Italian-born, Paris-based artist Lorenzo Mattotti has published numerous books, including a version of The Raven with Lou Reed, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and most recently the Toon Books release, Hansel & Gretel, with text by Neil Gaiman. He is also a prolific illustrator for The New Yorker and Vogue. I sat down with Mattotti in the Toon Books New York office (aka Francoise Mouly and Art Spiegelman's living room) for a chat about his latest book, Italian design, and his early influences.
Dan Nadel: The first thing that struck me about this book is that usually I see your work painted or in pastel, or thin-lined, and Hansel & Gretel is, as you know, much more brush-oriented and much more abstract than usual. I wondered what the process was to come to that as opposed to rendering it in a series of lines or plains.
Lorenzo Mattotti: It started 10 years ago, more or less, after a trip to Patagonia. A friend and I went on a long walk in the forest and the mountains and the trees were very, very dramatic. Very strange forms and atmospheric and it was very powerful to walk around these woods. And when I returned to the hotel, I started to make with a brush this kind of form with very dramatic trees. Very little pieces of paper and very quick. Little by little, when I returned to Paris, the subject of the landscape took hold of me more and more. So I started to make a big landscape drawing of Patagonia. But always focused on the roots and trees. From this dimension I started to make it bigger and had the idea to make the forest with these brush forms and to give it depth. The organization of this space with this depth in this black. And I never pencilled any of this. There was no planning. It’s always a work of improvisation with the space and with the trees. And little by little, these images became more and more bigger. Sometimes the drawing was so deep, so black, that it was completely abstract. I was really fascinated by this idea to make the deepness with the light, the light that comes inside the forest. So I was on this trip and then Francoise Mouly asked me make Hansel and Gretel drawings for an exhibition at the Metropolitan (Opera House) and I didn’t want to make a normal illustration with a crayon and color. I didn’t want to make a little illustration like that for an exhibition. I remember Christmas they always, or maybe summer, they always come to Paris and I showed them the painting I did and I said, “Oh, I have an idea where maybe I can use this forest to make Hansel and Gretel.” Francoise liked it so much, she said, “Oh yes, it’s a good idea to show this.” And so, after a week I started to make this forest, but I put inside the characters. In this moment, the connection with the illustration, narration, and the painting was done and I understood that it was really a new way for me. A new road to explore. To narrate with this kind of techniques. I did six images for the Met show very, very quick.
They are large and on paper. They are quite improvised. Maybe there is one that I did, maybe the house, maybe in this I made it very simple only to decide where to put the house. All this kind of work is done with sort of improvisation. When I do that, I’m very concentrated. It was quite easy for Hansel and Gretel because I had the story in my head. I didn’t want to read this book.
I was going to ask. No, you didn’t read the story?
For the first six drawings, no. Because I was completely free. I did the main theme. After, when I decided to make the book for France I read the story to come up with more images.
So you added words from the book?
Yes, exactly. So this is really a development of a painting subject that became a sort of narration.
Did you react to Neil Gaiman’s text at all or were all the images there and he wrote around that?
No, the book was done in France and Italy before he was involved. It was published four years ago with Gallimard and in Italy with another text. More traditional. There was a French writer, an Italian writer, the editor. There are many versions of Hansel and Gretel, so we found a good version that we liked. There was a French writer who wrote the story in a very simple way, but traditional. The text was done after the images.
No, normally I use everything. I did maybe two or three more images for this main subject. I did three versions. One I put inside and the other one I only used for myself. It’s incredible how this work came out. It came in a very natural way. I ‘d like to make all the books like this.
(laughs) I was just going to ask. Is that unusual for you? Is it usually more organized?
No, I’m quick for my kind of images. For my research, for my paintings. Normally, I’m quick. I make many, many images with the pen and also the brush. For my personal drawings and paintings, I’m very quick. I like illustrations I can do in two days, one day. Luckily, I’m quick. But for some books, I take my time. I do after I think after I do. And for my stories in comics, for my stories I’m very slow. For other stories like Jekyll and Hyde, I’m much more quick.
Hansel and Gretel was just one or two weeks?
More or less. Maybe less.
After Hansel and Gretel, I decided that I was really interested in this kind of method, so I started to make other images in a very free way. Only black and white. There was not a story, but there was a sort of an evocation of a story. I did an exhibition in Bologna of 50 or so of these works.
I was a little empty after that exhibition, so I started to make a film. A longer animated film. It will take me four years, five? It has been two years that we’ve been preparing the story, the screenplay and the images, everything. For me, it’s very good because I am working in another world and little by little I’ll do images and paintings in black and white.
I wanted to ask you about a different subject. You studied architecture in Italy and worked in Milan in the 70s and early 80s. Did you have any relationship, or were you interested in Ettore Sottsass?
We crossed in the ’80s. I was in a group called Valvoline. We were very trendy and many different media of work ask us for collaboration in the fashion world. I remember a designer asked us to make a statue or a tapestry. There was a moment that [Alessandro] Mendini asked us to make a project of tapestry. After that, they didn’t do it, but we made an exhibition of this project of tapestry.
When was the exhibition of tapestries?
I think it was ’85, ’86. I remember we met Sottsass but I was not really inside this world. It was very strange for me because I was really interested in comics. All the other things for me, I had the impression that I was not serious about. What I studied in architecture was to make functional things. I was maybe too serious about it all. If I wanted to make cartoons, I make cartoons. If I wanted to make architecture, it was not so easy to cross everything. For professional illustration, I make it professional. For four or five years, I collaborated with a magazine. It’s name was Vanity, not Vanity Fair, Vanity, and they made illustrations for fashion, but for me it was like a profession. So architecture — in Milan in this period, we were living fluidly. We had many friends who designed, many friends who painted. I like so much that the images of Memphis, the images of Alchemia. They were doing, in a way, what we liked to do in the comics. We were completely influenced, but I didn’t make objects. I liked to make comics.
Was there a sort of underground Italian in the ’70s?
Not really underground because we were very — we were published in magazines.
So more like Bazooka, in that sense.
Less extreme than Bazooka, but we made more explorations of the language. Abstract and strange things, poems. We were more surrealistic and maybe more intellectual. Less fighting. It was not punk. Maybe post-modern. Post-modern, yes I think.
What were you looking at in Italy at that time for comics?
Well, Liberatore would have been the same age as you, right? So who was older? Was it Jacovetti?
Jacovetti was very old.
So what were your influences?
Comics in Italy were very strong. It is a long story.
Rubino and his kind. But there were very good magazines. When we were young, I read many magazines and comics. Hugo Pratt, Battaglia, Toppi. All this kind of great artists making stories for children, so we were influenced. I read Toppi when I was young. He made Roman military stories. Battaglia was very, very good. He was a big friend of Toppi and he was a big master. He made Edgar Allan Poe stories. Very graphic, very elegant. So, I have the luck to be influenced by all this kind of school. Very, very popular. We have a big example, but not underground.
Yeah, it was popular.
Popular. After the influence of Robert Crumb, we discovered the possibility to make our comics. Independent and our stories of young people living in Milan.
So who, exactly was in Valvoline?
It was me, Carpinteri, Igort, Jerry Kramsky, and Charles Burns when he was in Rome worked with us. And Mattioli, who in the beginning was with Frigidaire, then came to us. Frigidaire was more popular, more macho. We were more intellectual, more strange.
What does Mattioli do now?
We made a big exhibition of Valvoline in May. There is a catalogue with many testimonials. Everyone speaks about it. There are images. Big success. Many people discovered this kind of very strange to look now. How could we do that? We were told we could do anything. There was Raw in the United States. There was Bazooka in France. There was El Vibora in Spain.
Interesting that all those people worked in multimedia. Everyone was doing illustrations, comics, design.
I think that’s a characteristic of our generation.
That’s changed now.
Now it’s more specialized.
I’m always changing.
(laughs) So is there another comic coming?
I’ve been working a long time on a long story in black an white. Not like this, but all in pen. Now we are thinking to publish maybe a part in two issues. The problem is that I’m working on the film so I’m very …
You’re working on the film in Paris.
Yes. So I don’t know if I’ll be able to finish the story. I did 250 pages, but I would like to start to get it published because people don’t know really what I’m doing now. I do such different things.
Will it be published in America?
I hope. I don’t know. Kim Thompson sometimes asked me about my new stories. Now, we’ll see what happens.
Transcribed by RJ Casey
NOTE: A Hansel and Gretel Collector's Edition will do on sale Tuesday, November 11th on the Toon Books web site. This edition is comprised of the book signed, by Mattotti and Gaiman, along with a silkscreen print, signed and numbered by Mattotti, all housed in a custom box. A handful of copies will be available at CAB this weekend.