Marie Schröer on "Travel Sketches from Minsk"
Memorizing Minsk

Minsk © Reinhard Kleist

That graphic novelists always carried a sketchbook regardless of which genre they belonged to, is obvious: the sketchbook replaces the prose-forms of the notebook and the diary. It lends itself well to refining style and archiving memories.

Since the 1980s, at the latest since the 1990s, there has been a trend towards the autobiographical on the graphic novel scene. One of the milestones is, of course, Art Speigelman’s “Maus” (this is not to say that there were no autobiographical works well before this, but these were nowhere near as well received). After “Maus”, graphic novels from France and the US increasingly put personal destinies on the scene, often dealing with very serious subjects. The graphic novel offered a fresh space to find other images (and thus a catharsis to some extent) for illness, war, family traumas and neurosis. The realization that the graphic novel can be used not only as a medium to convey genre-based content but also to open up new perspectives on inner life resulted in the differentiation of autobiographical content. Similarly, graphic travelogues and blogs, which are subjective by definition, can ultimately be traced back to these graphic novel pioneers.

We now know that the term ‘graphic novel’ should be approached with caution and that the autobiographical aspect represents a genre only in part; it is much more about the approach to a text. While ‘graphic novel’ is still popularly used as a generic term, there is now a greater choice of descriptions when it comes to personal drawing. In the graphic novel section in bookstores, along with the usual genre of ‘comic book’, we also find graphic memoirs, graphic life narratives, graphic journalism, non-fiction graphic novels, comic journals and sketchbooks (French: carnets) and, a little bit more special, graphic travelogues and travel sketchbooks.

That graphic novelists always carried a sketchbook regardless of which genre they belonged to, is obvious: the sketchbook replaces the prose-forms of the notebook and the diary. It lends itself well to refining style and archiving memories. However, it was not until the success of autobiographical graphic novels as alternative provenance – most of which today would be referred to as graphic memoirs – that the publication of sketches become a common and popular part-time activity. Authors of comic genres and authors of autobiographical comics publish their graphic travelogues and, in the choice of places and manner of depiction, betray their subjective perspectives on countries, rituals, people.

As to the question of why travel and city sketches are so popular, there are innumerable answers. What this practice has to offer illustrators is pretty obvious. Drawing intensifies the travel experience because it sharpens perception. Give memories a physical shape: this subject was already part of the lesson plan – under ‘memory palaces’– at the Roman and Greek schools of rhetoric. It therefore comes as no surprise that an increasing number of lay people (under the catchphrase of ‘urban sketching’, for instance) are also reaching out for the sketchbook. Places, people and atmosphere are often better captured in a drawing than in a photograph (at least in the fast-food variety of smartphone photography). The intimate aura that emerges has a special charm for the viewer: when we look at drawings we feel as though we are looking over the author’s shoulder, are also a part of the ‘making of’ experience, are sharing the perspective of the artist, handmade and rough. Travel drawings help us, together with the author, to gain a better understanding of the places. Probably places about which we know about as much as a baby does about the third binomial formula. Minsk, for instance.

Reinhard Kleist posts his drawings online and the drawings consequently lose some of their homemade aura; paper, self-printed, lends itself better to drawings than monitors. Besides the fact that we would otherwise probably have been denied these drawings (there is as yet no book version), being able to view the compendium on the internet has one more advantage. We can compare drawings from Sri Lanka with drawings from Algeria; drawings from India with drawings from Bali; drawings from Jerusalem with drawings from Sicily. More than 12 countries are represented here. We can attest to the variety of styles, colours and moods. The studies of Minsk have little in common with the studies of Algeria, for example: pictures are reduced to the thick black line on a white background, so typical of Kleist. Drawing does not mean drawing. Eight images provide those of us unacquainted with White Russia with a first impression of the city and its inhabitants: young girls in folk costumes, military men standing at attention with iconic fur caps; pre-fabricated buildings in Soviet brutalist and socialist architectural styles that have adapted to the new conditions. The last-mentioned aspect, in particular, is wonderfully summarised in one of the sketches: it shows the façade of Dom Modi (the House of Fashion), decorated with an imposing communist bronze relief titled ‘Solidarity’. The name of a bank is emblazoned above the relief. A picture that stays in one’s mind. Probably as much in the mind of the artist as in the mind of the viewer. Sketchbooks archive impressions of a city and arouse curiosity about places.