(En)graven Images

In 1982, a young woman I was dating gave me a copy of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, which was, and continues to be, one of my favorite books. It was a newly-published edition, illustrated and designed by Barry Moser, with whom I was not familiar. I’d seen many versions of Alice, but John Tenniel was not only the tale’s first illustrator, but also, as far as I was concerned, the preeminent one. A lot of illustrators apparently feel similarly, as so many other versions are strangely adherent to his vision, not only in terms of look and feel, but even in composition. Moser’s work, however, was different – it was strange and it was off-kilter and it complemented the anarchic text in a manner completely unlike that of any other illustrations I’d seen. His is also the only version, as far as I know, in which all the images are from Alice’s point of view – it is her dream, after all. Moser’s eye for the bizarre yet humorous made him an ideal illustrator for Alice. I became a fan at first glance, and the next year, when his Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There was published, I immediately bought it for myself (the gal was out of the picture by that time). These two volumes also sparked my interest in the art of book design, which was something I’d never really given thought to, prior.

Several years later, there was an exhibition of Moser’s work at the Museum of Ancient and Modern Art, which was then in Nevada City CA. Sadly, I was unable to attend the reception, although I was fortunate enough to see the show, which was comprised of wood engravings from both Alice books. I haven’t done a lot of printmaking, but I do know a little about it and find it fascinating. Wood engraving is a relief process done on the end grain of the wood, so much finer detail is possible, as compared to a woodcut. Moser’s prints were technically exquisite and beautifully pulled, and his richly detailed and inventive imagery was aesthetically awe-inspiring. It turned out this was not only true of of his work on Alice.

Barry Moser show catalogue (1987). MAMA.

The museum shop had some of Moser’s books for sale, and I purchased his Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, and was told a story which he had related at the reception regarding his images of the monster. Apparently, he constructed his model by covering a human skull with raw chicken, sewing it together, then leaving it outside to rot. That his depiction bears no resemblance whatsoever to the ubiquitous Boris Karloff image again attests to the singularity of his vision.

Since then, I have assembled a small collection of Moser-illustrated books; his work – drawings and watercolors as well as the engravings – is consistently captivating. This is especially noteworthy considering the broad spectrum of books on which he has worked: The Divine Comedy, The Three Little Pigs, Moby Dick, Just So Stories, The Scarlet Letter, The Holy Bible, the list goes on. To date, he has illustrated and/or designed over three hundred books – I would feel comfortable recommending any of them; such is my regard for him and my confidence in his work.

Thank you, Marie, wherever you may be, for the introduction.