When I come across beautiful illustrations for the first time, I get a little thrill. Part of it is opportunistic greed—could I get the artists to do work for the Review? But most of it is pure pleasure from looking at the work. I felt that thrill acutely when I first saw the Spanish illustrator Jesús Cisneros’s drawings and paintings. His bugs, bears, faces, and plants are bold and rugged and crude and elegant. I wrote to Cisneros as we started to plan the July 20 issue—the Review’s annual Fiction Issue—and he agreed to design the cover. He created an archipelago of fictional islands, between which he managed to float the names of the issue’s contributors and the subjects of their pieces.
Last week I e-mailed with Cisneros, who was staying in the Black Forest of Freiburg, about books, Spain, and the natural world.
Leanne Shapton: Can you share some of your favorite fiction with us, either all-time or recent?
Jesús Cisneros: Novels and essay collections are usually my first choices. An ideal summer for me would be one in which I could spend a lot of time reading, near the sea if possible. But sometimes it is a season of constant work trips, especially to give workshops. In these cases I read during train and plane journeys. It doesn’t matter if that season’s book choices make my suitcase heavier—I never read digitally.
Summers remind me of books that I have loved since I was a teenager, such as Dino Buzzati’s The Tartar Steppe or Cesare Pavese’s La bella estate. I like varied books, from The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter to The Member of the Wedding—actually, all of Carson McCullers’s work. I find her a powerful writer with a keen eye. I also like Flannery O’Connor and John Cheever’s stories. I would also recommend The Passion According to G. H., by Clarice Lispector, as well as her short stories. Recently the novels The Private Life of Trees and Chilean Poet by Alejandro Zambra have enthralled me, and El embrujo de Shanghai (The Shanghai Spell), by Juan Marsé, a novel with a metaliterary structure that alternates between reality and fiction. With regard to graphic narratives, I like George Herriman’s Krazy Kat series and Richard McGuire’s “Here.”
So many countries have strong traditions of illustration—I’m thinking of Poland, France, Canada. How would you describe Spanish illustration? Does it start with Picasso? What Spanish artists did you look at as a student?
Painters like Picasso and Miró, among others, did eventually make illustrations for books or posters. Illustration flourished before World War II. But I think there was an impasse in Spain—not just in illustration, but in all cultural production—during the Franco dictatorship. Many artists, like Josep and Juan Renau, Manuela Ballester, Salvador Bartolozzi, Carlos Marichal, Rafael Pérez Contel or Enrique Climent, were forced to continue their work in exile or under the gaze of censorship.
At the end of the 1970s professional illustration went through a renaissance. Today I think that there is an interesting scene in Spain, comparable to that of France or Italy. Now illustrators work in a tradition of great Spanish artists. As a student I was inspired by the work of artists such as Manuel Hernández Mompó, Joan Hernández Pijuan, Eduardo Chillida, and Antoni Tàpies, who were not illustrators.
How did you come up with the idea of islands for the cover?
I was struck by the possibility of creating a composition that could integrate all components of the cover. I thought about the idea of traveling and imagined a kind of reader-navigator who goes from island to island, or book to book. Later I realized that the islands could also represent the readers themselves—an archipelago through which the same books travel, the same shared experiences of reading. In thinking about how to put abstract and figurative languages in dialogue, it occurred to me that some old maps look like abstract paintings. I made the original drawing in a very large format, with rice paper and watercolor. I tried to maintain an intense color palette and a balance between line and form.
I love all of your work, but I was first drawn to your drawings of nature and animals. Why do you like animals as a subject? Do you have pets?
I feel very connected and attracted to the natural world; I consider it inexhaustible. My drawings of nature are based on memory. I work without direct visual references; many of the animals in my works are imagined. To draw is for me to imagine, which is to say that my memory and my imagination merge at the very moment I draw. I am very interested in gesture and line, and sometimes I think of my drawings as a kind of calligraphy. I have made several series of calligraphic animals and plants with different techniques.
At home my wife and I have a calico cat who turned seventeen in March. She has patiently accompanied us, through her various lives, on our various moves and trips to Mexico, Spain, France.
Where did you grow up and what did you grow up looking at?
I have lived all my life in Zaragoza, except for six years in Mexico City. Zaragoza is a medium-sized city in the interior of Spain, in Aragon. When I was a child my home was on the fringes of the city, where it meets the countryside. We children spent the summer in the street, like little explorers free from adult supervision. I remember going into cornfields and playing in the ruins of an old train station. Near my house there was an abandoned industrial chimney that over time had become the home of one or more storks. Later, I liked taking walks along the banks of the Huerva and Ebro rivers, which cross the city and, with their corridors of wooded areas, give it life. I remember vividly and accurately the landscapes of the Aragonese Pyrenees, where we took family vacations.
I have always drawn and always read. As a child I devoured comics. Later I discovered literature and cinema, which have accompanied me ever since. I have always been fascinated by the book as an object, and by graphic arts in general. I think that’s why I decided to be an illustrator.
You were in the middle of a workshop in the countryside as we were closing the cover. Where was that? Can you tell me about your teaching process?
I started teaching in Mexico and haven’t stopped. Summer workshops are special; there is usually a lot of energy and a positive spirit. I especially like those that take place in nature, like this one in the German forest, organized by the artists Johanna and Cristóbal Schmal. From our nineteenth-century farmhouse we were able to see, in the morning and afternoon, birds, deer, and small mammals up close.
Now I am in the Black Forest of Freiburg for a workshop organized by the city’s association of illustrators. Freiburg captivates me because of the way it embraces nature, with absolute respect for all kinds of species. I have taken walks in the mountains, gardens, and cemeteries, which I think are like parks because they are full of people who, like me, are looking for some shade under hundred-year-old trees.