A Sensual Fantasia from the Mind of Dave McKean: A Review of “Celluloid”
When it comes to the subject of erotica in art and literature, I consider myself to be a person of discerning tastes. Outside of John Cleland’s Fanny Hill: Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, the writings of Donatien Alphonse François, le Marquis de Sade, and D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, I have found most explicitly erotic literature to be banal and mechanical. So often, it merely serves a primal function, but rarely offers up anything more than titillation or sexual catharsis.
When it comes to art, a great example of this would be the erotic illustrations of Édouard-Henri Avril, one of the premiere pornographic artists of the late 19th Century, and an artist whose work I admire very much. However, while Avril’s work is splendid in its timeless appeal and subject matter, what it lacks, what it fails in, is that it’s fairly unimaginative and unexpressive. The compositions are predictable and the use of color is minimal and overly restrained. Though his illustrations succeed in providing an iconic visual counterpart to the erotic literature it accompanies, it rarely ever offers provocation of the mind or evocation of the emotions. In other words, it is simply visual eye candy displaying a wide range of physical experiences without the enrichment of genuine expression.
Yet there is another kind of erotic art that manages to do so much more than this.
Artists such as Gustave Courbet, Félicien Rops, Gustav Klimt, and Egon Schiele found their own unique way to convey erotic themes and ideas through artwork, and their works, while varying in style and predilection, all display a level of personality and expression that was unsurpassed during their lifetimes. This was art, not for the sake of arousal, but art for the sake of art and with the power to elicit feelings of passion, desire, loneliness, and introspection.
With the commercial rise of erotica in the late 19th Century and early 20th Century, there has been an ever outward-growing spiral of mediums to accommodate those in desire of exploring their carnality and sensuality vicariously through the creations of others. Today, we have artwork, literature, music, cinema, and countless other media with which to express ourselves, so unsurprisingly human desire has spilt over into all of these areas, although in some areas more than others.
One art form that has been proliferating in the public eye since the late 1930s is comic books and graphic literature. Strangely, with the exception of lasciviously humorous cartoons and buxom heroines in tight-fitting costumes (or no costumes at all, in some cases), the medium hasn’t explored sensuality as in-depth as other narrative mediums. Outside of Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie’s Lost Girls, it is difficult to think of one well-known work of erotic graphic literature… until recently.
Last year saw the publication of an exceptional work: Dave McKean‘s text-less graphic novel, Celluloid.
Celluloid, which was published in 2011 by Delcourt in Europe and by Fantagraphics Books in the United States, is perhaps a different kind of erotica than what people have come to expect. Firstly, it is a graphic novel, and unlike so many graphic novels, it does not revolve around superheroes, monsters, or crime. It’s a work of fantasy and like most works of fantasy, it is about a journey, but this book is about a journey inward into the sensuality of the human mind and into the mysteries of human desire. It is “fantasy” in the purest sense of the word.
There seems to be a frequent attitude in the Western World that sexuality is still a taboo, or if not a taboo, something that is acceptable only as the subject of jokes or commercial exploitation, but not socially acceptable within the realm of a serious dialogue or as a form of expression in the arts. Meanwhile, violence is continually paraded as entertainment. This has been true in almost all media, but even more-so in comics.
Dave McKean acknowledges this in saying, “There are so many comics about violence. I’m not entertained or amused by violence, and I’d rather not have it in my life. Sex, on the other hand, is something the vast majority of us enjoy, yet it rarely seems to be the subject of comics.”
Elaborating on his feelings about the majority of pornography, McKean states, “It’s rather awful visually and aesthetically, and it’s repetitive, and it’s rather dull, and it’s rather utilitarian. It ticks a box, but it really doesn’t do much else. So, I’m trying to do a book, and it would be nice to do a book, that would tickle the mind and the imagination, as well as other parts of the body.”
Taking the problems of erotic art into mind, McKean then set out to create an erotic comic that would defy convention and aspire to be more. And he has certainly excelled in this pursuit, for Celluloid is quite unlike any graphic novel seen in the mainstream publishing world. In part, this is due to the unapologetic sexual nature of the work, but more-so to do with the fact that McKean has chosen to not use literal narration or dialogue to tell his story. Perhaps this is because he found most of the dialogue in works of erotica to be redundant or perhaps he went this route as a reflection of his own love of silent cinema.
Celluloid is certainly deeply rooted within the world of films, of visual expression, and the act of watching. Whatever the reason, the book greatly benefits from the lack of text. Indeed, that’s part of what makes it so special. The story takes on an ambiguity and poetic quality, much like in a silent film, that allows for those reading (or viewing) the book to interpret it in different ways. It also makes the book wonderful to re-examine again and again, as each time one will notice that their mood or perspective alters their perception of the work, and in so doing deepens their appreciation of the artwork and story.
The story tells the tale of a woman who becomes sexually frustrated when her partner isn’t able to come join her at his Paris apartment and make love to her because he’s busy with work. So she resorts to taking a sensuous bath and then pleasuring herself on the sofa. However she finds herself drawn to a film projector in the apartment and an overpowering curiosity takes hold of her. As the images project onto the wall she realizes that the film is of an erotic nature, but before she can absorb the details of the film, the reel burns out.
Now, mysteriously in the place of the projection on the wall is a set of ornate doors leading into another world. She walks through them and finds herself in a strange, somewhat eerie, and very sexual new world where couples are making love in public view. At first shocked, then in turn amused and titillated, the woman wanders through the city streets and comes across another film projector. There are many projectors in this strangely sensual world and with each viewing of the film she is transported through a portal to another locale where she makes love to a startling vivid and intriguingly bizarre character.
During these surreal sexual encounters, she is given a passionate massage by a plethora of hands, she makes love to a nature goddess with fourteen breasts and grapes and grapevines for hair, is seduced by a very well endowed devil whom she satiates orally, and then finally arrives at the final stage of her journey where she has a passionate tryst with benevolent shadowy figure who emerges from a vulva-like structure in the ceiling.
Meanwhile the woman’s lover back in the “real world” comes home to their apartment and discovers the film projector and plays the reel of film… at which point it is revealed that his lover is the very woman in the film. Their eyes lock and the question remains: is this reality or is this a dream? And if so, whose dream is it, his or hers?
Artistically, McKean is in his element transitioning seductively from one style to another for each segment of his story. At times, the art has echoes of Klimt and Schiele, at times it is reminiscent of Odilon Redon, Pablo Picasso, René Magritte, Salvador Dalí, or Wiktor Sadowski, and yet it remains unique unto McKean’s own evolving style. His aesthetic here is the culmination of his influences, but also uniquely his own. One can see traces of his archetypal figures from the tarot decks he’s created (the lovers, the goddess, the devil, the shadow, etc.)
Each sequence of the story has its own texture, its own color palette, its own medium. Through monochromatic and expressionistic line drawings done in sepia tones, the world of reality is given a somewhat stark and perhaps even unflattering depiction, but within the realm of fantasy, things take on new shapes and colors as McKean incorporates sumptuous paintings, delicate collage imagery, and alluring photography, all the while breathing life and beauty into a surreal world of voluptuous fantasies. Because of this, the book’s episodic nature is all the more peculiar, as each of the protagonist’s lustful encounters takes on a unique aesthetic and sexual component, which not only speaks volumes of McKean’s own interests, but also allows for each individual reader to have a particular episode that they can relate to on a deeper level.
In the final examination, Celluloid is a stunning and rather elaborate enigma – a prismatic puzzle of the mind through which we can view the complexity and beauty of the full spectrum of human sensuality. As a graphic novel, it marks a shift in the paradigm and allows the medium to move forward in its maturity and encourages writers and artists in the industry to explore new ground. As a series of artworks, it is a captivating glimpse into McKean’s interests and his potential for continual growth and experimentation. As a work of erotica or pornography, it elevates its subject matter beyond the pits of commercial smut and exploitation, allowing its unabashed sexuality to be viewed as a celebration of mutual gratification between the mind and the body, between the genders, between solitary images and the sequential narrative. Celluloid is a sensual fantasia, a journey into a wonderland of physical ecstasy, and an opulent reverie to be shared.