Here’s a crazy guy. Look at these drawings! I wonder what he was like in person, was he as obsessive as his frantic drawing style suggests? His mile-a-minute brain in action, observation skills in fourth gear, his pencil never leaving the paper, one continuous line all over until the sheet is filled with lively figures, their depictions vague but their characteristics fully recognizable? His masses of people erupt from the page. There has to be a connection between the artist’s persona and the kind of work he or she does, but then again, I know of cartoonists who draw outrageously funny gags and of comedians and musicians who are ‘out there’ performers but surprisingly subdued in manner and conservative in appearance.
I don’t know anything about Felix Topolski the man (1907 – 1989), but cherish his work of gutsy insanity as seen in the three books I have on my shelf. One of them is a limited edition, 350-copy, leather and canvas-bound 1951 book of drawings, called ’88 Pictures.’ Mine is number 81, signed by Topolski. I found this treasure a long time ago in the depths of MacLeod’s, Vancouver’s own favorite antiquarian bookstore. The introduction by Harold Acton (man-about-London, scholar, poet and writer: ‘Memoirs of an Aesthete;’ ‘The Last Medici’) makes a point about drawing from ‘real’ life that’s been dear to my heart, ever since I became aware of a possible career in the visual arts as reportorial artist: ‘Absence of subject in painting has become so despotic a convention that any picture frankly inspired by the spectacle of life terrorizes our myrmidons of the abstract,’ and ‘Topolski’s deepening concern is with the elusive Zeitgeist, the actual, the living, the contemporary, the vast human tableau – the multiple, moving, complex, varied, intoxicating agglomeration of mankind.’ He agrees that as a Pole, Topolski is ‘acutely sensitive to the tragic undercurrents of the age, the inexplicable, catastrophic and grotesque elements of the human plasma’ and hopes that his visions of War will lead to visions of Peace.
For a man with his kind of skills, it helped that Topolski lived in the most turbulent of times, the 20th Century, and was able to witness its numerous moving events as an artist-reporter. Born in Poland but a resident of England since 1935, he was there during WWII when London was bombed. He was sent to Russia as an official war artist. He was at the gates of Bergen-Belsen when the Americans opened the concentration camp. He attended the Nüremberg Trials. He drew at public presidential campaigns in the ‘fifties and was at the 1968 Chicago Democratic convention, mainly outside to be amongst the restive crowds. He reported on Martin Luther King and other Black leaders at the various marches and riots; protests against the Vietnam War; the scene in Harlem; roamed the streets of Manhattan and sat in on hippie counter-cultural gatherings. He followed the first post-war sessions of the UN, where newly independent countries sought full participation in the global community of nations. Prince Philip commissioned him to draw the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, and all the while he did a great deal of foreign travel too, to draw in India, China, Vietnam and Burma among other places. From 1953 to 1979, Topolski published his journalistic sketches in his ‘Chronicle,’ a fortnightly magazine you could subscribe to – a unique political, pictorial document of those moving times. Had I been old enough and known about it, I would have sent for it; as far as I know, nothing like it exists today, but perhaps Joe Sacco comes closest to illustrating the contemporary scene as a visual journalist – in a completely different style.
I have here the book entitled ‘The United Nations: Sacred Drama’ written by Conor Cruise O’Brien, the Irish politician and writer, illustrated by Felix Topolski (1968, Hutchinson of London). Cruise O’Brien, an interesting character himself, was part of the Irish delegation to the UN and became ‘special representative’ to Dag Hammerskjöld in the ’61 case of Congo/Katanga that resulted in a controversial crisis at the UN. He helped arrange for Topolski to come and draw at the various sessions and found his work crucial in telling the UN story properly in book form: the very real ethical quandary between a lofty mandate – the myth, ritual and symbolism: its ‘Sacred Drama’ – and its limited influence over the often profane methods applied in the military battlefield. Politically, these early sessions of the UN weren’t exactly a party, but what a feast for the eyes these NYC meetings were, if you’re visually oriented! And what an extensive document the book represents, done by two knowledgeable insiders, on the heady geopolitics of the days when the world was re-arranged according to the wishes of the post-war superpowers, setting up the so-called ‘balance of terror’ despite the UN’s Utopian mandate of ‘protecting mankind against the worst consequences of its aggressive impulses.’ We’re living in a different world of ‘Disheveled Nations’ now and I’m not sure whether this kind of an effective writer/artist collaboration would even stand a chance of getting published these days. Perhaps even less likely with these kinds of rough sketches – some would say ‘unfinished,’ because the art of drawing is usually considered a mere understudy for painting.
The other voluminous tome I have here is written by Topolski himself and reproduces his drawings and notes directly from his sketchbooks: ‘Shem, Ham & Japheth Inc., The American Crucible’ (1971; Houghton & Mifflin of Boston). It’s a European’s observation of the baffling nation inhabited by the Jewish, Black and White ‘progeny of Noah,’ and ponders the often painful and ridiculous but always moving American political and social melting pot.
It’s written in that ‘beat’ style of continuous, breathlessly subjective, impressionistic lines to equal the quality of super-fast black and white sketching wherever the artist finds himself in the melee. Question marks, exclamations, asides, poetry, private thoughts, diary, historical knowledge, flashbacks to political events elsewhere in the world, but most of all, empathy with the ordinary people in the street demanding social and democratic justice: it’s all there. It’s quite a mess of a scrapbook, actually, but his text attests to Topolski being a widely experienced, unusually well read and knowledgeable artist/historian/sociologist/jurist/psychologist/writer-poet. In his drawings, he tends to focus in a masterly way on one or a few central figures and leave the rest sketchily vague but he records a growing tension, an explosive atmosphere, such as the day-by-day series on the Chicago Democratic Convention and also the Harlem riots of 1968.
It’s fun to dive back into your own bookshelves now and then, to re-discover beloved non-fiction keepsakes that stand the test of time exceedingly well. For those of us who were there for half of the last century, Topolski’s books describe your times, you know these many names and places (U-Thant! Lumumba, Eldridge Cleaver, Jerry Rubin. George Wallace, the Alabama racist who ran against Nixon and Humphrey: ‘Stand up for America!’ Remember, this was in 1968, not the 2020ies). You were there all the way in spirit, nose stuck in the newspapers, ears glued to radio and TV. Sometimes I wished I had been there in person, still full of the impossible dream of walking in Topolski’s shoes.