“Rachel”: Between Fairy Tales and Anatomy

The last time I wrote about my friend and mentor Stefano Bessoni was four years ago, when his book and short film Gallows Songs came out. Many things have happened since then. Stefano has been teaching in countless stop motion workshops in Italy and abroad, and he published some handbooks on the subject (an introductory book, together with first and second level animation textbooks); but he also continued to explore children’s literature by reinterpreting some classics such as Alice, Pinocchio, the Wizard of Oz and the traditional figure of Mr. Punch / Pulcinella.

Bessoni’s last effort is called Rachel, a thrilling work for several reasons.

First of all, this is the reincarnation of a project Stefano has been working on for decades: when I first met him – eons ago – he was already raising funds for a movie entitled The Land of Inexact Sciences, to this day one of the most genuinely original scripts I have ever read.

Set during the Great War in a faraway village lost on the ocean shores, it told the story of a seeker of wonders in a fantastic world; eccentric characters roamed this land, obsessed with anomalous and pataphysical sciences, amongst ravenous wunderkammern, giant squid hunters, mad anatomists, taverns built inside beached whales, apocriphal zoology shops, ventriloquists, ghosts and homunculi.

A true compendium of Bessoni’s poetics, stemming from his love for dark fairy tales, for the aesthetics of cabinets of curiosities, for 18th Century natural philosophy and Nick Cave’s macabre ballads.

Today Stefano is bringing this very peculiar universe back to life, and Rachel is only one piece of the puzzle. It is in fact the first volume of the Inexact Sciences tetralogy, which will be published every six months and will include three more titles dedicated to the other protagonists of the story: Rebecca, Giona and Theophilus.

Rachel is a sort of prequel, or backstory, for the actual plot: it’s the story of a strange and melancholic little girl, who lives alone in a house on a cliff, in the company of some unlikely imaginary friends. But a terrible revelation awaits…

Although reimagined, the main character is based on the real historical figure of Rachel Ruysch (1664-1750), daughter of famous Dutch anatomist Frederik Ruysch (about whom I’ve written before).

As Bessoni writes:

It is said that Rachel helped her father with his preparations, and that she was actually very good at it. A proof of this unusual childhood activity is her presence in a famous painting by Jan van Neck where, dressed as a little boy, she assists her father during an anatomy lesson on a dissected newborn baby. Rachel’s job was to dress with lace and decorate with flowers the anatomical creations, preserved in a fluid Ruysch had named liquor balsamicus, an extraordinary mixture which could fix in time the ephemeral beauty of dead things; many of these specimens, now on display in museum, still maintain their original skin complexion and the softness of a live body.

But Rachel’s fate was different from what I imagined in my story. She abandoned medicine and anatomy, and grew up to be a very good artist specializing in still life paintings and portraits, one of the very few female artists of her time that we know of. Some of her works are now on display at the Uffizi and at the Palatine Gallery in Florence.

Rachel Ruysch, Still Life with Basket Full of Flowers and Herbs With Insects, 1711

At this point, I feel I should make a confession: Bessoni’s books have always been like a special compass to me. Each time I can’t focus or remember my direction anymore, I only need to take one of his books from the shelf and all of a sudden his illustrations show me what is really essential: because Stefano’s work reflects such a complete devotion to the side of himself that is able to be amazed. And such a purity is precious.

You only need to look at the love with which, in Rachel, he pays homage to Ruysch’s fabulous lost dioramas; behind the talking anatomical dolls, the chimeras, the little children preserved in formaline, or his trademark crocodile skulls, there is no trace of adulteration, no such thing as the mannerism of a recognized artist. There’s only an enthusiastic, childish gaze, still able to be moved by enchantment, still filled with onirical visions of rare beauty — for instance the Zeppelin fleets hovering in the sky over the cliff where little Rachel lives.

This is why knowing that his most ambitious and personal project has come back to light fills me with joy.
And then there’s one more reason.

After so many years, and taking off from these very books, The Inexact Sciences is about to turn into a stop motion feature film, and this time for real. Currently in development, the movie will be a France-Italy co-production, and has alreay been recognized a “film of national interest” by the Italian Ministry of Culture (MiBACT).

And who wouldn’t want these characters, and this macabre, funny world, to come alive on the screen?

Rachel by Stefano Bessoni is available (in Italian) here.

Special: Claudio Romo

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On April the 4th, inside the Modo Infoshop bookshop in Bologna I have had the pleasure to meet Chilean artist Claudio Andrés Salvador Francisco Romo Torres, to help him present his latest illustrated book A Journey in the Phantasmagorical Garden of Apparitio Albinus in front of a crowd of his fans.

I don’t want to go into much detail about his work, because he himself will talk about it in the next paragraphs. I would only like to add one small personal note. In my life I’ve been lucky enough to know, to various degrees of intimacy, several writers, filmmakers, actors, illustrators: some of them were my personal heroes. And while it’s true that the creator is always a bit poorer than his creation (no one is flawless), I noticed the most visionary and original artists often show unexpected kindness, reserve, gentleness. Claudio is the kind of person who is almost embarassed when he’s the center of attention, and his immense imagination can only be guessed behind his electric, enthusiast, childlike glance. He is the kind of person who, after the presentation of his book, asks the audience permission to take a selfie with them, because “none of my friends or students back home will ever believe all this has really happened“.
I think men like him are more precious than yet another maudit.

What follows is the transcription of our chat.

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We’re here today with Claudio Romo (I can never remember his impossibly long full name), to talk about his latest work A Journey in the Phantasmagorical Garden of Apparitio Albinus, a book I particularly love because it offers a kind of mixture of very different worlds: ingredients like time travel, giant jellyfish, flashes of alchemy, flying telepathic cities and countless creatures and monsters with all-too-human characteristics. And rather like Calvino’s Invisible Cities, this garden is a kind of place within the mind, within the soul… and just like the soul, the mind is a mysterious and complicated place, not infrequently with perverse overtones. A place where literary and artistic references intermix and intertwine.
From an artistic viewpoint, this work certainly brings to mind Roland Topor’s film Fantastic Planet, although filtered by a Latin American sensibility steeped in pre-Columbian iconography. On the other hand, certain illustrations vividly evoke Hieronymus Bosch, with their swarming jumble of tiny physically and anatomically deformed mutant creatures. Then there are the literary references: impossible not to think of Borges and his Book Of Imaginary Beings, but also the end of his Library of Babel; and certain encounters and copulations between mutant bodies evoke the Burroughs of Naked Lunch, whereas this work’s finale evokes ‘real’ alchemical procedures, with the Emerald Tablet of Hermes and its famous phrase “That which is below is like that which is above & that which is above is like that which is below to do the miracles of one only thing”. At the end of the book it is revealed that the garden is as infinite as the cosmos, but also that it is connected to an infinite number of other infinities, not only his personal garden but also mine and yours. In a sense, the universe which emerges is an interpenetration of marvels in which it is highly difficult to grasp where reality finishes and imagination begins, because fantasy too can be extremely concrete. It’s as though Claudio was acting as a kind of map-maker of his mental ecosystem, doing so with the zest of a biologist, an ethnologist and an entomologist, studying and describing all the details and behaviour of the fauna inhabiting it. From this point of view, the first question I’d like to ask concerns precisely reality and imagination. How do they interact, for you? For many artists this dichotomy is important, and the way they deal with it helps us to understand more about their art.

First of all, I’d like to thank Ivan, because he has presented a good reading of my book.
I have always thought that no author is autonomous, we all depend on someone, come from someone, we have an inheritance transmitted not through a bloodline but through a spiritual or conceptual bond, an inheritance received from birth through culture. Borges is my point of departure, the alchemical inscription, the science fiction, fantastical literature, popular literature… all these elements contribute to my work. When I construct these stories I am assembling a collage, a structure, in order to create parallel realities.
So, to answer Ivan’s question, I think that reality is something constructed by language, and so the dichotomy between reality and imagination doesn’t exist, because human beings inhabit language and language is a permanent and delirious construction.
I detest it when people talk about the reality of nature, or static nature. For me, reality is a permanent construction and language is the instrument which generates this construction.
This is why I take as models people like Borges, Bioy Casares, Athanasius Kircher (a Jesuit alchemist named as maestro of a hundred arts who created the first anatomical theatre and built a wunderkammer)… people who from very different backgrounds have constructed different realities.

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In this sense, the interesting thing is that the drawings and stories of Apparitio Albinus remind us of – or have a layer, we might say, that makes them resemble – the travel journals of explorers of long ago. Albinus could almost be a Marco Polo visiting a faraway land, where the image he paints is similar to a mediaeval bestiary, in which animals were not described in a realistic way, but according to their symbolic function… for example the lion was represented as an honest animal who never slept, because he was supposed to echo the figure of Christ… actually, Claudio’s animals frequently assume poses exactly like those seen in mediaeval bestiaries. There is also a gaze, a way of observing, that has something childish about it, a gaze always eager to marvel, to look for magic in the interconnection between different things, and I’d like to ask you if this child exists inside you, and how much freedom you allow him in your creative process.

When I first began creating books, I concentrated solely on the engravings, and technically engraving was extremely powerful for me. I was orthodox in my practice, but the great thing about the graphic novel is that its public is adult but also infantile, and the thing that interests me above all is showing and helping children understand that reality is soft.
The first book I made on this subject is called The Album Of Imprudent Flora, a kind of bestiary conceived and created to attract children and lead them towards science, botany, the marvel of nature… not as something static, but as something mobile. For example I described trees which held Portuguese populations that had got lost searching for the Antarctic: then they had become tiny through having eaten Lilliputian strawberries, and when they died they returned to a special place called Portugal… and then there were also plants which fed on fear and which induced the spirits on Saturn to commit suicide and the spirits on Mars to kill… and then die. I created a series of characters and plants whose purpose was to fascinate children. There was a flower that had a piece of ectoplasm inside its pistil, and if you put a mouse in front of that flower the pistil turned into a piece of cheese, and when the mouse ate the cheese the plant ate the mouse… after which, if a cat came by, the pistil turned into a mouse, and so on. The idea was to create a kaleidoscope of plants and flowers.
There was another plant which I named after an aunt of mine, extremely ugly, and in honour of her I gave this plant the ability to transform itself constantly: by day it was transfigured, and in certain moments it had a colloidal materiality, while in others it had a geometric structure… an absolutely mutant flower. This is all rather monstrous, but also fascinating, which is why I called the book “the imprudent flora”, because it went beyond the bounds of nature. Basically I think that when I draw I do it for children, in order to build up a way of interpreting reality in a broad and rich kind of way.

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This corporal fluidity is also visible in this latest book, but there’s another aspect that I also find interesting, and this is the inversions that Claudio likes to create. For example, Lazarus is not resurrected, he ends up transformed into ghost by the phantasmagorical machine; we get warrior automatons which reject violence and turn into pacifists and deserters, and then again, in one of my favourite chapters, there is a time machine, built to transport us into the future, which actually does the opposite, because it transports the future into our present – a future we’d never have wanted to see, because what appears in the present is the corpses we will become. It seems that irony is clearly important in your universe, and I’d like to you tell us about that.

That’s a good question. I’m glad you asked me, there are two wonderful themes involved.
One is the theme of the ghost, because for the phantasmagorical machine I based the idea on an Argentinian author called Bioy Casares and his The Invention of Morel. In that story, Morel is a scientist who falls in love with Faustina, and since she doesn’t love him, he invents a machine which will absorb her spirit, record it, and later, in a phantasmagorical island, reproduce it eternally… but the machine turns out to kill the people it has filmed, and so Morel commits suicide by filming himself together with Faustine, thus ending up on this island where every day the same scene is repeated, featuring these two ghosts. But the story really begins when another man arrives on the island, falls in love with the ghost of Faustine, learns to work the machine and then films himself while Faustine is gazing at the sea. So he too commits suicide in order to remain in the paradise of Faustine’s consciousness.
This is a hallucinatory theme, and I was fascinated by the desire of a man who kills himself in order to inhabit the consciousness of the woman he loves, even though the woman in question is actually a ghost!
And the other question… on irony. Most of the machines I construct in the book are fatuous failures and mistakes: those who want to change time end up meeting themselves as corpses, those who want to invent a machine for becoming immortal drop dead instantly and end up in an eternal limbo… I like talking about ghosts but also about failed adventures, as metaphors for life, because in real life every adventure is a failure… except for this journey to Italy, which has turned out to absolutely wonderful!

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A few days ago, on Facebook, I saw a fragment of a conversation in which you, Claudio, argued that the drawing and the word are not really so different, that the apparent distance between logos and image is fictional, which is why you use both things to express your meaning. You use them like two parallel rail tracks, in the same way, and this is also evident through the way that in your books the texts too have a painterly visual shape, and if it weren’t for the pristine paper of this edition, we might think we were looking at a fantastical encyclopedia from two or three centuries ago.
So, I wanted to ask a last question on this subject, perhaps the most banal question, which resembles the one always asked of songwriter-singers (which comes first, the words or the music?)… but do your visions emerge firstly from the drawing paper and only later do you form a kind of explicative text? Or do they emerge as stories from the beginning?

If I had to define myself, I’d say I was a drawing animal. All the books I have created were planned and drawn firstly, and the conceptual idea was generated by the image. Because I’m not really a writer, I never have been. I didn’t want to write this book either, only to draw it, but Lina [the editor] forced me to write it! I said to her, Lina, I have a friend who is fantastic with words, and she replied in a dictatorial tone: I’m not interested. I want you to write it. And today I’m grateful to her for that.
I always start from the drawing, always, always…

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The English version of Claudio Romo’s new book can be purchased here.