Roland Topor (1938-1997)
Roland Topor was born in 1938 in Paris, where his Polish-Jewish immigrant parents settled. Soon after they were tracked down by the Vichy regime, they escaped from Pithiviers internment camp. They sought refuge in Savoy where the young Roland spent his childhood. His artwork testifies to the trials of war and Holocaust that marked him profoundly and indelibly.
Enrolled at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris in 1955, he renounced the traditional painter’s career to follow the path of Siné (1928-2016) in cartoon illustration (drawings, both humorous and disturbing). His first drawing was published in Bizarre, Jean-Jacques Pauvert’s review of Dadaist and Surrealist dark humour in July 1958. His character donning a bowler hat, a nod to both Magritte and ‘the Tramp’ (Charlot), dates to this period. From 1961 to 1966 he contributed to the satirical journal Hara-Kiri (the ‘stupid and nasty newspaper’) which was begun in 1960 by François Cavanna and Georges Bernier (‘Professeur Choron’).
Topor’s violent and intellectual humour quickly conquered a sensible public, followed shortly by official success: he received the Grand Prize for dark humour in 1961, as publishers offered him book illustration jobs. This was the beginning of an activity he would develop (more than 100 books) across genres, from illustrating pocket book covers to an entire collection, of texts to which he felt affinities, whether by a friend (André Ruellan’s Manual Of How-To-Die, dark humour award; Jacques Sternberg; Boris Vian), to French and foreign classics (i.e.: Marcel Aymé’s novels), to encyclopaedias. Aiming to reach the greatest number of people, Topor collaborated with the newspaper Le Monde, Elle magazine, The New York Times, Libération, and Die Zeit.
Roland Topor did not, however, consider himself to be a news illustrator – his contributions are rarely linked to current events – or even as purely an illustrator for publishing. This is evidenced by his creation of the movement Panique with Fernando Arrabal and Alejandro Jodorowsky in 1962, a movement devoid of any artistic dogma, except that of a total and joyous freedom and the abolition of all taboos. He first aimed at André Breton who wanted to impose what was considered his derisory authority on the aging group of the Surrealists. Panique would gather informally until the end of the 1990s, its members including plastic artists, writers, and performers (including Christian Zeimert, Sam Szafran, Olivier O. Olivier, Diego Bardon, Jacques Sternberg, Jérôme Savary, and André Ruellan).
Topor remained fundamentally independent, but identified himself as an artistic heir of Marcel Duchamp – a trailblazer who fostered Dadaism, Surrealism, and Conceptual Art. Topor accordingly frequented artists such as Jean Tinguely, Robert Filliou, Daniel Spoerri, Erik Dietman, and Pol Bury. In his studio in 1966, Peter Bramsen introduced Topor to the linocut technique in order to make posters. Here, Topor met other avant-gardists some of whom, such as Pierre Alechinsky, would become his friends.
Although he did claim to be an ‘artist’ (see exhibition 1960-72, Douze ans d’Art contemporain [Twelve Years of Contemporary Art], at the Grand Palais), Topor’s work was nevertheless ironic and derisive toward many contemporary movements and trends, as testifies a video that he created. Served by an extraordinary propensity for conceptualisation, he always sought to amuse himself by upsetting any and all conformism, whether imposed by the art market or by intellectuals.
Endowed with a polymorphic and prolific genius, Topor broke down barriers between different artistic activities: he acted in and designed the credits for William Klein’s 1965 film Qui êtes-vous Polly Maggoo?, and was given other roles, such as in Werner Herzog’s 1979 film Nosferatu, fantôme de la nuit. He designed posters for Volker Schlöndorff’s 1978 film Tambour, which travelled the world; and he made drawings such as those for La Lanterne magique sequence in Fellini’s 1975 Casanova. He designed and animated films with René Laloux, including La Planète sauvage, a science-fiction masterpiece that received the Special Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 1973. Opera set designs and costumes were entrusted to him for Georg Ligeti’s Le Grand Macabre in Bologna in 1978, Kristof Penderecki’s Ubu Rex in Munich in 1991, and Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi, which he also staged, at the Théâtre National in Chaillot in 1992. Early on, he also devoted himself to writing, which propelled him into the literary avant-garde. As early as 1960 he published L’Amour fou, a short story thumbing its nose to Breton, who abhorred science fiction. In 1964 Topor published his first novel, Le Locataire Chimérique, adapted for the screen by Roman Polanski in 1976. This marked the beginning of a long series of short stories, poems, plays, film scripts, songs, and sketches for television shows: in 1982 he created Merci Bernard with Jean-Michel Ribes, television programme caustic and burlesque in spirit. In 1983 with Henri Xhonneux he created the children’s programme Téléchat, in which puppets parody the T.V. news. In addition, he made books which are considered artistic objects in themselves, such as pastiche books (Le Bateau ivre) and gag books (Le Livre à boutons).
This creative frenzy of an art that aims to be universal in its forms of expression and its audiences, and which displays a dark or eccentric humour mixed with the absurd (its scatology—an obsession with defecation—, sex, and violence) reveals Topor’s own conception of life. The severely serious tone however must be taken lightly, especially in this world, the well-being of which conceals the bestiality of man capable of monstrosities.
‘I am panicked, and I am laughing.’
‘Error as laughter is the characteristic of man.’
‘The sweet violence of imagination consoled, as best it could, the bitter violence of reality.’
Topor’s deeply subversive attitude is also expressed in his contributions to humanitarian causes, such as Amnesty International’s campaign against the torture of political prisoners in 1976, for which he drew a man with a hammered jaw, a symbol of oppressed expression.
The birth of his son Nicolas in 1963 inspired Topor to practice resilience through the exploration of dreams and tenderness. His creative output did indeed target the youth from 1970. In La Planète sauvage for example, through drawings populated by spooky creatures surrounding a sleeping child, he sought to teach resistance to human violence and the pursuit of peace.
The fruit of an imagination as unbridled as it was prolific, Topor’s essentially surrealist art makes frequent reference to the past. The most evident references in painting are Hieronymus Bosch, Goya, Félicien Rops, and Magritte. Gustave Doré’s engravings inspired Topor to adopt the classic technique of hatching to give relief and density to his compositions. While black and white dominated his very first works of concise style, the 1970s saw the appearance of colour in his work: watercolour, coloured pencil and India ink, and in the early 1980s, aerosol paintings.
Roland Topor died in an accident in 1997, leaving a prolific oeuvre, simultaneously full of anguish and joy: the reflection of a wounded man, but a fundamental humanist nevertheless.
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http://www.newsoftheartworld.com/roland-topor-at-the-bnf-portrait-of-a-free-spirit/?lang=en , https://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/15/arts/international/art-with-a-childs-tools.html
Art works from Roland Topor
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