Visions of the Jinn: Illustrators of the Arabian Nights

By Marzolph, Ulrich | Marvels & Tales, July 1, 2012 | Go to article overview

Visions of the Jinn: Illustrators of the Arabian Nights


Marzolph, Ulrich, Marvels & Tales


Visions of the Jinn: Illustrators of the Arabian Nights. By Robert Irwin. Studies in the Arcadian Library 7. London and Oxford: Arcadian Library in association with Oxford University Press, 2010.

Illustrated editions of folktales and fairy tales have often contributed to the success of specific works as much as their text, and illustrated editions of the Arabian Nights are a particularly relevant case in point. Since the eighteenth centur)ç many if not most editions of the Nights have been adorned with illustrations. Aiming to illustrate the events narrated in the books stories, these illustrations have actually shaped many a readers notion of what the "Orient" looks like. Interestingly, this evaluation applies to the realistic illustrations drawing on actual Eastern architecture and costume almost as much as to the impressive images of fantastic creatures unseen by the traveler's eye. Illustrations have presented these creatures as a natural given, such as the huge bird Rokh, the strap-legged creature that tormented Sindbad on his fifth voyage, or the jinn threatening to kill the poor fisherman who happened to free him from the bottle in which he had been imprisoned for so long. It is hard to imagine anyone better suited to present a survey of those images to the public than Robert Irwin, the prolific "writer, critic, editor and broadcaster" (quoted from the inside of the back cover) and specialist of the Nights, well-known through his companion volume to the Nights (1994) and his edition of Malcolm and Ursula Lyons' recent translation of The Arabian Nights (2009).

In an introduction, four chapters, and a short conclusion followed by a bibliography (including "editions of the Nights and of selected stories" and "Related Material and Secondary Sources) and an index, Irwin outlines and discusses the development of illustrations to editions of the Nights from the first half of the eighteenth century to Errol Le Cain's Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp (1981). About a quarter of the pages of the large-sized volume contain the books main text, and the other three-quarters reproduce illustrations, with a total of 161 plates. Besides introducing the major artists and the editions they illustrated, Irwin discusses artistic trends and technical developments, thus enriching his presentation by embedding the illustrations of the Nights into a (condensed) cultural history of book illustration. Readers are thus made to understand the various steps of development in the illustration of the Nights, in particular, the tremendous cultural impact of both color printing and the influence of Japanese woodcut imprints (ukiyo-e), probably the most decisive and long-lasting influence on the illustrations altogethet Above all, the books audience is showered with a wealth of illustrations, starting from David Costers European-style images in the Hague edition (1719) and reproducing the work of virtually all the major artists who illustrated the Nights, including such wellknown names as Gustave Doré (1832-1883), Aubrey Beardsley (1872-1898), Edmund Dulac (1882-1953), Leon Cane (1878-1942), Kees van Dongen (1877-1968), Max Slevogt (1868-1932), and Marc Chagall (1887-1985).

Largely drawing on the holdings of the Arcadian Ubrary in London, "a private, family library specializing in the historic influences of the Levant upon Europe" and aiming to "promote this cultural transfer" (4), the books reproductions are of a superb quality, and in addition to short references to the illustrations in the text, each caption includes bibliographical data together with a short summary situating the illustration in the context of the respective narrative. As a special feature, rather than simply reproducing detached single images, numerous illustrations reproduce the covers of the various editions or show a book's opened pages, thus conveying an idea of the books' physical appearance.

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