An interview with Jens R. Nielsen “Illustration is the visualization of thoughts”

“To win a game” by Ulf K., illustration for the picture book “Kurz der Kicker”, Altberliner Verlag, © Ulf K.; Portrait of the illustrator Nina Takata by Jens R. Nielsen, © Jens R. Nielsen; A portrait of a woman holding a transparent comb in front of her face by Utamara Kitagawa, 1780's, License: public domain
“To win a game” by Ulf K., illustration for the picture book “Kurz der Kicker”, Altberliner Verlag, © Ulf K.; Portrait of the illustrator Nina Takata by Jens R. Nielsen, © Jens R. Nielsen; A portrait of a woman holding a transparent comb in front of her face by Utamara Kitagawa, 1780's, License: public domain | Photo (montage) © Ulf K.; Jens R. Nielsen

In Europe, using pictures to tell a story traditionally takes a back seat to narratives that are based on words, quite unlike the convention in the Asian cultural sphere. Jens R. Nielsen, illustrator, journalist and deputy board chairman of Germany’s Association of Illustrators, Illustratoren Organisation e.V., attempts a cultural comparison.

Mr Nielsen, this autumn, German comic artist Ulf K. will be instructing Japanese students in the art of manga drawing within the framework of an exhibition in Tokyo entitled “Die Deutsche Comic-Kultur” (i.e. German Comic Culture). What do you think of this idea?

I think it’s a great idea in principle, because it is always a positive thing when institutions such as the Goethe-Institut for example make a creative exchange between different traditions possible. Obviously, it would be interesting to know which “tradition” Ulf K. actually upholds, himself being a representative of a Western, European culture of illustration, and to what extent an exchange between Western and Far Eastern illustrative tradition is in fact possible if the illustrators taking part in the exchange perhaps do not speak the same illustrative language.

But we have long been living in a globalized world – are the differences between German and Japanese illustrative art still so big?

Of course, things are becoming increasingly homogenized, and there is above all a great mutual interest. I am quite certain that the Japanese students will be curious to meet Ulf K. and to find out how he works. After all, even though the Japanese manga market has become far more international in recent years and relies more on global licensing agreements, these are all comparatively new developments. The students are bound to be interested – and perhaps even amazed – to hear how it is possible to work and live as a freelance illustrator and in which fields illustrators in Europe work, both traditionally and today.

The distinction between text and image

Why should they be amazed?

Because the two traditions of illustration and writing are, at their core, extremely different. By Lessing’s era at the latest, the European history of illustration had become characterized first and foremost by a strict distinction between written and pictorial representation. At some point or another, people in Europe stopped questioning whether the way in which a written narrative functions actually differs essentially from the way in which pictures can be used to tell a story. To this day, Saint Gregory the Great’s verdict that pictures are self-explanatory still applies – despite the fact that no-one would be able to say any longer who or what is in fact depicted on an image from Gregory’s lifetime if it were not for the written literature that explains it.

Is this because the images are in fact not automatically self-evident to us?

Precisely. We understand little from an image if we do not know or no longer know its context. Writing is a quite different matter: it functions as a system of notation that has been emancipated from any interpretation. An “a” no longer has any “meaning” – it simply represents an “a”. Interestingly enough, there are characters in the Far Eastern tradition of writing and illustration whose meaning can be derived only from the context in which they are used, whereas images very often have iconic qualities which we in Europe would attribute solely to writing. Take for example a portrait of a courtesan by Kitagawa Utamaro. For him, any individual and “realistic” depiction of facial features is irrelevant.

Peculiarities of visual narration

What significance does this have for the standing of illustrative art in the two cultural spheres?

Particularly here in Germany, the visual portrayal of circumstances and thoughts – which after all is precisely what illustration is all about – still counts for little. “Illustration” is regarded as the servant of the medium of poets and philosophers: namely of writing. This is evident from the vehemence with which comics, pictorial narratives and caricatures have long by “bullied” by academic discourse: comics, so dictates academic common sense, were an exasperating mixture of restricted text and unaesthetic images. It only became accepted at a very late stage that comics and illustrations in general could represent a third means of communicating content, one that goes beyond the possibilities offered by alphabetical script and panel painting.

Can you give us an example of this “third means” of communication?

Take the famous graphic novels Art Spiegelman created about the Holocaust. The characters in Spiegelman’s Maus are depicted by the heads of animals. The Jews, for example, are mice, while the Germans are cats and the French are frogs. But what then is a French Jew? Who decides whether a camp inmate is a Jew? Spiegelman uses the medium of his drawings to discuss the question – of such core relevance to the Nazi ideology – of who has the right to force people into a labelling system that allows selection, humiliation and extermination. And in doing so he uses techniques that are fundamental to visual narrative: standardization of types, stylization, repetition and variation.

Although illustrations can have such great impact, the image of those who create them – illustrators – is not the best in Germany. Why is this in fact the case?

That is not an easy question to answer, as there are certainly many factors that play their part in this. In France, for example, the work done by caricaturists traditionally enjoys considerable appreciation – presumably because of the unbroken role illustrators and engravers have traditionally played as propagandists of progress ever since the French Revolution. In the land of poets and thinkers, however, “illustrators” were not even seen as those responsible for the creative output of images, an attitude that prevailed right up to the modern age. They were “merely” the ones whose skills in woodcarving, engraving or stonecutting made this creative output technically possible in the first place. Even today, illustrators still find themselves battling against precisely this image of being a service provider, a simple translator of the brilliant ideas of an author or artist.