Is an illustration merely a drawing on a page, or an image intended to accompany some text? Is it digital trickery, is it something made out of fabric or does it involve the ingenious use of texture? At Somerset House this summer, it turns out it is all of the above and more.
The AOI World Illustration Awards Exhibition 2016 is well worth a visit, not least for the way it reinforces that clichéd old maxim, ‘a picture tells a thousand words’. The first illustration you see, by Pieter Van Eenoge, is a portrayal of life with dementia; leaves float from a head as the figure attempts to sweep up the foliage below. It’s a simple but arresting image, succinctly summing up how devastating losing one’s memory can be.
Indeed, some of the most remarkable images in the display are gloomy; not least the illustration of the refugee crisis commissioned by Save the Children, showing a boatload of men, women and children, including figures floundering over the side against the dark menace of the waves. The image is unrefined – a black and white sketch, no more – and yet the passengers are not anonymous; look closely and you see tiny markers of individuality. It tells the story far more clearly than a news report would, its message that much harder to ignore.
The illustrations, whittled down from 2,300 entries across 66 countries, range from photo-realism to wholly abstract, and have their origins in everything from fashion and film to news and social commentary. There are drawings recording the inner journey, depictions of cityscapes and natural wonders, realistic portraits and more cartoonish creations. There is a woven underwater universe, populated with knitted sardines forged out of shimmering wool, a series of stunningly detailed drawings of bumblebees from a Royal Mail stamp collection, and an eye-catching board featuring cutouts of bright blue flowers originally used at a Raf Simons show.
Many of the submissions are from children’s books, but don’t let that put you off, as they are anything but unsophisticated, playing with colour, light and perspective. I loved the entry from a book called ‘Mad About Monkeys’, where rich tones and angular lines are used to intimate that the creatures are in motion, soaring through the air. The overall winner of the awards, which features a picture of a shipwrecked book with the light falling on it just so – originally drawn for a South Korean children’s book – completely captures the way good writing can transport a reader into another world. And you can’t help but smile at the sketches from a 60th anniversary collector’s edition of Dodie Smith’s ‘101 Dalmatians’, with dogs of different breeds enjoying the sights of London, and likewise at a set of illustrations of mice exploring the capital’s nooks and crannies.
The ingenuity is striking: how clever to depict the professional journey to self-management via an image of a horse leading itself; likewise how thought-provoking to accompany an article about transgender life with a drawing of a man that, at second glace, is also unmistakably of a woman. Perhaps my favourite entry was by Andy Tuohy; 52 portraits of modern artists all represented in their own trademark styles. A miniature Roy Lichenstein is drawn with comic book markings, Max Ernst’s face becomes a bird, Piet Mondrian descends into one of his famous abstracts, and Andy Warhol is replicated six times in different palettes. A moustached Frida Kahlo, on display here as a full size image, appears with a portrait of Diego Rivera in her mind.
Equally clever are the posters of the Best Film nominees from this year’s Baftas; it’s a guessing game as you look closely at the moody, evocative prints to work out which hit they are celebrating. For ‘The Revenant’, the mountain is simultaneously a roaring bear; for ‘Carol’, Cate Blanchett emerges from the shadows in a cloud of smoke.
At Somerset House for the fifth year in a row, I’m only sorry this is the first time I’ve discovered the AOI exhibition. Free to visit, and stimulating without being too taxing, pop out in your lunch-break to browse these charming, clever and creative illustrations.
The AOI World Illustration Awards Exhibition 2016, in partnership with Directory of Illustration, runs until 29 August 2016 at Somerset House (Embankment Galleries, South Wing).