Jean Gourmelin: Tenants of the Void

« It’s true that Gourmelin’s world has everything to unsettle the general public: it contains as much horror as black humour, as much morbidness as sombre poetry. But to classify his drawings in a well-defined genre is a hopeless enterprise, and we well know how our times need clear, idiotic and exact labels. This relegates Gourmelin to some fuzzy area, a sort of no man’s land where one can find anything — even fanatics — but never a thing to eat or to drink. » — from the artist’s presentation in the anthology Les chefs-d’œuvre du dessin d’humour* (1965, Les éditions Planète; ).

While France’s Jean Gourmelin (1920-2011) started out as a painter and practiced — and often mastered — scores of artistic techniques and media (etching, technical drawing, sculpture, stained glass, wallpaper design, and so on…), he’s more commonly remembered for his stark black and white, wordless pen and ink drawings. Even as they remain open to interpretation, their power and eloquence are undeniable.

While his earliest drawings appeared in print sporadically from 1951, his crucial turning point was his 1961 encounter with Belgian writer-historian Jacques Sternberg, who encouraged Gourmelin to emphasise, in his work, idea over form. This canny shift in approach soon landed his newly-galvanised work in the pages of Planète, crucially, but also those, just as notable, of Bizarre, Midi-minuit Fantastique, Pariscope, Hara-Kiri… with occasional forays into other media, for instance some striking production design for a 1967 TV adaptation of Gustav Meyrink‘s classic novel, The Golem. Here’s an unexpected (and fine!) article in English about Gourmelin’s work on the film.

Here, then, are some (dark) highlights of Gourmelin’s work in the 1960s.

This one is entitled « En famille ».
Ever had one of those weeks?
This piece appeared in Les chefs-d’œuvre de l’épouvante (1965, Les éditions Planète), accompanying Claude Farrère‘s classic 1928 short-short story, Le Train perdu, which you can read here (in the original French). Gourmelin also provided the anthology’s arresting cover and frontispiece artwork. Maybe next time…

-RG

*It says something (flattering, if you ask me) about the Gallic character that Gourmelin’s work would fall under the category of “humorous”. We’re a looong way from, say… Dave Barry.