Artistic darkness – Barbara Yelin

Barbara YelinBarbara Yelin’s use of the pencil can only be described as masterly. The artist, who was born in Munich and now lives in Berlin, has demonstrated this with the comic Gift (i.e. poison: Reprodukt Verlag, 2010), a cooperative work with Peer Meter, who wrote the texts. The story of Gesche Gottfried, a poisoner who lived and died in Bremen, stands out most of all by means of the artistic manner in which it deals with darkness. Yelin has developed a unique artistic form with pencil drawing, one that perhaps only Isabel Kreitz equals in the German-language cultural area.

Slideshow Barbara Yelin

In Gift we find powerful black-white contrasts. In this way, Yelin succeeds in effectively producing a dense atmosphere. But at the same time, she makes use of a further asset of the pencil: it can be blurred. Thus, sharp contrasts blend into an indefinite more-or-less. Street views, for instance, dissolve into an impenetrable fog, upwards into the skies, house fronts, stairwells and cellar rooms are transformed into impenetrable mazes and trail off into an opaque darkness...

Proximity to the medium of film

Yelin’s great skill lies in her modelling of areas of light: Gift presents spaces that are flooded with light, indeed are created by light in the first place, penetrating into the leaden darkness and and snatched from it. For this reason, the images seem peculiarly spatial and illuminated, an aesthetic effect reminiscent of Piranesi’s celebrated dungeon images – richly contrasted, theatrical scenes. In this way, Yelin reveals magnificent images of sublimity even in the most terrifying darkness.

But this art-historical reference should not distract us from the fact that Gift is a comic, an art form that is still quite young, scarcely older than film, and that moves in close proximity to film, particularly where changes in our visual habits are concerned. It is therefore hardly surprising that Yelin’s picture series are often similar to camera tracks: from the roofs of Bremen’s Old City, we gradually descend into the lower levels of the streets, and thus into the story, as well.

Great success internationally

However, there is still something else that astonishes one about Yelin’s work: in Germany she has scarcely been published to date (she was finally awarded the Frankfurt Book Fair’s Sondermann Comic Prize in 2009). By contrast, the French seem to appreciate her work more. Her first major works were published there. Thus Le Visiteur (Èditions de l’An 2, Angoulême 2004), also a very moving pencil work narrative about a friendship between a raven and a little girl. Here, too, Yelin’s powerful staging of light is what impresses most.

But Yelin’s aesthetic preferences are not limited to the pencil. For example, a coloured-pencil comic appeared – again in France – in 2006: Le Retard (Éditions de l’An 2, Angoulême). Here, it is the colours that wrest a great deal of dynamic vitality from a dreary backgroung grey: a dramatic scenario, a love story about people blindly driven that takes its course about as turbulently as brightly-coloured leaves in a cold autumn storm.

Colour also plays an essential part in her comic reports from distant countries. In 2011, Yelin lived and worked for a few months in Egypt. As a guest of the Goethe-Institut Cairo, she experienced the Arab Spring and documented these thrilling days before the elections with drawings, sketches and short scenes. She led a three-week workshop with Egyptian comic artists on the theme Revolution Comics. In autumn 2012, an invitation from the Goethe-Institut India followed. In New Delhi, Yelin observed the conference Indo-German Urban Mela for two weeks and documented her impressions in a colourful online blog. Her very personal, humorous daily comic strip Riekes Notizen also arose from these experiences. It appeared in the daily newspaper Frankfurter Rundschau between October 2011 and June 2012.

Dynamic light and colour effects

With colour, Yelin’s drawings become more planar, but nonetheless more dynamic. This becomes very evident in her comic Stand-By (published in the anthology Pomme d’amour, Die Biblyothek, 2008). This story about a run-away girl captivates above all through the light and colour atmospheres in which Yelin immerses her various scenarios. Here, colour functions quasi as a barometer of inner states.

Thus, Yelin aims at far more than simply illustrating stories. It is much more the case that she is at work on the repertory of comic forms. Its aesthetic always follows other logics besides merely narrative ones. That colour, for example, can also be an indicator of emotions does not mean that they simply serve as indicators for signalising something. Instead, the colour always “conceives of itself” in relation to the spectrum of other colours. This relationality wrests what the colour depicts from its “natural” context and location, thus opening the way to spacious fantasy worlds.

Yelin’s pencil works therefore always contain a certain seriousness, but her colour tableaux are characterised by an enchanting insouciance or, with respect to aesthetic form, playfulness. This is most evident in her shorter and experimental narratives such as those in the comic anthology Spring, of which Yelin is a co-editor. All that remains is to hope that Barbara Yelin’s work will finally receive greater recognition in Germany, too.

Yelin regularly accepts the challenge of new thematic areas. In 2011, together with author Mona Horncastle, she developed two art comics for Prestel Verlag: The graphic biographies of Vincent van Gogh and Albrecht Dürer are intended to introduce children to these celebrated artists.

Christian Schlüter obtained his doctorate in philosophy and works as an editor for the arts pages of the Frankfurter Rundschau.

Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Internet-Redaktion
January 2013

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    Delhi Sketchbook

    The comic artist Barbara Yelin drew a diary during her stay at the Indo-German Urban Mela in New Delhi.