Shakespeare and Company, the legendary English-language bookstore on Paris’s Left Bank, recently got a facelift. Several faces, in fact. Fourteen illustrated portraits of the Lost and Beat Generation writers who once frequented the store—and its predecessor—now adorn the staircase wall leading up to the second floor library of the bookshop. On a recent visit there, I caught up with illustrator Joanna Walsh, who goes by the nom de plume “Badaude,” as she put the finishing touches on her mural, using only a pencil, Posca paint markers, and a touch of gilt for enhancements like picture frames, hanging wires, wall tacks, and an underlying wallpaper text design courtesy of James Joyce.
Paul Morris: Your illustrations are an interesting fusion of image and text. How does your experience as an artist inform your appreciation for literature in general—and for literary figures in particular?
Joanna Walsh: I don’t think I could ever call myself an “artist” without some kind of qualification: it’s a term I’m shy of. I’ve always defined myself as a commercial artist or illustrator, and my earlier work was all commissioned press illustration. Now most of my work is self-generated (I’m writing/drawing a book about London which will be published by the Tate, UK, and another book about Paris). My drawing always relates to writing, whether because I’m responding to a text or mixing my own writing and pictures. Writers are also “commercial” artists—books have to sell to a certain number of people in order to be published. This doesn’t mean that I think “blockbusters” are better than “literary fiction” because they sell more, but I am interested in the knife-edge balancing act whereby writers write what they have to in such a way that enough readers will want to go out and buy a copy.
In drawing the Shakespeare & Company writers—looking at the way they presented themselves in the reference photos I used-I became interested in how the image of being, and the story of becoming, a published writer in Paris was so central to the myth their lives; a myth so hugely attractive it frequently became their subject matter (Quartet, A Moveable Feast, Tropic of Cancer). This is why I chose the quote from Ulysses (full excerpt at bottom), hidden in the wallpaper design of the mural, in which Stephen Dedalus remembers his “Latin Quarter hat,” “puce gloves,” and other “Paris fads” with which he—and no doubt his hipster-goatee’d creator—furnished his Paris persona.
PM: I was wondering about that “wallpaper.” Ulysses was originally published by the founder of the first Shakespeare and Company, Sylvia Beach, in 1922; the bookstore published several later editions after the novel was banned in the U.S. Were you grounding the mural in the literary history of the Lost Generation writers who frequented the store after World War I?
JW: I’ve included authors from every decade of the 20th century and could happily have drawn others (for instance, Smollet for his very funny “Travels through France and Italy”—he hated Paris, but then he hated most of continental Europe). It was logical to include writers connected with the current Shakespeare and Company, founded by George Whitman, but also with Beach’s original bookshop. I wanted to highlight the shop’s legacy of supporting writers, which the present owner Sylvia Whitman [daughter of George] continues.
The focus on the “Lost Generation” via the Joyce quote is almost coincidental. Sylvia wanted to include poetry in the mural but we failed to find an appropriate English-language poem about Paris. Joyce’s writing is closer to poetry than that of most of the other writers I drew. I have a few theories about why there are so few English-language poems about Paris: a) Poets are even poorer than prose writers so don’t travel; b) Most poets’ work is deeply connected with their native landscape; and c) Poets, unlike prose writers, are less likely take jobs in journalism or other professions which encourage foreign travel. Or maybe it’s something more fundamental to the nature of poetry and poets, or prose and prose-writers: take your pick…
PM: What’s your connection to Shakespeare and Company? How did you come to paint a mural on the staircase wall there? It is prime real estate, some of the only wall space in the store not dedicated to displaying books.
JW: I first met Sylvia about a month previously at a party to celebrate the launch of the Paris issue of FiveDials magazine, for which I did an “illustration essay” (like a photo essay but with drawings) about the homeless in Paris.
Oddly, before the FiveDials party, I’d always avoided going into Shakespeare & Company fearing I might find a literary tourist shrine, but the shop was full of fresh ideas and projects. What Sylvia’s doing there is really exciting—a constant program of events involving established and new authors, and a real atmosphere of improvised community. I met so many interesting writers and other people just hanging around the shop, there for the day, the week, the year…
I was pretty excited to be drawing on the walls of a 17th century Parisian building where some very interesting things had happened. As for “prime real estate”-the staircase is so narrow I don’t think it could be used for display without blocking the way upstairs. In fact, the whole upper floor of the bookshop is, refreshingly, a “non-sales” space dedicated to George Whitman’s library where customers can sit and read but not buy.
PM: Was it a just blank wall before you started, or did you have to paint over what was already there in order to begin?
JW: Here’s a picture of what I started with [see slideshow], and one of what was there before. The original photographs pinned up on the wall inspired me to make something similar but more playful: a trompe d’oeil art gallery of writers’ portraits complete with appropriate frames.
PM: What kind of research did you have to do in selecting your subjects? And when you finally had your list of writers sorted out, what was your approach to locating the right archival image to use as source material?
JW: Because Shakespeare & Company is an English-language bookshop, and because of its links to the Beat writers, as well as to Joyce, Hemingway and others, the portraits had to be English-language writers who had written about, or lived in, Paris. I looked at lots of photos, mostly online. I already knew what most of the writers looked like, except Edith Wharton. I included her because I love the French sections of “The Custom of the Country” and was delighted to find that she looked exactly as I’d hoped: a solid, square-jawed Gibson Girl with a wicked eye. With the other writers, I used purely personal selection of references based mostly on the hope that I might be able to make them recognizable to other people.
But then I became interested in how the writers presented themselves to be photographed. I came across lots of photos of Jean Rhys in the pose I used to draw her here, with her chin resting on her folded hands. I wondered whether this was a stock “cute” actress pose (she was an chorus girl, having failed to make it in speaking parts on the English stage due to her heavy Jamaican accent), but it’s very much undermined by the crazy determination of her expression. Djuna Barnes, who was also an illustrator, dresses for the camera and her whole persona is very graphic—as stylized as her writing.
PM: The picture frames you’ve drawn vary from writer to writer, some ornate, others rustic, and some hang simply from a tack. I’m assuming the frame styles say as much about the perceived public image of the writer as the portraits do themselves. How did you decide on what frames to use for which writers?
JW: Yeah, I had fun with those, but not very highbrow fun. Hemingway has a rough-hewn timber frame; Fitzgerald, a shiny Art-Deco job; and Wharton, Belle Epoque curlicues. They’re more a reference to the historical period associated with each writer than anything else.
PM: How long did the entire project take you to complete?
JW: I worked the way I always do: quick bursts of thinking mixed with enough time to let the ideas percolate (usually while I’m doing something else which makes it pretty difficult to quantify). I started thinking about the project a few weeks before I started drawing. I did a couple of rough sketches the week before, and the work at the bookshop took around a week.
PM: Oftentimes, visiting writers and artists stay at the bookstore during their stay—did you opt to sleep there during the week you were drawing?
JW: When I arrived Michael Smith, the Giro Playboy, was already in residence in the famous writers’ room (the shop traditionally provides basic “writer in residence” accommodation with no remit, which is so often what writers need). There were also about four or five “tumbleweeds” (wandering writers and other lit types who can stay in the bookshop in exchange for a little work) sleeping and working on the upstairs benches. I’d have liked to. Maybe another time…
PM: Do you have plans to do more illustration work at the bookstore, or elsewhere in Paris? Do you think that the booksellers in Paris would welcome it?
JW: I’m working on more designs for Sylvia: a bookbag and bookmark for the shop, and also drawings for the literature for next year’s “Festival & Company,” based at the bookshop, which will be a celebration of political writing. These “extras,” especially the “eco-friendly” shopping bag, seem a little Anglo-Saxon. I haven’t seen any other independent bookshops in Paris offering this sort of thing, perhaps because they feel more secure than independents in the Anglo world, who have to battle the retail giants.
PM: BOMB readers are most interested in the creative process: how artists and writers think and talk about their own work is of primary concern to us. What can you tell us about your own process, and your progress, as your style has evolved?
JW: I’m somewhere between being a writer as an illustrator. I look with envy at other artists’ sketchbooks which are full of pictures and are beautiful objects. Mine tend to be pages of scribbled notes with the odd sketch thrown in. As I get more excited about something, my notes become less legible. I can spend hours later trying to decipher them. Making work, I use my notes along with (bad) photos I’ve taken for visual reference. Some artists have a natural eye for a snapshot but I quite like that I’m not a good photographer: it means I don’t have to worry about making good photos that might become something in themselves.
Nevertheless I continue to prefer working with a combination of writing and drawing to writing alone. With books, however experimental, you start at page one. Or, if you don’t, you start conscious of the fact you’re making a personal-or guided-deviation. We don’t have rules for looking at pictures in this way, though I don’t think we’re very conscious of this being something extraordinary. When you see a picture, you get the whole thing at once, or you start with a point that particularly grabs you. Though my work on www.badaude.typepad.com tells stories, you can start at any point in the picture: they work in a different way from the way writing does. So I’m neither a writer nor an artist. I’m never sure how to categorize most of the work I do in under one sentence. I like that.
Paul Morris is the General Manager of Digital Media at BOMB Magazine.
View a slideshow of the process of Walsh’s mural below:
The full text quote that appears embedded in the wallpaper of Joanna’s mural is from the “Proteus” section of James Joyce’s Ulysses and appears in its entirety below:
“My Latin quarter hat. God, we simply must dress the character. I want puce gloves. You were a student, weren’t you? Of what in the other devil’s name? Paysayenn. P. C. N., you know: physiques, chimiques et naturelles. Aha. Eating your groatsworth of mou en civet, fleshpots of Egypt, elbowed by belching cabmen. Just say in the most natural tone: when I was in Paris, boul’ Mich’, I used to. Yes, used to carry punched tickets to prove an alibi if they arrested you for murder somewhere. Justice. On the night of the seventeenth of February 1904 the prisoner was seen by two witnesses. Other fellow did it: other me. Hat, tie, overcoat, nose. Lui, c’est moi. You seem to have enjoyed yourself.”
All photos courtesy of Lauren Goldenberg of Shakespeare and Company and also Paul Morris.