Illustrator Carll Cneut offers unique peek into creative process

Summary

One of Flanders’ most celebrated illustrators opens his heart and studio to visitors in a new exhibition at Ghent’s Sint-Pieters Abbey

English-speaking pigs

The exhibition Carll Cneut: In My Head is a winding trip down memory lane. It opens with a selection of Polaroid photos the laurelled Flemish book illustrator took over the past few years. They show an artist on the move, travelling to book fairs and lectures, giving interviews and celebrating with friends.

Cneut, 46, is best known for his award-winning drawings in children’s books such as Het geheim van de keel van de nachtegaal (The Secret of the Nightingale’s Throat) and Roodgeelzwartwit (Redyellowblackwhite).

“I started planning this show about two-and-a-half years ago,” Cneut (pictured) tells me from his temporary studio inside the Sint-Pieters Abbey in Ghent, where the exhibition is staged. “During the preparatory talks for the exhibition, I mentioned that my profession doesn’t just consist of sitting at home and drawing. There’s a lot more to it.”

Out of that grew the idea, he continues, “of showing my life the way it is, in Polaroids. Because unlike digital photography, those can’t be tinkered with. Polaroids don’t embellish life. On the contrary, they show it how it actually is.”

After this analogue introduction, the exhibition goes further back in time and unfolds as a journey through Cneut’s childhood in the West Flemish village of Geluwe (now part of Wervik), near the French border. A 3D-reconstruction of the avenue with trees on both sides that connected his childhood home with a local steenweg (road) offers a gateway to Cneut’s early years.

In room after room, or aviary after classroom, visitors experience Cneut’s formative years: eating with his grandmother, throwing mud, hiding in the backseat of the car while his mother drove to various frituurs and encountering legendary local figures who hid at the bottom of a pond, or rode a bike to and fro all day, every day.

“The construction of that part of the exhibition, together with the staff of Sint-Pieters Abbey, almost felt like making a book,” Cneut explains. “Other than a few new drawings here and there, most come from previous work. We laboured long to find a logic that would bind everything together, just like in a book.”

Boyhood

An integral part of the show’s storyline is the audio walk, narrated in both West Flemish dialect and Dutch, created by comedian and raconteur par excellence Wouter Deprez, a friend of Cneut’s who also hails from Geluwe.

“Wouter is a friend who is very familiar with the surroundings I grew up in,” explains Cneut. “We talked a lot about my childhood, and he shaped those conversations into short stories firmly based on my experiences. The West Flemish version feels even more personal to me because it is in my own dialect, which I share with Wouter.”

I’ve had doubts about sharing these stories

- Illustrator Carll Cneut

The closeness of Cneut and Deprez proved essential to the very private feel of the audio walk. “Perhaps I even shared more intimacies than I would have thought beforehand,” Cneut admits. “If it wasn’t for our friendship, I would never have divulged so much personal information. I’ve had doubts about sharing these stories, but now I’m sure this is the way it should be.”

Among those more private childhood memories is the early death of Cneut’s father, with whom he sometimes drew Mickey Mouse figures. As a tribute, Cneut has now drawn – for the first time since then – a Micky Mouse.

“My father died when I was nine,” he says. “My sisters and I suddenly became special in the eyes of the villagers. Typical for a small community – everyone knew what had happened. So the baker looked at us compassionately, and the butcher gave us three slices of sausage instead of one. But don’t get the wrong idea, I had a very happy childhood."

A important moment in Cneut’s future development as an illustrator was the discovery of the bold work of turn-of-the-20th-century Ostend artist James Ensor, through a poster that could be acquired by saving the famous points from West Flemish food company Soubry. Many spaghettis later, Cneut had also digested art that didn’t limit itself to tedious landscapes or inert fruit and flowers.

“Without Ensor, I might have become a lawyer,” says Cneut, who paid tribute to Ensor and masters like Pieter Bruegel and Hieronymus Bosch in books like Dulle Griet and De Blauwe Vogel, an adaptation of Nobel prize-winner Maurice Maeterlinck’s Blue Bird.

Of pigs and birds

The interplay between narration in words and visual storytelling is well-known terrain for Cneut, whose drawings tend to form a parallel tale that interacts with the story. Of equal importance is the imaginative audacity from which his work never shies away. He wants to create multi-layered books for audiences of all ages.

I actually had a moment when I thought: ‘I am an illustrator now’

- Carll Cneut

“The show is intended for adults, but children can also enjoy it,” Cneut says. “Similarly, adults read a book like Dulle Griet – which I created with author Geert De Kockere – and get the references, while children have an entirely different reading experience. Hopefully, once they grow up, they can return to those books and read them anew.”

As an internationally renowned illustrator published across the world, Cneut has experienced cultural and commercial differences with regard to children’s books. “Major British and American publishing houses that employ a lot of people tend to be exceedingly careful,” he notes.

The Amazing Love Story of Mr Morf, the only book Cneut both wrote and illustrated, was published by the London-based giant Macmillan in 2002. “I’m still happy with the book and with its large-scale distribution, but I think the project came too early in my career,” he says. “I was so young and so happy to work for them that I became too amenable to their instructions. And there were a lot of them, including the concern that the word ‘love’ would equal ‘sex’ and how a pig would be drawn. But, all in all, it was a valuable lesson for me.”

It hasn’t hindered him from drawing English-speaking pigs in his distinctive style, either, such as in Ten Moonstruck Piglets, which was published by the US imprint Clarion Books in 2011.

A distinctive style

Cneut’s particular style first came to the fore in his fourth book, Willy. Originally published in 1999 locally by De Eenhoorn, it is now also available in English via Eerdmans Publishing. “While illustrating that story I actually had a moment when I thought: ‘I am an illustrator now’.”

And he has been ever since, meticulously forging new ways to craft colourful fantasy worlds inhabited by fairy-tale figures and animals, like in his most recent yellow-dominated illustrations for De gouden kooi (The Golden Cage) by French-Italian author Anna Castagnoli. The book has been translated by Flemish author Saskia De Coster.

The original drawings in De gouden kooi ­and other books finish the exhibition, right before you step into Cneut’s workspace to ask him, for instance, how the elephant got its tiny tail.

Until 10 May, Sint-Pieters Abbey, Sint-Pietersplein, Ghent