Profile: Andrzej Klimowski

Widely known for his pared-down style, Andrzej Klimowski explores new territory with his latest book. Jim Davies looks at the career of an illustrator who has written a narrative to his own graphics, with strong echoes of Kafka

Whatever his medium, Andrzej Klimowski always manages to intrigue. His wonderfully accomplished posters, book covers and editorial illustrations all spill over with ambiguous visual clues, drawing the viewer in, teasing, suggesting and inviting interpretation. It’s a kind of intellectual seduction which is also evident in his three books – The Depository, The Secret, and his latest work, Horace Dorlan.

Horace Dorlan differs in one particular. Where the first two books were purely illustrative, soliciting readers to supply their own narrative and unspoken words, this one combines written and visual narrative to create a surreal juxtaposition, a bit like slipping in and out of a strange dream. I’d like to tell you what it’s about, but if you read it, it would probably mean something quite different to you. Its ambivalence is what makes it so curiously powerful and compelling.

The set-up is clear enough. The eponymous protagonist is an eminent professor preparing to give a lecture at a prestigious science conference in Pisa, Italy. But he suddenly starts acting totally out of character, by wanting to incorporate a jazz quintet into his presentation. Then, nothing is quite what it seems. There are shifts in time, place and medium, repetitions and flashbacks, and the narrative switches from third to first person. You’re never quite sure where you are or whose perspective you’re getting, which events are the product of the subconscious mind, and which are actually happening.

‘The reader is the co-creator of the book,’ says Klimowski. ‘I’ve scattered signals throughout for the reader to make their own sense of it and to set their imagination in motion.’

All in all, it’s a remarkable achievement. Klimowski’s writing style is sparse and spiky, strangely old-fashioned and European. You feel you’re reading Kafka or Camus. His illustrations here are his familiar, direct, pared-down black-and-white linocuts. ‘Hellishly labour intensive,’ he admits. ‘I was finishing off the last images, chipping away while travelling on the Tube. As a medium it’s close to design and printing, and very immediate.’ Designer Jeff Willis helped out with layout and typography, and acted as a sounding board throughout the three-year project, which Klimowski worked on ‘in bursts because I was so busy doing other things’.

A deep thinker with a sense of mischief and a natural charm, Klimowski was born in London to a Polish family. He studied sculpture and painting at St Martins School of Art, before moving to the Warsaw Academy of Fine Arts, where he mastered poster design under the celebrated Professor Henryk Tomaszewski. Much of his early work was, appropriately enough, theatre and cinema posters. Among the UK design community, he is probably best known for his distinctive photo-collage illustrations. As well as gracing a small library of Faber and Faber book covers, these have appeared everywhere from The Guardian and The Times, through to New Scientist and Management Today. Klimowski has also collaborated with numerous design groups, including Pentagram and the late, lamented Trickett & Webb. As if this wasn’t enough, he is also Professor of Illustration at the Royal College of Art.

Although a work of unfettered imagination featuring trademark Klimowski motifs – insects, buildings, spectacles, mutants and a distinct undercurrent of sexuality – significant parts of Horace Dorlan are based on real life. For example, the central character’s look was inspired by a Portuguese PhD student Klimowski met at the RCA. His ambiguous surname is a bastardisation of Diego Forlan’s – the Villarreal footballer, formerly of Manchester United.

But most significantly, an extended linocut section, where an angular woman with insect wings is followed into the Institute of Entomology, takes its cue from an incident in Queensgate, South Kensington, where Klimowski observed a thin, striking-looking woman making her way into the same building. Only, of course, she didn’t have wings. ‘It was a magic event,’ he recalls. ‘That was the trigger for the idea.’

Horace Dorlan is a book that breaks boundaries, seamlessly fusing words and images in the manner of great graphic design. In many ways, it is a typical Klimowski collage, though on this occasion he’s chosen different raw materials to experiment with.

Horace Dorlan is published on 19 April by Faber and Faber, price £12.99

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