Twenty years after the death of Roland Topor, the BNF is organising a large retrospective of his work. The specialist of Topor, Alexandre Devaux, and the institution’s curator, Céline Chicha-Castex, have taken on a giant challenge: to pay tribute to an extremely prolific artist who explored all media, taking in illustration, cartoons, lino cuts, prints, theatre sets, and much more. Together they paint a portrait of a man whose irresistible work shone with anguished humour and total freedom. Here is a brief overview of a very independent and unique artist.
Imagination, a requisite for survival
Topor was born in Paris in 1938 to Polish Jewish parents who had emigrated to France in 1930. His father was imprisoned in Pithiviers in 1941. The young Roland accompanied his mother and sister to visit him in prison and the sight of his father eating from a bucket with the rest of the prisoners stamped itself on his imagination forever. When his father succeeded in escaping, the whole family learned to lie to protect him. “The notion of the lie in his work is very important”, explains Alexandre Devaux. “He often explains that images lie but that reality lies too. For him, imagination was a requisite for survival, a form of resilience”. The Topor family later took refuge in the countryside where Roland discovered rural life and a new relationship with death. These powerful memories from his childhood cropped up throughout his career, along with neurosis and anxiety.
A free spirit
Wishing to become a painter, Roland Topor enrolled at the Beaux-Arts, where in the end he joined the engraving workshop run by Edouard Goerg. When he came across the book Complaintes sans paroles by Bob Siné, his eyes were opened to a whole new culture. He was already into surrealism, black humour, pataphysics, he became interested in a dark humor inherited from American illustrators like Saul Steinberg.
This was the period in which Topor established himself as a completely independent artist on the French scene, a position he would maintain throughout his career. He refused to restrict himself to a particular group. When his friends Jodorowsky and Arrabal tried to introduce him to the Surrealist group, he rejected outright the “dogmatism” of André Breton, preferring to establish his own movement which he called “Panique”. He joined the team of Hara Kiri, the satirical monthly run by François Cavanna and Georget Bernier, in 1961 but left five years later because he was asked to illustrate more and more articles in Elle and the New York Times. The reason he gave was simply “Illustrating current affairs pisses me off”. He also very quickly halted his contributions to Le Canard Enchaîné because he did not think of himself as a journalist. And though he was close to the New Realists, he never joined their group. According to Alexandre Devaux, “Topor wanted a complete lack of hierarchy”.
A dabbler of genius
The exhibition recognises this freedom and the variety of media that Topor explored during his career. It opens with his bald characters wearing bowler hats. “This is a recurring image, that comes from the illustrated magazines of the 1930s”, explains Alexandre Devaux. “Topor was very influenced by popular illustrations”. The curator has chosen to show the originals beside the supports on which they were printed, which reveals that Topor liked to go back to the same motifs, and even reuse a drawing. His character with a gaping mouth, the lower jaw weighed down by a hammer (Marteau pilon poil au menton) was reused on the cover of the review Mépris, in a collection of lithographs and for an Amnesty International poster.
Topor dabbled with all kinds of media. Later in the exhibition we see reviews to which he contributed all his life (for example Kitsch, Kamikaze, Le Fou parle, Mépris), his shock illustrations for important newspapers and his work in publishing. He also illustrated Alice in Wonderland for the Banque Veuve Morin-Pons, a novel by Patricia Highsmith, the Nouvelles en trois lignes by Félix Fénéon, the encyclopaedia of health, and L’écume des jours by Boris Vian, among others. Devaux continues, “What these all reveal are his many literary contacts and friendships. He did not illustrate the work of people whose work he didn’t enjoy reading”. In consequence, his work reflected the people with whom he was linked, from Giovanni Gandini at the publisher company Milano Libri, to Jean-Jacques Pauvert, the science-fiction author Jacques Sternberg, and the Beat Generation figure Lawrence Ferlinghetti.
Other people outside of publishing solicited his work. Fellini asked him to produce some illustrations for a scene in his film Casanova, which are presented in the exhibition. Eddie Mitchell asked him to illustrate one of his record sleeves. After seeing his costumes for Krzisztof Penderecki’s opera in Germany, his friend Jérôme Savary invited him to Chaillot to present an explosive interpretation of Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Rex. Nor should the experimental work shown in the last room be forgotten, where we see how the artist explored the format of the book with a compendium meant to be stained (Le Tâchier), a button book for the reader to relieve stress, and a book which, if fully unfolded, reaches 6 metres in length.
A striking, recognisable style
The unique manner in which he represented his ideas in an uncaptioned drawing and his dark humor strongly influenced his generation. “One of the founders of the New York drawing firm, Push Pin Studio, thought Topor was one of the greatest graphical artists of the 20th century”, says Alexandre Devaux. “He had a great ability to summarise his ideas and an extraordinary sense of composition”.
As time passed, his style became more refined, and he produced his first prints from coloured drawings in the 1970s. “He began to use colour more from the moment he started drawing cartoons in parallel”, explains the curator. Using Topor’s drawings as a starting point, René Laloux produced very lovely images of La Planète sauvage. In the catalogue, the draughtsman Frédéric Pajak explains, “at the end of the 1970s his drawings resembled paintings. They owed more to allegory than in-your-face shock images”. In particular, this is the case with his very beautiful last series of lithographs Jeux de table prompted by his theatre play L’hiver sous la table, inspired by the experiences of his father.
Roland Topor wrote drama, illustrated press articles, published novels, designed theatre sets, conceived the children’s television programme (Téléchat), and wrote for television. Even in 2017, he remains a free spirit whose work should be discovered in all its facets.