Harry Clarke’s Hallucinatory Faust
Because of its innumerable characters and epical content, Goethe’s Faust has been infrequently performed. Considered a “closet play”, or one meant to be recited rather than staged, the 1st Part of Faust was completed in 1829, while the 2nd (veering as it does from the typical storyline of scholar-makes-pact-with-devil-in-exchange-for-esoteric-knowledge) was published posthumously in 1832. The play has been dramatized exactly twice, in 1938 and again in 2000, each version with a running time of around 21 hours. Faust is less suited to the limitations of the stage, and more toward the high production value of a CGI landscape.
Perhaps the closest we can come to watching Faust is the hyperbolic, nearly over-the-top and terrifying illustrations of Harry Clarke. Originally paired with the faithfully rhyming, meter for meter verse translation of Bayard Taylor, which was published in 1925 by Hartsdale House. The volume contained 70 monotype and duo type images from Clarke, as well as 8 color plates.
Born in Dublin in 1889, Clarke became an influential proponent of the Irish Arts and Crafts Movement. His first book illustrations to be published accompanied Fairy Tales by Hans Christian Anderson, followed by Poe’s Tales of Mystery and Imagination, which was reprinted in a collectible edition by Brentano’s, which collected 8 color plates in addition to the 24 drawings.
But Clarke’s Faust illustrations are considered the pinnacle of his career. Esteemed as a stained glass window designer, he brought his stylish, artsy configurations to Faust. Apart from the ghoulish representations themselves, a provocative rigidity permeates his aesthetics. His religious and secular stained glass tableaus are an elegant matrix of minimalist posturing and compression. Likewise with Faust, Art Nouveau motifs of barely recognizable human-like figures clash with the pure white space of the margins. Characters from the play morph into one another, redefining Goethe’s humanist context. More than simply personifying, Clarke’s depictions convey the thematic threads of Faust, digging into the inherent ontology of the play rather than just showing words with pictures. Clarke’s demonic, eloquent phrasing of heavily inked lines truncate the playwright’s philosophy into a consistent, and consistently disturbing Freudian Id. Formal almost to the point of Russian icon painting, Clarke’s Faust is also a structuralist statement about text and subtext.
Although an adherent to French Symbolism Clarke’s illustrations are unquestionably Art Nouveau, while also a subversion of that technique, toying as he does with the approaching Art Deco movement. And in the maelstrom of 1920s and ‘30s book illustrating, they also seem to have arisen from a crisis of genre, on the surface belonging equally to horror, fantasy, mythology, religion and the occult. Clarke’s Faust, rooted in the modes and compositional manners of his day, reaches into the graphics of the late 1960s; it is a series of artwork that could just as easily illustrate a 19th century German play as it could a psychedelic Beatles album.