Michael Kenna

Kenna the Illustrator : Fiction Seduces Photography

Kenna ventured boldly into the perilous exercise of illustrating literary works. Flaubert was indignant at the idea that anyone would have the nerve to lay pictures at the feet of his prose. Raymond Roussel asked the painter Zo to illustrate Nouvelles Impressions d’Afrique and having issued him with the most maniacal specifications, obtained an object of simply fascinating ordinariness, near the zero point of iconography, but which does not atomize the text.
Kenna chose Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles, one of the most famous of the Sherlock Holmes novels, and one of the strangest in its construction. The detective is absent from two thirds of the plot and is kept informed by letters from Dr. Watson who, as obtuse as ever, launches into long, dramatic descriptions of the countryside in the English Gothic tradition. It is an atmospheric novel in every sense of the term. Kenna had to avoid the ghost train syndrome —the apparition of the daemonic beast— and the pitfalls of pleonasm. It is once more a reversal: this time of a figure of speech, ekphrasis, the description of a work of art. “The conjunction of the text and the image which belong to different semiotic orders” seems, “even if implicitly, to exclude the physical presence of the image alongside the descriptive text.” (Véronique Montémont)

As it is the reader’s role to imagine the objects described in the text, the reality of photography hamstrings the imagination and ruptures the flow. A pitfall which Kenna avoids in his illustrations by choosing not to stay close to the text but to explore its atmospheric equivalent. It is no longer necessary to choose between the description and the image, between photographs and fiction: the insertion of landscape photographs connected to the text and disconnected from the narrative gives the story a place and, because it offers only a setting, builds the atmosphere. In the space between what is shown and what is hidden the reader’s mind spreads its wings and flits about. At a distance. Elsewhere.

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