Alex in the London schools partnership project writes:
The Art of the Chronicler
The Memoir of the Century, by Feliks Topolski, is an expressive record of life during the Twentieth Century. In its scope it is both global, in the attention it gives to major world events, and immensely personal, giving a view of history through the experience of the artist himself. As my colleague Arshad and I discussed the personal interpretation that Topolski gave to his work we decided that his artistic response to the memoir would somehow focus on the artist’s interpretation of the event.
Since the early 20th century photography has become the primary means of presenting images of current affairs to the public. While the photograph arguably offers the most realistic depiction of events, it is a shame that its rise has inevitably resulted in a decline in the use of drawings as a method of portraying current affairs. The drawings of Feliks Topolski prove that charcoal is as important a medium for recording public life as the camera. One only has to look at Topolski’s Chronicle to appreciate this fact. An alternative to other newspapers, it was produced by Topolski using a printing press in his studio. It integrated his insightful drawings with columns of writing on current events, providing an artistic interpretation of modern life.
The process of drawing involves the artist observing what he sees and then translating this into marks on a surface. This means that a drawing is never just a reproduction of reality. It is a reality that has been interpreted by the mind of the artist. One cannot help but feel this human touch in the 3,000 plus drawings in Topolski’s Chronicle and his Memoir of the Century. All the faces, all the events, are presented by the work of his hands, ensuring the viewer never feels disconnected from the humanity of what is going on. The loose dynamism of Topolski’s drawings, which comes from a lifetime of practice, binds all his images together, creating a cohesive style which makes even the most alien of events appear familiar and the oldest of events fresh, a living history.
Having decided to try and revive the role of drawing in the field of journalism, Arshad and myself now needed to decide on what form that his artwork would take. Looking particularly at Topolski’s Chronicles, Arshad chose to use the format of a newspaper spread as the basic structure. This represented Topolski’s role as a recorder of events and paid homage to his work, the Chronicle. The newspaper format would then contain Arshad’s drawings of figures in 20th century history that we felt were important. Topolski had also drawn many of these figures, namely; Malcolm X, Ghandi and Martin Luther.
When it came to the style in which these figures should be drawn we faced a problem. ‘Should we emulate the style of Topolski or go for something totally different?’ After much thought we came to the conclusion that the essence of Topolski’s drawing is not found in the way he made his marks or the colours he used, it was his personal approach that made him so recognisable. Topolski was a great recorder of world events; he drew from life, having been witness to defining moments in the 20th century. The expressive nature of his memoir goes right to the heart of the issues it addresses. In Topolski’s dramatic full figure portrait of Malcolm X, the twisting lines that describe Malcolm’s figure emphasise his strength of character, his burning conviction. The drawing thereby offers us a unique insight into Malcolm’s character through its interpretation by Topolski. By giving his own personal interpretation Arshad does the same. His portrait of Malcolm X shows Malcolm as a leader and a thinker. By using subtle shading and juxtaposing his portrait with quotes said by Malcolm, he is presented as a man with depth, his hand raised, delivering a speech about what he believed in. Arshad took his own approach to all the figures, presenting them as he thought best. The fact that both Topolski and Arshad present Martin Luther in a similarly philosophical, dignified state of mind and Ghandi as a man of compassion is perhaps testament to the fact that through drawing one is able to capture the essence of the subject.
The most striking part of Arshad’s artwork is his portrait of Tupac, the hip-hop artist who sang about the need for changes in the inner cities of the USA, but was tragically shot down. The use of the 2-tone noir style and Tupac’s direct eye contact with the viewer is more penetrating than any photo. This dramatic impact is also found in Topolski’s Memoir of the Century, most notably in his depiction of members of the Black Panthers in jail. By using artistic licence both Feliks Topolski and Arshad have been able to connect directly with the spirit of the times.
By placing a portrait of himself at the centre of his work Arshad has got to the heart of what we have been exploring. All of the events in this piece are interconnected by Arshad’s interpretation of them. This is our tribute to the work of Feliks Topolski, who not only created a Memoir of the 20th century; he gave a truth to the history by making it deeply personal. By painting and drawing instead of using the camera the works are made more expressive and subjective. Incredibly, Topolski himself witnessed all of the events in the memoir. While Arshad and myself were not fortunate to have such extraordinary encounters, we were at least able to carry on Topolski’s message of making history about individual experience and not just about the textbooks.
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