What are we looking for when approaching Benjamin Lacombe's works? What hidden desire drives us towards his stories? For certain, the need to be catapulted into another dimension.
Fairy tales have always had the ability to help us. Sometimes, however, the way they are told does not seem to be enough. Lacombe plays with shadows, breaking down the barriers of the unknown to take us to a new level. If we take his hand and let him lead us into his world enfolded between the pages, it is because we want to know more. We want to hear his strong, timeless voice as we follow his unique style, full of Victorian echoes of an exquisitely Pre-Raphaelite flavour, making it timeless.
His eclecticism is obvious when tackling his own stories and when dealing with authors from the past. His incandescent creativity triggered an interview, which allowed us to talk about Spirits and Creatures of Japan: a superb new edition of Lafcadio Hearn's Japanese tales, rarely published in illustrated form, which gave us the opportunity to virtually 'enter' his studio to talk about past and future projects, including the Shizen exhibition. He is setting it up in Paris at the Galerie Daniel Maghen, together with Julien Martinez.
I would like to start with the Shizen exhibition. I know you have always used different means: paintings, drawing, figures… what can you tell us about this current challenge?
It will be my most ambitious gallery show, because I’m doing a lot of scenography and sculpture. I’m exhibiting with Julien Martinez as we have been working together for 15 years. This time I made some sculptures with him to express the connection we have with nature and, of course, it resonates a lot with what we are living through and experiencing now, because of that connection and the fact we have exploited it, thus causing all our problems.
You will enter this exhibition and you will find natural elements and the spirit of nature itself, because I’ve also done kodamas (the Japanese spirit of the forest), which I put on tree branches and all around the rooms. There are about 60 altogether with other fluorescent elements and they will reflect the sunlight with their iridescence. It is a very intense show.
You have recently published Spirits and Creatures of Japan. I remember you mentioned Japan (in your monographic book: Curiosities) as the ‘age of refinement’ and culture to always look to as a source of inspiration for your works. How did you decide to illustrate Hearn’s tales?
I have always had a very intense connection with the Japanese culture, almost since I was born, due to the fact that I belong to the generation of kids born in the 80s. When the first manga books were published in French, I was mesmerised and I immediately became passionate about them. That’s how I am; when I love something, I want to know everything about it. In the past, I had a Japanese friend, and she translated some Japanese manga books for me, and we used to go to an amazing manga shop near the Louvre. I discovered Hearn very quickly and I believe he is the author who had allowed the world to know more about Japanese tales because – before him – most of these stories were just oral and he did an amazing job by collecting and publishing them. By working on them, I have also discovered more about his way of writing. Furthermore, as it is coming from the era of writing I love (late XIX century / early XX century), it was such a pleasure to do it. When I read a book, I need to be projected into another world, and that’s the reason why that era is so perfect to me.
Spirits and Creatures of Japan is a very important book for me and it was not by chance that I decided to talk about ghosts. I experienced severe losses two years before this book and I started pondering over the memories of the people you have lost and the emptiness this creates in you; how you deal with it and - artistically - it was very hard because there are people who are very important for your art and you still need them. I lost an editor who discovered me at a very young age: Françoise Mateu and not having her and her feedback was very difficult. I went through a year when creating was hard and this book really gave me back the fire. This year – for example – I did five without rushing anything, but I felt I had regained the flame of passion for the art and it literally gives you wings. Moreover, we had the Coronavirus and we were all locked up at home, so it was the perfect time to create again.
You write and illustrate your own stories while illustrating classics, as well. (I’m thinking about: Alice or Tales of the Macabre by Edgar Allan Poe, just to name a few…). Do you approach them differently?
It’s always very different. These books you mentioned were super fun for me, as I discovered them at different ages, but mostly around 13 and they were defining for me as they showed me there are other ways to create stories. Tales of the Macabre and Alice were books I had been thinking about for twenty plus years, so when I approached them, it was like opening a tap and the juice just kept flowing. I really wanted Alice to be the best Alice that Lewis Carrol would have desired, as he was never satisfied with any publication, so I researched the character thoroughly.
While for the Spirits and Creatures of Japan it was completely different. There weren’t many illustrated versions and I really wanted to pay homage to those stories.
To tell you the truth, even when I work on a second volume, I never approach any book in the same way, as you really need to dig deep into the project to understand the best way to translate that story with your images.
This year I have been writing and illustrating stories again (and I hadn’t done that since Marie Antoinette or Madame Butterfly), but to be an illustrator, it’s difficult because you have to silence your voice while still having to illustrate a text. I believe the narration of the illustration takes you to another level, I do think there is narration to it and that there is a way to put it under the spotlight to make the audience understand them the same way as you do.
Can I already ask you about the future projects you are working on?
Sure, I’m working on a series for kids and on a very strange book about perception which will allow you to see things through the character’s eyes, using such means as texture and physical stuff, it will be very special and it took me almost ten years to put it together, so I can’t wait for people to experience it. I’m also working on a new book about Alice, as it is the 150th anniversary of Through the Looking Glass, but I’m keeping it secret [he laughs].
I’m also working on a new project with Sébastien Perez (the author I work with the most) and on animation projects, as well. At the same time, we are experimenting with something very weird; when it is difficult to connect, I’m creating many different forms of art as it is a way for me to communicate, I’ve never been so full of passion and ideas.