Pickman’s Model’s Model

The second of July was the birthday of Hannes Bok (1914-1964), one of science fiction and fantasy’s finest illustrators. Much as I’d like to claim Bok as “one of ours”, he’s not actually Dutch – his real name was Wayne Francis Woodard, and Hannes Bok was a rendition of Johan S. Bach. His drawings and paintings vary between heightened or stylised realism and abstracted grotesque, and originals are much sought after.

Years ago, when I was studying for my BA, I had to do a paper about a subject of my choice, as long as it was linked to the material we’d dealt with. I wrote about some illustrations from the heyday of pulp magazines. One that I still like is the illustration for H.P. Lovecraft’s Pickman’s Model, by Hannes Bok, which appeared in Famous Fantastic Mysteries in December 1951.

Like other illustrators of his time, Hannes Bok used pointillism to construct his drawings. However, his are distinctive because they’re more stylised than those of, for example, Virgil Finlay. He could draw realistically, but often chose instead to emphasis a mood, concept or atmosphere. This gives his illustrations a certain mythological quality, which makes him a good choice to illustrate this story by H.P. Lovecraft.

The story is about an artist (based on fellow writer and artist Clark Ashton Smith) who has dedicated himself to depicting monstrous creatures, making magnetic, life-like works of art. Pickman disappears mysteriously, and those looking for him discover that Pickman’s creatures were so lifelike because he was modelling them from life, and one of his models got the better of him.

Hannes Bok manages to illustrate a key scene from the story without giving the plot away, and the key is in the story’s title. “Pickman’s model” can be interpreted as either the subject of Pickman’s art, or a three-dimensional figure of a monster. Until the last five lines of the story, we assume that Bok’s illustration is of a carved statue of a creature holding a tiny human. Only at the very end do we realise we’re looking at the real thing, an effect Bok achieved by limiting detail and simplifying the anatomy of both figures.

The drawing has great depth, yet lacks any suggestion of colour differentiation; creature and human are shaded alike. Only the eyes glow, or cast light, and light is reflected on the creature’s knee, foot and outlining his victim. There’s a sense of claustrophobia: it is looking at us, breaking the fourth wall, while its victim’s head sags. The creature is set in black, with no visible background. Yet we feel the size of the room, as the creature’s posture is that of one squeezed into a small space; a monster in a human-scaled room where it does not belong.

A quick Google search finds several different illustrations of this pivotal moment. Some artists undoubtedly handle their paint better than Hannes Bok ever could. But it is his piece that most catches the eye, and has lingered to disturb the imagination of new generations.