Postmodernism in Austrian Picture Books

Postmodernism in Austrian Picture Books

Rabus, Silke

What Is Postmodernism?

“Cross the border-close the gup”1′, the literary critic Leslie A. Fiedler’s famous exhortation, formulated as early as 1969, is still essential in understanding postmodernism.2 he called forcefully for a postmodern writer who would combine the taste of the masses with those of the elite, popular with elitist art, realist with fantastic elements, reality with myth, bourgeois with fairy-tale features, professionalism with amateurishness. In spite of the controversy over the meaning, coverage, time of origin or end of “postmodernism,” his essay, based predominantly on literature, has laid the foundation for this general concept that has since found its way into various fields-especially architecture, but also art, philosophy, and the social sciences.

One point of consensus is that postmodern phenomena exist under conditions of pluralism of languages, models, and procedures.3 A postmodern work combines various languages, narrative levels, meanings, and codes, and addresses a multilayered target group from all social backgrounds and ages. In a permanent “cross-over,” the postmodern artist switches, mostly with ironic detachment, between different genres, styles, or techniques. S/he takes the hackneyed phrases out of their local or historical context, alienates them, and inserts them-in a playful way and often in the form of collage-in new combinations. In this way, the artist requires the recipient to use associative forms of reading that break with the common narrative conceptsirrespective of what the audience is actually able to decode.

Postmodernism in Austrian Illustrations

Of course, the concept of postmodernism can also be applied to narrative illustrations in picture books. In Austria, however, postmodern practices in picture books are rare-possibly for the simple reason that the market is small and experimental literature is barely in demand. Only a few illustrators use selected postmodern stylistic devices. This article presents four books, four examples of a multilayered, sophisticated, rare, and refined approach to picture book illustration in Austria: Monika Helfer/ Birgitta Heiskel, Rosie in New York (St. Polten: NP, 2002); Martin Auer/Linda Wolfsgruber, Prinzessin Rotznase (The princess with the snot nose; Weitra: Bibliothek der Provinz, 2000); Martin Auer/ Joachim Luetke, Der dreckige Prinz (The dirty prince; Stuttgart: Thienemann, 1997); Stefan Slupetzky, O Berta! Verschwinde aus diesem Buch (Oh, Berta! Disappear from this book; Munich: Parabel, 1997).

Monika Helfer/Birgitta Heiskel, Rosie in New York

Rosie in New York was awarded the Austrian prize for children’s literature in 2003. The text was written by Monika Helfer, a well-known Austrian female writer for adults. The pictures are by Birgitta Heiskel, a German illustrator who lives in Vienna and works as a freelance graphic designer.

The protagonist of this experimental picture book, the little girl Rosie, lives in New York; and New York is full of life. Together with her new friend, Loisl, Rosie strolls through the megalopolis and discovers its colors, shapes, sounds, and smells. Her friend Loisl could be described, because of his outfit, as a “postmodern” character: Loisl is a Black boy with an Austrian name, he has a Rasta haircut, and wears the traditional goldbuttoned jacket of the Alpine hunters. In seven episodes the two children meet people of different origins, age groups, and social backgrounds as well as magical characters created by their fantasy.

Take, for example, the Black nun, who always, if necessary, materializes by magic at the right place at the right time; or the Lithuanian girl, Ruta, who is sitting in the bag the nun carries. Now and then she wakes up as a fictitious main character from Rosie’s dearest book and into “real” life, thus subverting the traditional narrative schemes.

all encounters-however subjectively described or contrived they might seem-are quite humorous and warm, and at the same time they are mediated through a mixture of strictly objective and distant points of view: as if through the lens of a video camera, the reader experiences objects, persons, and places in order to distinguish the diverse facets of New York.

Like the text, the colorful, strongly outlined, and coarse pictures of Birgitta Heiskel reflect this shimmering but also crumbling visual surface of postmodern New York. In a rich, thick collage on a blue acrylic background, the illustrator inserts newspaper clippings, photocopied skyscrapers, wallpaper designs, and pictures of apples or avocados as well as the figures of the people in the bus, painted on wrapping paper with pastels. Because of the frequent background panoramas and figures cut at the picture’s edges, the strong impression one has is of accidentally made and superficial snapshots.

During one of their trips, Rosie and Loisl come across a celebration of American-Chinese friendship and help a little Chinese girl, whom we see in the middle of the picture, to find her grandma lost in the crowd. Here also Heiskel uses the technique of collage, often with lost and found objects that she herself has collected in New York: in front of a purple silhouette of some houses, she depicts Chinese writing and patterns of newspaper clippings, or a chain of Chinese lanterns. Chinese people-or more exactly, our cliches about them-are rendered by pieces of the old Chinese game Tangram. An advertising poster shows the well-known Marlboro man with his horse-one of the strongest symbols of American freedom, known all over the world-and on his side is a glued copy of a photograph of Allen Ginsberg.

In an associative and ironic way, Heiskel puts together apparently incoherent objects, symbols, and quotes in order to create a new context whether we understand the individual references or not, which is much more valid for children. She uses, among other items, photocopies of images, and makes the technical possibilities of modern reproduction obvious. Thanks to the common means of contemporary reproduction (cameras, scanners, faxes, copiers, etc.), the apparently inexhaustible repertoire of symbols, signs, or pictures can be used by anyone in a do-it-yourself manner. As a result of the various references of the postmodern picture book illustration, Heiskel has developed different levels of connotations. Therefore, Rosie in New York is aimed at a multilayered target group that includes adults as well as children.

Martin Auer /Linda Wolfsgruber: Prinzessin Rotznase (The Princess with the snot nose)

A similar technique to Birgitta Heiskel’s is employed by an illustrator from South TyrolLinda Wolfsgruber-who has been living for years in Vienna. At least the technique of both illustrators is similar in the picture book Prinzessin Rotznase. In the endless poem by Martin Auer, a famous Austrian children’s author, one day snot hangs out of a princess’s nose, and she refuses to wipe it off. This brings about an absurd chain reaction where prince, king, magician, witch, robber, watchman, grandmother, Gretel, and Punch (all figures belonging to the Punch and judy show) participate.

In order to discover more about the threedimensionality of her stereotypical protagonists, Wolfsgruber used sticks to make dummies of the book’s characters, borrowed from the Punch and judy show, and kept very strictly to the traditional idea of the appearance of her characters. Then she laid the dolls down on the copier, photocopied them, something by no means planned from the beginning, cut the copies out, put them on a paper background and moved them until they matched. Next she painted the figures and inserted them together with other objects and drawings into the distorted space in a witty way, showing much intuition and feeling.

Wolfsgruber plays ironically-humorously not only with the symbolic connotations of the figures borrowed from the Punch and judy show, but also with the meaning of the other inserted objects. She questions especially the more specifically narrative concepts when her illustrations bring the story back onto the stage, where it traditionally belongs.

Martin Auer/Joachim Luetke:

Der dreckige Prinz (The dirty prince)

Der dreckige Prinz (The dirty prince) was created jointly by Martin Auer and Joachim Luetke. It was published in 1997 and received the Austrian prize for children’s literature illustration the next year (1998). Der dreckige Prinz is the first and, until now, the only children’s book that the multimedia artist Joachim Luetke has illustrated.

“Once upon a time there was the son of a king who lived with his parents in a fairy-tale castle” is the beginning of this parody of a fairy tale, illustrated with acrylic, colored pencil, and airbrush, as well as with some additional digital assemblies, about a prince living in enchanted scenery-a fairy castle rising above green woods and overflown by white pigeons. This idyll is disturbed only by two graffiti punk mice, a hint of the already coming catastrophe.

Every time the growing son of the king wants to please his authoritarian mother with a regal or heroic deed (for example, eating on his own, or baking a delicious sand cake), she scolds him for his dirtiness and puts him into the bathtub. And so the very clean fairy-tale (where even the carefully elaborated pictures seem to be clean and sterile because of the airbrush effects) takes its course.

The king’s son-we don’t even know his name, therefore the reader endows him with other stereotyped connotations-grows older, and one day a huge, bad dragon actually appears. One of the illustrations shows the prince sleeping soundly at the back of his gigantic room lit by the pale and mysterious light of the moon. In the foreground of the wide room, his toys are scattered: building blocks, a rocking horse, wood figures, and some lifeless-looking toys-a Punch and a crocodile. On the right side, the other wall of the room zooms in. And there, on the level of the story, so to say, an enormous dragon freed out of the text rushes forth brutally from the sunny flat child’s drawing that the prince has once, as a child, drawn under the pressure of his extremely powerful mother. The crocodile-like dragon comes to life, and so does another character, who appears to be created because of the unrealized dream of a possible former ego: a little cavalier. he tries in panic to wake up the sleeping child, who presumably wears (hardly by coincidence) a night cap that reminds one rather of a fool’s cap.

Here Luetke once again confronts the reader with the postmodern crossing of the border between reality and fiction. But Luetke does not only play with the different levels we find in narrated reality; he also juggles with the handeddown meanings of characters like, for example, the dragon and the prince, the Punch and his crocodile, the cavalier and the damsel in distress. all these characters, like those in the Prinzessin Rotznase (The Princess with the snot nose), are loaded with a rich and symbolic language of commonly shared knowledge, which is obviously read and understood by the readers too; so are the two landscape abstracts by Peter Paul Rubens that are naturally part of the postmodern game with hackneyed images.

Back to the story: the king’s son actually kills the dragon, at least the story says so, while the illustrations leave the ending open, and it is doubtful whether the continuation of the story is “real” or whether it is only the prince’s wish or dream. And again the mother, instead of being pleased with his victory, complains about the bloodied, dirty armor of her son. And so he becomes the cleanest king the kingdom ever had.

he travels around the whole country in his traveling bathtub to inspect his subjects on the cleanliness of their fingernails and ears. This rather absurd text is depicted by Luetke through a wildly mixed combination of characters from different epochs and various genres: in the background of the market square, lined up in a long row, we see a punk, a spy, a woman in modern clothes, a lady in a nineteenth-century outfit accompanied by a child in modern clothes, a vampire, a Bavarian farmer, and a shabbily dressed boy. They are being examined by a valet dressed in what is perhaps an eighteenth-century costume. And finally in the right corner, not only various human hands are depicted, but also hooves, paws, and prehensile feet of different (sometimes fictitious) animals waiting for the inspection of their nails. Here again we see the playful mixture not only of characters, but also of genres or historical contexts, and again it is not necessary to decode all the references the illustrator has established.

Stefan Slupetzky: O Berta! Verschwinde aus diesem Buch (Oh, Berta! Disappear from this book)

Consider next the picture book O Berta! Verschwinde aus diesem Buch (Oh, Berta! Disappear from this book), written by the Viennese author and illustrator Stefan Slupetzky, which displays primarily postmodern features that refer to the action and thus obviously differs from the already discussed examples. The protagonist of the book is an apparently very well brought-up girl named Berta: To be precise, she would gladly be the central figure, but the first-person narrator-presumably her father-tries to expel her from his story. “This book is (…) not for you,” he says, “It is only for adults.”

Then he begins to tell stories that he likes; for example, one about the two cowboys Honzo and Django who are standing in the middle of a prairie and a gunfight is imminent. Not only do the text and the language supply us with the stereotypes of the genre of the Western, but also the illustrations in pencil, India ink, and watercolor show us the various stereotypical requisites of the Western: there is the wide infinity of the prairie, the flat horizon, the skull of a dead cow, the clothes, behavior, gestures, and mimicking of the cowboys.

And there is Berta, who courageously breaks the order of the story: legs apart, she points her two Colt revolvers at the observer, while a horse, indispensable for a Western, puts his head into the frame of the picture. Slupetzky connects, very cleverly, by means of similarity of colors, shapes, or content, the represented objects and figures from the Western paradigm on the left with those of the domestic kitchen setting presented in the “reality” on the right. Soon afterwards the firstperson storyteller forces the girl once more to leave the story, a story that is meanwhile in tatters, in order to start a new, science fiction, story.

Here again the author creates a complex narrative; the narrative traditions and the borders between the different levels of the story are transgressed by the delightful scout trip or by different (film) genres. And neither does the reader know at the end who the storyteller actually is, nor is the target group clearly defined. After having read the book, the reader knows only one thing: that the lightning changes between different conventions in the story can be easy and amusing, when the framework of the respective genre is commonly known. Slupetzky parodies, in addition to the Western and the science fiction thriller, other popular genres as well: an adventure story with Robin O’Schmuso or a vampire story with Graf Schlappula…


To conclude, one could say that postmodern illustrations in Austrian picture books are characterized mainly by the usual topics and techniques of postmodernism, for example, the mixing of conventions from well-known and quite popular genres (especially fairy tales, crime stories, science fiction, Western, or adventure stories). They are quoted, parodied, reinterpreted, or just mixed together. The artists often remove famous images or characters full of symbolic connotations from their local and historical environment and insert them in other contexts. They frequently use the technique of collage and present pieces of newspapers, flowers, or advertisements, fitting them in new and playfully arranged settings. They also play ironically with both fictitious and realistic narrative structures, adding further levels of meaning and broadening the range of the possible target groups.

Additionally, there is also a specific way of managing this postmodern mixture in Austrian illustrations: the provocative way of challenging not only the seriousness of traditional images and stories but the shiny and glossy surfaces of postmodern art through the use of abrasive elements (most often collage or some other formal elements) that also leads to strong discords.

1. Leslie A. Fiedler, “Uberquert die Grenze, schließt den Graben! Uber die Postmoderne” (Cross the border, close the gap! About Postmodernism), Wege aus der Moderne. Schlusseltexte der Postmoderne-Diskussion, ed. Wolfgang Welsch (Weinheim: VCH, Acta Humanoria, 1988), 57-74.

2. Wolfgang Welsh, “Introduction,” Wege aus der Moderne. Schlusseltexte der Postmoderne-Diskussion (Ways from the modernity. Key texts of the postmodern discussion, ed. W. Welsh; Weinheim: VCH, Acta Humanoria, 1988), 22.

3. see Welsh, 10.

Silke Rabus is a literary and an critic who lives and works in Vienna. She is an expert in the promotion of reading.

Translated by Diana Atanassova

Copyright Bookbird, Inc. Feb 2004

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