Heinz Edelmann, the German graphic artist who was art director of the animated Beatles film Yellow Submarine, died this week in Stuttgart at 75. Oddly it was only a few weeks ago, while I was writing about the James Ensor show at MoMA, that I had been thinking about that movie and the whole question of how pop culture influences travel back in forth in art.
In his graphic work and in some of his paintings, Ensor like to draw on cartoonish illustration styles of the late 19th century. That helps to account for the manic draughtmanship of his masterpiece, Christ’s Entry Into Brussels in 1889. It’s a painting that has always made me think about the mad street riots that break out on South Park every so often, all those jerkily gesticulating townfolk. I wondered if the South Park guys ever consciously drew on it, or if for them it was just one more part of the primordial ooze of imagery we all have in our heads.
Which brought me back to Yellow Submarine. One thing that struck me when I first encountered it as a teenager in 1968 was the way it had absorbed and blended a whole range of artists and graphic styles I was only just discovering — Aubrey Beardsley prints, the little monsters in Hieronymous Bosch, the French illustrators who created that Victorian high tech look for Jules Verne’s novels, Tenniel’s illustrations for the Alice books. It was a lot to look at and it made me realize how historic styles could have a lot of juice in them.
It’s often said that Edelmann became a big influence on Terry Gilliam’s animations for Monty Python. What he didn’t do was a spend a lifetime turning out Yellow Submarine imitations, and so avoided the Peter Max formula trap. It may be that he only produced one truly lasting work, but it’s a doozy.