Illustration narratives between the East and the West: An individual artist’s perspective

Illustration narratives between the East and the West: An individual artist’s perspective
Priyanka Jain, Visual artist

This article is a personal account of my experience on how illustrations are perceived in different countries, as I have observed them during my art education in India and Germany. I will try to illuminate the reasons for such varied perceptions and how the atmosphere of art academies shapes these differences. This will be followed by an examination of consequences when certain notions of what constitutes art cross national borders in the global world. In the end I will try to establish how academic notions of art have very little resonance with common people’s perception within their own countries and elsewhere, and why illustrations that are looked down upon in academic circles are a medium more accessible for the masses.

contemporary art
cultural imperialism
high and low art

This article is a personal account of my experience on how illustrations are perceived in different countries, as I have observed them during my art education in India and Germany. I will try to illuminate the reasons for such varied perceptions and how the atmospheres of art academies shape these differences. This will be followed by an examination of how prejudices of one artistic culture affect and change art scenarios in other countries in a globalized art world. In the end I will try to establish how academic notions of art have very little resonance with common people’s perception, and why illustrations, in spite of being looked down upon in academic art circles, are a medium more accessible for the masses than highbrow museum art.
I am a freelance artist based in India and I am exploring various forms of oral and visual narrative methods. The term Illustration first came to my awareness when it was applied to my works upon my academic shift from India to Germany when, in the initial days of my Master’s in Fine Arts at the State Academy of Fine Arts in Stuttgart, a professor commented that my work was very illustrative. Nobody in India had reviewed my works with that adjective and the word stuck with me. At that time, I was handling the East–West culture shock that my travels had dealt me through drawings and performances. I realized, however, that the word had not been used encouragingly. But before proceeding to this certain prejudice against illustration I will describe in detail my academic art training in India and Germany.

My studies in art began at the Rabindra Bharati University in Kolkata, India. My Bachelor’s in Fine Arts with specialization in Sculpture was comprised of intensive courses in which various technical skills were imparted. All classes were compulsory and graded. The studio practice comprised 30 hours each week, and approximately two weeks were allotted to learn each technique: wood carving, metal casting, terracotta, etc. This was supplemented with outdoor sketching, drawing layouts and intensive art history classes. The work atmosphere did not differentiate between concept and handwork. I was free to choose what I carved or modelled since they were my compositions. During submissions, a jury would question me about the ideas behind my work and grade me according to my skills of execution and presentation. My classmates who specialized in Graphic Arts or Painting had similar study modules. As a result, there was no hierarchy of subjects or techniques inside the art academy. Of course, in the art market in India, oil paintings and metal sculptures are more expensive than an etching, but inside the art academy no technique or practice was looked down at condescendingly.
Upon arrival at the Art Academy in Stuttgart in 2008, a professor who flipped through my portfolio of Bachelor projects remarked that my works were 97 per cent skill (Handwerk in German), and the rest conceptual. I was struck by the precision of this division (perhaps made in jest) but there were many more occasions when I was confronted with the word Handwerk. The academic structure in Germany is completely different from that in India. Students are assigned to professors and not to any particular departments. No courses are compulsory; students can attend any workshop and learn any skill that interests them. Right from the foundation studies students are encouraged to think about their concepts and they tend to learn only as much skill as they need for the execution of their ideas. From personal observation, I found very few students were building their practice based on any one or two particular skills. To Germans, my Indian training was more akin to the apprenticeship undertaken by German tradespeople in intensive three-year vocational training organized by the Handwerkskammer (‘German Chamber of Tradespersons’). This absence of focus on skill was very prominent in the art academy, which was quite contradictory for a country that prides itself for its Handwerk, so much so that one of the outdoor advertisements of the above-mentioned Chamber of Tradespersons read Wir sind Handwerker. Wir können das (‘We are skilled workers. We can do it’). Upon questioning my professor, the late Mr Johannes Hewel, regarding this dichotomy, he explained that during the division of Germany into East and West, most of the western art academies, like in the cities of Frankfurt and Dusseldorf, decided to discontinue skill-based training and move on to conceptual art to prove themselves avant-garde, in comparison to the Eastern art academies (as in the cities of Dresden and Leipzig), which were still practising old-school skills.
This overemphasis on concepts and a casual disregard for skill led me to coin a special phrase – strong souls in weak bones – to apply to artworks that exhibited good concepts but poor execution. In India, mastery of technique is the first step of any learning process as it is generally believed that skill travels from the hands to the brain. The idea behind this practice is to let students discover the correlation between their thoughts and actions to understand the possibilities and limitations of their minds and bodies. This concept is derived from the ancient religious and philosophical beliefs in which it is only by putting the body through the hardship of penance that mankind could attain spiritual elevation. An elevated soul needs an able body first. An enlightened brain needs experienced hands. Students of art, music or dance are required to master their skills before composing their own pieces. Although I admit that in the age of constant technological updates acquiring in-depth knowledge that soon becomes redundant can be very frustrating, I believe that not emphasizing skill training by art academies leads to a detriment in the quality of art. Many prominent critics have been voicing their concerns regarding the deteriorating conditions of art education in western countries. They lament the absence of skill-based education. Jonathan Jones, an art critic for the British newspaper The Guardian, confirms my experience in Germany and suggests re-introducing the apprenticeship system:

There is a profound difference between art rooted in craft, and art that has no interest in it. In this century, art has left craft far behind […] Is this a tragedy? Yes, it is […] There are many people in Britain today who would claim their art is based in craft and the study of nature. They look at the conceptual art establishment and feel rage, exclusion, rejection […] Most figurative art being made in Britain today is derivative, shallow nonsense. Worse, the skills are not up to the job. For the death of craft is a reality; it is a consequence of the Industrial Revolution. To restore the craftsmanship of Verrocchio you’d have to put young artists into apprenticeships when they were 12 with the greatest artists alive. (2009)

My skills overshadowed the concepts of my artworks. But even my concepts were not met favourably as there was a narrative element to them. Storytelling has deep roots in India and I have been exposed to them in the form of mythological television serials, comic books and through the Hindu temple arts. This unconscious narrative leaked out right from the first works that I did upon my arrival in Germany that I describe below.

My mother had given me a small box of saffron for consuming it with milk to keep myself warm during the cold German winters. In Germany I saw for the first time finely shredded tobacco that students used to roll their own cigarettes. Saffron and tobacco became for me symbols of East and West, which I pasted on paper to create drawings that recorded my East–West culture shock and the story of my assimilation into the new culture (Figures 1-6). When people saw me pasting saffron on paper, they assumed I was an extremely rich person. To clear their misconceptions I would talk to them about saffron and then we would exchange whatever we knew about saffron from our respective cultures. From these conversations I decided to make an archive of everything that I knew about saffron in a series of drawings (Cover and Figures 7-10). It was my first artist book, titled A Fine Red Line, A Crack of the Whip (Jain 2012), in which through drawings and small texts I shared all the anecdotes and facts about saffron.i I was telling the story of saffron. But it was this storytelling part of the work that was objectionable to many peers. I heard remarks such as ‘It is just illustrative, that kills the poetics…Ah, it’s too loud, minimize, I don’t want to know the story behind it…Art is like a bandage, you don’t have to show the wound, you can just hint at it’.
These comments were difficult to comprehend until someone framed it as blatantly as ‘Hitler brainwashed us with stories. We do not want stories. I will either figure it out myself or I will not, but I do not want any explanations’. A historical example of the sort of didactic illustrated narrative that Germany has not forgotten is Der Giftpilz (The Poisonous Mushroom) (Heimer 1938), a collection of seventeen short stories by the Nazi writer Ernst Hiemer, with pictures by the Nazi artist Fips. The purpose of the stories was to indoctrinate (brainwash) young German children to despise and hate the Jews. In the first story of the book, a German mother explains to her son how there are good and bad people, just as there are edible and poisonous mushrooms. The Jews, she tells him, are a ‘poison’ within Germany: ‘Just as a single poisonous mushroom can kill a whole family, so a solitary Jew can destroy a whole village, a whole city, even an entire folk’, she warns him.
People kept their distance from not just stories but also artworks that ‘said’ something, such as the Nazi-era posters of Ludwig Hohlwein. His colour palette had the softness of aquarelle paintings, but the tone of the captions was assertive, hitting the moral core of young men and women by reminding them to fight for their land and their leader and by asking them to join the various associations of Hitler’s organization. Hohlwein illustrated perfect Nordic specimens: young and healthy children and adults with strong Viking features dressed smartly in their union outfits, most effective for the establishment of Aryan archetypes – reminders of Hitler’s eugenics programme (Heller 1999: 251). The use of such skilfully rendered human figures by the Nazis for their ‘healthy mind, healthy body’ propaganda was yet another reason for the modern distaste for skilled figurative compositions in the visual arts scene, which I gathered from many conversations among my peers.

This angst about narrative and its relation to propaganda fosters the prejudice against illustration, since most illustrations also have some text, some story related to them. In my opinion, contemporary art students also shun illustration because it requires grammatical and technical expertise that they are discouraged from obtaining. This prejudice labelled me as an illustrator, even though I never thought of myself as one, nor would my works have been classified as illustrative in India. Here I would like to cite the example of Ragamala paintings to explain the difference in perception about illustrations in India versus those in Germany.

Ragamala paintings developed in the royal courts of Indian kings between the fifteenth and nineteenth century. The Hindi word Ragamala is derived from raga (melody) and mala (garland), meaning a garland of melodies. A Ragamala painting is a miniature-format painting in which a musical melody has been personified as a male or a female figure. A masculine melody is called raga and is depicted as a man; a feminine melody is called ragini and is depicted as a woman. In classical Indian music each melody is allotted a specific season or time of day when it should be sung, and what effect the melody arouses is also mentioned. Many versions of these paintings existed in the span of four centuries arising from different stylistic schools, but the general iconography was kept constant. I present a description of two female melodies depicted in the Ragamala paintings from the online exhibition catalogue of The Flower Garden: Indian Painting 1600–1850 (Bubbar 2015).ii One painting depicts Ragini Bhupali as a fair-skinned lady sitting on a sofa in her garden attended by female servants. The Bhupali melody is performed in the early evening and it induces a longing for the lover. As such, the sky in the painting depicts a sunset and she seems to be conversing with her female attendants about her prospective rendezvous with her lover. Two lines of a Sanskrit inscription on an un-coloured panel above the painting describe the fair-skinned heroine and her longing for her lover.
Another painting depicts Ragini Desvarari, also a fair-skinned lady, sitting on a bed on the terrace. She sits with her arms stretched above her head and her body twists sideways. An attendant to her right holds up a mirror in which she appears to be looking at her reflection. A second attendant to her left holds up a tray, possibly with some items for toilette. The sky in the painting depicts night time and looks cloudy and stormy. This melody makes separation from one’s lover so unbearable that one begins to writhe in pain. The sky depicts the lady’s mental agony. These paintings with their iconography and symbolism have crystallized over a long time from the amalgamation of philosophy, music, poetry and fine arts in India, and have never been referred to as mere illustrations of musical notes in Indian art history. My German peers, however, proclaimed them to be illustrations due to the presence of text that described in words more or less that which was visible in the image.

My interest in understanding the various perceptions of art becomes relevant when foreign (especially European) likes and dislikes spread to other countries due to the global nature of the art market. Most artists in India rely on western curators for international exposure. When curators impose their tastes on artists they actually change the DNA of the art being made in that country. International cultural exchanges can lend vibrancy to any arts scene, but it becomes a problem when the local people are unable to comprehend what art in their country is about anymore. When a curator utters the words, ‘It’s nice, but it’s a bit too narrative’, it acts like weeds suffocating the deep roots of storytelling traditions in India. Any artist who was dealing with narratives could not only fall into self-doubt but also change his or her practice to appeal to the tastes of the curator.
Johny Lakshmanan, a contemporary art critic and curator in India who has followed the rise and fall of the art market in India since 2000, is wary of western curators and corroborates my claim. Since many young artists from cities and villages approach him to showcase their works, he has studied the effects of such curators. He remarks:

Recently, I met one young artist from Udaipur in a conference in New Delhi. He is academically trained (with a post graduation [Master’s degree] in painting from a reputed institution in Udaipur, Rajasthan). Hailing from a family of miniature painters, this artist has tremendous skill in doing miniature works with a contemporary bend to it. He showed me a couple of brochures of his previous exhibitions and I was shell shocked. The works were looking utterly mundane (in a modernist sense and period). He was earnest in telling me that he liked to do modern/ contemporary works more than the miniature ones. In fact he was good at the miniature style works. But he was feeling ashamed of saying that he did such works. He wanted to become the ‘modern/contemporary’ artist. This incident could exemplify the situation in a big way. The traditional art practitioners are becoming contemporaries by deliberately changing their language, the way the tribal people are forcefully converted into another religion and their tongues are interpolated with another language, which in fact does not make any sense either to them or others. On the other hand we have the contemporary artists sidestepping their academic and traditional skills and wanting to become something else; people who do impermanent art and site specific installations. (Lakshmanan 2011)

The modern/contemporary artists that Johny Lakshmanan refers to are those who work with international curators and exhibit in biennales. During the art boom in India from 2000 to 2008, video, performance and cutting-edge artists were excessively encouraged. This made even painters produce at least one abstract video art piece for a painting exhibition along with a performance on the opening day. When the art market receded, many artists felt embarrassed to go back to their earlier skill-based art practices as it did not feel as experimental by comparison. Galleries failed to continue supporting the cutting-edge practices due to economic reasons. Lakshmanan says that this failure was covered up with claims that the young art was yet to mature and that it was the time of the masters. Auction results substantiated this unhealthy argument and galleries saved their faces. But the losers were those artists who had started off with cutting-edge art (Lakshmanan 2012). In this rise and fall of the art market in India, some notions and rituals have made a permanent place for themselves. The middle tier of curators with their incomprehensible exhibition texts, the idea of looking at art as a show rather than as an individual painting, print or sculpture, and the tendency to reach out to an international audience and to align to their tastes more than to that of the local audience are still features of the current art scene in India.

To return to the Stuttgart art faculty’s negativity towards illustrations, I further found that they held the belief that the viewer is clever enough to understand a work of art, no matter how complicated the thought of the artist, and so one need not simplify it by making it illustrative. But this assumption is contradicted by practices that can be seen in the art world outside the academic circles. Almost all exhibitions are now not only accompanied by but rather are introduced by long curatorial notes, while curatorial walks are offered on specific days in museum shows. I have personally observed that many senior citizens prefer to take a guided tour in the art museums in Stuttgart in order to comprehend the works better. Special audio guides are created for children to engage them more with the artworks. The guides narrate the works, the lives of the artists, and the circumstances in which the works were made. The curator explains how certain works fit into the curatorial theme. This is also a form of storytelling as I see it and in this context all the artworks of the exhibition become illustrations to the curatorial notes or the lectures of the guides.

Until the end of my studies in 2013, I felt a relatively narrative-unfriendly environment in my academy. The recent events of migration from Africa and Syria showed a different approach in the outer world. A number of graphic novels dealing with issues of migration have been well received: Unsichtbare Hände (Invisible Hands) (Tietäväinen 2014), which focuses on a migrant’s journey; Der Traum von Olympia: Die Geschichte von Samia Yusuf Omar (The Dream of Olympics: the Story of Samia Yusuf Omar) (Kleist 2015), which illustrates the biography of a Somalian athlete who drowned while crossing the Mediterranean sea; Im Land der Frühaufsteher (In the Land of the Early Risers) (Bulling 2012), which looks at the conditions of migrants in one of the German cities; and Kriegszeiten – Eine grafische Reportage über Soldaten, Politiker und Opfer in Afghanistan (War Times – A Graphic Report on Soldiers, Politicians and Victims in Afghanistan) (Schraven and Burmeister 2012), a docu-comic about the role of the German army in Afghanistan. A report from the Frankfurt Book Fair 2013 announces, ‘The enthusiastic reactions of readers and critics alike to the new works make it clear that the comic has now arrived in the German book market’ (Platthaus 2013: 2).

In November 2016, Storytelling Arena, a performance art theatre in Berlin, hosted an event in which Syrian refugees narrated their stories of migration and struggles. In my opinion, people warmed to graphic novels about some very critical themes because the illustration of these novels removes the direct harshness of images as reported by the media. The illustrations depict reality but not the happening-in-real-time reality, unlike a newspaper image. I do not expect any artwork would engage in such critical topics under the current art market scenario. The storytelling event reinforces the fact that as humans we connect most directly not through curatorial notes written in pompous overblown prose but by simple verbal communication, through shared experiences and stories. I had similar experiences with my artist books. Exhibition visitors were happy to see skills, were not disturbed by the text-image relation, and used the occasion to have further dialogue with me regarding saffron. Maybe exhibition visitors would engage with war, brutality and socially critical themes in their extreme grossness if the gatekeepers of the art world would give up their demand that only poetically abstract, non-opinionated, neutral works constitute ‘art’ and will be allowed entry.

Whether in the East or in the West, our daily lives pass through a constant flux of image–text symbiosis and we accept it unquestioningly. There are places where the visual art tries to exist in an elevated but isolated bubble, and places where art blends in with other cultural streams. But on the ground, in reality we digest our stock of visual sensory input without first tagging them as art, non-art or illustration. As image producers we aim for our images to be retained in visual memory for as long as possible, and notions that trickle down from arguments of high art/low art have very little to do with such memory processes. If skills help in creating impactful images, artists need not seek validation for their use from any higher authority such as a curator or a museum director. If most artists throw their skills away, some of us can become seed banks that preserve them. We can also harbour strong souls in strong bones and wait for the tides of appreciation to return towards them. This has been my take from this East–West journey.

Bubbar, Prahlad (2015), The Flower Garden: Indian Paintings 1600–1850 (exhibition catalogue The Arder Gallery, New York, 13–21 March), London: Prahlad Bubbar Ltd, pp 12–17, Accessed 8 January 2017.

Bulling, Paula (2012), Im Land der Frühaufsteher (In the Land of the Early Risers), Berlin: Avant Verlag.

Heimer, Ernest (1938), Der Giftpilz (The Poisonous Mushroom), Nuremberg: Stürmer Verlag.

Heller, Steven (1999), Design Literacy (continued): Understanding Graphic Design, New York: Allworth Press.

Jain, Priyanka (2012), A Fine Red Line, A Crack of the Whip, self-published.

Jones, Jonathan (2009), ‘What’s happened to figurative art?’, The Guardian, 30 March, Accessed 8 January 2017.

Kleist, Reinhardt (2015), Der Traum von Olympia: Die Geschichte von Samia Yusuf Omar (The Dream of Olympics: The story of Samia Yusuf Omar), Hamburg: Carlsen Verlag.

Lakshmanan, Johny (2011), ‘How alternative is alternative art practice? About the TINA Factor of Art’, By All Means Necessary, 6 June, Accessed 8 January 2017.

____ (2012), ‘Caste system in our art scene – thoughts in the Times of United Art Fair’, By All Means Necessary, 11 June, Accessed 8 January 2017.

Platthaus, Andreas (2013), ‘New masters: Current graphic novels from Germany’,, 9–13 October, Accessed 8 January 2017.

Schraven, David and Burmeister, Vincent (2012), Kriegszeiten – Eine grafische Reportage über Soldaten, Politiker und Opfer in Afghanistan (War Times – A Graphic Report on Soldiers, Politicians and Victims in Afghanistan), Hamburg: Carlsen Verlag.

Tietäväinen, Ville (2014), Unsichtbare Hände (Invisible Hands), Berlin: Avant Verlag.

Cover: Priyanka Jain, ‘The conversion of the saffron donkey’, A Fine Red Line, A Crack of the Whip, 2013. Saffron and ink on acrylic sheet, digitized. 29.7×21 cm. © Priyanka Jain.

In B&W:
Figures 1-3: Priyanka Jain, ‘Arrival,’ ‘Desolation,’ and ‘Prejudices,’ from East-West, 2010. Saffron and tobacco pasted on paper. 21×14 cm (each). © Priyanka Jain.
Figures 4-6: Priyanka Jain, ‘Invitation,’ ‘Not so desolate,’ and ‘Assimilation,’ from East-West, 2010. Saffron and tobacco pasted on paper. 21×14 cm (each). © Priyanka Jain.

In Colour:
Figure 7: Priyanka Jain, ‘The departure of Melancholia’, A Fine Red Line, A Crack of the Whip, 2013. Saffron and ink on acrylic sheet, digitized. 29.7×21 cm. © Priyanka Jain.
Saffron threads were mixed in hot teas as a curative for bouts of melancholy in ancient Greece. Currently the pharmaceutical industry researches saffron as an anti-depressant. In these works, lines are scratched with drypoint on clear acrylic sheets and filled with ink. These are placed on a scanner and then saffron is carefully assembled on top. After the scan the saffron is brushed off the sheet and reused to create the next scanned image. Since saffron originates in Persia, I make an artistic assumption that the thick to thin structure of the saffron and the bent shapes that form when it is roasted inspired the characteristics of Persian calligraphy. This is purely my artistic licence, since I could not find any historical evidence backing my notion. The ‘text’ in the image means nothing but gives the impression of being actual text, which proves my intuition correct.

Figure 8: Priyanka Jain, ‘Under the safflower tree’, A Fine Red Line, A Crack of the Whip, 2013. Saffron and ink on acrylic sheet, digitized. 29.7×21 cm. © Priyanka Jain.
Dried petals of safflower are sold as a cheaper substitute for saffron. A layman can be easily deceived into buying safflower as it is not so expensive. Saffron is also adulterated by mixing in the dried stamen of other flowers of the Crocus family. In the close-up of the palm in the image, the viewer can detect specimens of both saffron and safflower. But unlike saffron, safflower has no aroma or colour.

In B&W:
Figure 9: Priyanka Jain, ‘Punishment for the sale of adulterated saffron-I’, A Fine Red Line, A Crack of the Whip, 2013. Saffron and ink on acrylic sheet, digitized. 29.7×21 cm. © Priyanka Jain.
In Medieval Europe there were strict laws regulating the quality of saffron being sold. In one instance in Nuremberg, Germany, a woman was made to swallow her entire stock of adulterated saffron. She died due to the intense heat it produced in her body.

Figure 10: Priyanka Jain, ‘Confessions of the saffron donkey-I’, A Fine Red Line, A Crack of the Whip, 2013. Saffron and ink on acrylic sheet, digitized. 29.7×21 cm. © Priyanka Jain.
Until recently, Iran (one of the largest producers of saffron) suffered from trade embargoes. In order to export their saffron, it was sent to certain Middle-Eastern countries with huge migrant populations. Migrants returning home would receive anonymous phone calls asking them to take a substantial quantity of saffron in their luggage in exchange for free air tickets and to hand it over to a trader in their home country. In this manner saffron traders also avoided paying custom duties on the imported saffron. Airport authorities are often able to seize such cargo and the police call these innocent victims ‘saffron mules’.