A life in lines

A life in lines
“In the drawings and lithographs of Günter Grass there is continued an ancestral German tradition — that of the black mark on white paper as one of the most versatile of all modes of expression,” wrote art historian and critic John Russell (The New York Times / March 6, 1983). “His is a prickly idiom, an idiom of precision and penetration and disquiet. In the best of his etchings, he cuts into our expectations with a very sharp knife.”

Grass, who passed away at his home in Lübeck last month, aged 87, began writing and drawing at an early age. “I was only 12 when I realised I wanted to be an artist. It coincided with the outbreak of the Second World War, when I was living on the outskirts of Danzig.”
Both the word and the visual became intrinsically linked to his life. Grass, according to Russell, saw drawing and writing as first cousins, if not as brother and sister.

In an illuminating and oft-quoted interview with novelist Elizabeth Gaffney in 1991, Grass revealed how the first drafts of his poems invariably combined drawings and verse, sometimes taking off from an image, sometimes from words. “Drawing is a sensual act which you cannot say about the act of writing,” he said. “In fact, I often turn to drawing to recover from the writing.” He even suggested that with certain kinds of subject matter, drawing had an equal or greater weight than writing.

His interest in arts was not restricted to the practice of drawing. He formally studied sculpture and graphics in Düsseldorf and Berlin from 1948 to 1956. His first volume of poetry, published in 1956, carried illustrations of his own drawings.

It was during the three years (1956 to 1959) in Paris, working as a sculptor, that Grass scripted his debut novel, The Tin Drum (1959) which shocked and astounded the readers, and went on to become a bestseller. Forty years after it was published, he received the Nobel Prize for Literature. While awarding it, the Swedish Academy praised him and described The Tin Drum as “one of the enduring literary works of the 20th century.” By then, it had already become one of the most widely read modern European novels; its author was among the best-known and most successful living writers internationally.
Colourful life

While the publication of The Tin Drum propelled him to the forefront of postwar literature, his subsequent novels and other writings, though not in the same league, also left their imprint on readers. Additionally, his influential and often controversial views and thoughts resonated throughout the world.

Interestingly, Grass did not allow his literary success to deter him from a passionate pursuit of the arts. His interest in drawing, sculpting and etching continued unabated. He also creatively designed his own book covers, posters and prints, and displayed therein a brilliant draughtsmanship.

Critics were quick to see the influence of German painter and master engraver Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528), particularly on Grass’s etchings. They also recognised surrealistic tendencies in his imagery when they saw his characters flying high; hands sprouting from stones; insects moving across faces; and snails crawling in the middle of the road. 

Sexuality was an integral aspect of his art; and some of his works unabashedly showed copulating couples and phallic imagery. With his drooping moustache, sliding bifocals, indispensable pipe and mischievous expressions, he also made the most in self-portraiture. Another important facet of his art was the ubiquitous presence of animals, birds and insects. He had special fascination for rats, snails and fish. In his drawings and etchings, he could make a rat climb on his shoulder to have some serious conversation. In another instance, the same scoundrel could be seen reading his manuscript. Grass would also have no problem in allowing a flounder whisper sweet nothings into his ears; nor did he think twice to sketch a horny fish trying to kiss a seductive woman.

As professor of German Studies Richard Schade points out, Grass was proud of his artist-writer image and was proactive in promoting awareness of his representational art. “For even as he was publishing literary works and hard at work as a public intellectual, his catalogues documented a robust artistic productivity and an international public presence in galleries and museums.”

Fellow-novelist Salman Rushdie met Grass for the first time in 1982. “At some later point, we lurched over to the art studio, and I was enchanted by the objects I saw there, all of which I recognised from the novels: bronze eels, terracotta flounders, dry-point etchings of a boy beating a tin drum. I envied him his artistic gift almost more than I admired him for his literary genius. How wonderful, at the end of a day’s writing, to walk down the street and become a different sort of artist! He designed his own book covers, too: dogs, rats, toads moved from his pen onto his dust jackets.”

Oh, Kolkata!

Grass visited Calcutta (now Kolkata) thrice during his lifetime. After a short trip in 1975, he returned with his wife for a longer stay in the city in the 1980s. His final visit was in 2005.  It was during his second visit (August 1987 - January 1988) when he stayed in middle-class quarters in two suburbs of Kolkata that he set out to write, sketch, and interact with local artists and writers. A record of his impressions resulted in the publication of Show Your Tongue (1988). Part-social commentary, part-travel diary, the book included hundred pages of text, hundred pages of drawings, and a long poem.

“I could never have brought that book into existence without drawing,” he confessed to Gaffney. “The incredible poverty in Calcutta constantly draws the visitor into situations where language is stifled — you cannot find words. Drawing helped me to find words again while I was there…Seen together, the prose, drawings and poem have dealt with Calcutta in related but separate ways. There is a dialogue among them, although the textures of the three are very different.”

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