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Sri Lanka Galle© Reinhard Kleist (Detail)

Stefan Mesch on "Travel Sketches from Sri Lanka"
The art of omission

The worst thing I can say about Reinhard Kleist – the most successful comic book author in the reviews and feuilletons of the German-speaking world? He often illustrates and narrates in a way that I believe matches the international image of an immensely popular German comic book artist:
 
In ‘Family Guy’, the Simpsons-like sitcom - full of bizarre comparisons, Peter complains about his wife: “You get me down more than a German bedtime story.” We see Little Suck-a-Thumb from ‘Struwwelpeter’: “There once was a boy who liked to suck his thumbs. His mother asked him to stop, but he wouldn't. So she cut off his thumbs. Now he has no thumbs. Good night.”
 
Rammstein plays grim music. Werner Herzog creaks interviews, sarcastically, often dry as a bone. Reinhard Kleist loves noir, deep shadows, sad, broken gentlemen in black and white, images in muted tones, male biographies about lonely men, few words in male worlds, chokes on standards of manliness. “Herrenschokolade” (Gentlemen’s Chocolate) is extra bitter. Kleist’s comics are extra menacing, existential. Good night?
 
In 2017, Kleist illustrated the songs of the singer and songwriter Ajith Kumarasiri at the Goethe-Institut Colombo. He worked in real time during the concert – drawing 'live’. “Travel drawings” on Kleist’s website has 10 to 20 motifs from each of over 12 countries, often the result of other ‘live drawing’ performances.
 
The Sicily drawings are ever so colourful, full of effects, charged. Vietnam? More intricate, delightfully detailed. In Egypt, Kleist sketches statues with surfaces in stunning contrast. Algeria is painted in watercolour, playful colouration.
 
Kleist’s 14 (often double-page) Sri Lanka drawings come particularly close to the aesthetic of several Kleist comic books: pronounced shadows, male bodies and faces, twilight. A good introduction!
 
‘Urban Sketching’ is now so common and popular – when looking at Kleist’s work, I notice how often in my online routine I give ‘likes’ to people with a notebook or iPad, who work hard, put in a great deal of effort and often use colour to reproduce a picturesque cityscape, often extra picturesque and realistic.  However, the first book on the subject of urban sketching that is suggested to me is: "Die Kunst des Weglassens" (The Art of Omitting).
 
Reinhard Kleist’s strokes carry authority. His art lies in omitting; often also in expanding, curving, wearing away, keeping it rough. He shows temples, shrines, a bar or bakery, street scenes, bicycles, a naked light bulb illuminating a Buddha. Is this Sri Lanka, 2017? Should I be disappointed because 14 drawings do not capture Sri Lanka in its entirety, all its myriad colours, its rich details?
 
Having accepted Kleist’s fundamentals (men in male milieus, shadows, blinds/grilles, an often menacing black) and reading his longer graphic novels, I encounter diversity, refraction, ranges: "Berlinoir" and "Dorian" are splendidly colourful; Kleist’s graphic biography of Johnny Cash does not make his biography of Nick Cave redundant; the graphic novel about the Jewish boxer Hertzko Haft in Auschwitz stands alongside "Knock-Out" (2019) about the boxer Emile Griffith, African-American, gay, World Champion in 1961. Duos, often chains. Invariably similar tones. Yet completely different sequences, chords.
 
I am happy when acquaintances read out “An Olympic Dream” in a school or use it in a classroom, my favourite Kleist: at the age of 17, the sprinter Samia Yusuf Omar participated in the 2008 Beijing Olympics. She wants to run in London in 2012 – and what her life tells us about migration, racism, Europe’s arrogance, is captured by Kleist in pictures: accessible, urgent, unforgettable.
 
I meet a comic book artist from Spain and ask why so many Italian and Spanish illustrators manage to fill book after book at DC Comics or Marvel Comics, while I can of virtually no German who was allowed to create Gotham City. "It’s the other way around. The market in France and, increasingly in Germany, is robust enough for it to be worthwhile for artists to work on their own projects, material. We Spaniards can only live off drawing if we take on commissions from the US."
 
Reinhard Kleist would be great as an illustrator of “Catwoman” or “Old Man Hawkeye”; and the Canadian Jeff Lemire illustrates indie comics in a style that is pretty similar to Kleist’s Sri Lanka drawings. Since the US edition of “Cash”, Kleist - with his own materials and projects - has indeed attracted increasing international attention.
 
I think because Kleist’s Coney Island, Kleist’s Havanna, Kleist’s southern countries often seem to be endowed with a style that is more confident than that used in the works of many local artists. Spaghetti Westerns, filmed in Italy, never has the same effect as US films. Yet one indulges in the...westernness of the West. With panache, Kleist the artist surrenders to the spaces opened up by his materials: shadows are always there, muted tones, grumpy, wasted male faces.
 
But a second look surprises us by revealing much more: dashes of colour, queerness, striking female figures. Created by someone who takes space and setting so seriously that I trust him increasingly with any era, any continent.
 

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