistol to his head. Only when his skeletal form, still wearing his clown’s ruff round his neck, digs himself out of his grave bearing a mysterious gift is she finally drawn to him. Fayolle’s complex couples could be the Pierrots and Colombines of today.
One early admirer of wordless comics was the German writer Thomas Mann who gave novice readers more used to pages of typeset text some advice and encouragement when tackling Frans Masereel’s 1919 novel in woodcuts, Passionate Journey: “Darken the room! Sit down with this book next to your reading lamp and concentrate on its pictures as you turn page after page. Don’t deliberate too long! It’s no tragedy if you fail to grasp every picture at once, just as it does not matter if you miss one or two shots in a movie.” Mann concludes by asking the reader, “And where are you? Has not this passionate journey had an incomparably deeper and purer impact on you than you have ever felt before?”
This same advice applies to the pictures and stories awaiting you in In Pieces. Start piecing together your own ‘passionate journey’ by turning the page.
Profile for ArtReview Magazine
While studying at the Strasbourg School of Decorative Arts, renowned for nurturing highly individual graphic artists, Marion Fayolle arrived at her personal approach to comics through her illustration tutor, who opened her eyes to the diverse French and international traditions in books and magazines of stories told through pictures and enjoyed by adults. Fayolle decided “to work on stories without creating recurring characters or elaborate plots. I make fun of conventional storytelling. I don’t want to know my characters or go into the details of their lives. I use them only as theoretical figures to express ideas or feelings.”
Fayolle strips the comics medium back to its essentials by removing speech balloons and narrative captions and limiting her text to brief titles, clues to what lies ahead. Her choice of wordlessness seems to suit the experience of dreaming, where purely visual reveries can unfold before our eyes. By removing all sets, locations and backgrounds except for the minimum of necessary props, Fayolle leaves the white paper of the blank page as her characters’ open, borderless environment. They always appear full figure, like mute actors in a play on the most minimalist stage, or dancers choreographed within an empty gallery, a white cube. “My approach is a bit like improvised theatre, a discipline I discovered in Strasbourg, where you give yourself a constraint, a theme and just a few props or setting with which to come up with a coherent story.”
A potent image, a graphic metaphor, such as a woman whose dress strangely resembles a birdcage, acts as her springboard. “I become the character which lets me think up the rest of the story, not by writing it but by acting, living, miming and visualising it.” Body language becomes all important in her silent narration; one tilt of the head, one hand gesture, one facial expression, one posture, one physical contact can be as eloquent as pages of prose. In her 2011 debut collection, published this month in Britain by Nobrow as In Pieces, she improvises the fantasies of diving into the pool of wax left by your melted boyfriend, or transforming your long dress into a tent or a table cloth for men to climb under (detail below).
In the reverse to the usual process, colour comes first in Fayolle’s images, starting as areas of digital tints, which she prints out and applies to the paper using a stamping technique, harking back to prints and engravings from the past. She then chooses whether or not to add a fine black outline around these colour fields. For her new strip ‘The Collector’ for ArtReview magazine (below), Fayolle imagines the lengths one lonely man will go to assemble his ideal family portrait.
The book introduction originally appeared in In Pieces published in English by Nobrow. The profile & strip originally appeared in ArtReview magazine.